National palace of culture. Guatemala city. Public domain.
Like many other Latin American countries, Guatemala has a very repressive political history. After years of dictatorship and intense armed conflict that caused the disappearance and death of 190.000 people, “clandestine security squads” are still using violent practices that violate human rights – often with the participation of public agents.
During the 90s, a peace deal was signed. However, violent practices remained common and the historical trauma remained vividly present in the Guatemalan imaginary. In 2007, an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICG) was created to support the State Prosecution in its fight to break up violent illegal groups. In recent years, the Commission also began investigating corruption in the country. In 2015, it ended up charging the Vice-President (and later the President) for corruption.
Charges against members of the government were the last drop for the already outraged citizens, especially the young, who were being repressed by a president accused of ordering political murders in the 1980s.
Protests were called – though cautiously – demanding the resignation of the vice-president. The founders of the movement Justice Now were not expecting more than 100 people to turn up, but 25.000 did. From this moment on, the movement grew exponentially, reaching over almost 100.000 people. Despite Guatemala’s history of violent repression, there was no violence or confrontation during the demonstrations.
From then on, the protests multiplied, demanding the president’s and the vice-president’s resignation. Against all odds, the protests were successful: after they both resigned, they are now both in prison. It is worth remembering that this happened during the presidential campaign and that, in the end, an outsider was elected: a comedian who refused to be called a politician.
Civil Society Initiatives
Unity around a common cause and the widespread perception of the result of the protests generated a very strong citizen motivation, as well as a renewed interest in politics. As a result, independent journalism (the role of which was crucial in informing about the protests and giving visibility to the movements) was strengthened, as did investigative journalism (such as the online Plaza Pública, a regional referent), political information initiatives in several languages (like Nómada) and fact-check practices (projects like Ojo con Mi Pisto, offering training on public spending verification to reporters).
Beyond these initiatives, there is a consensus among young
Guatemalans on the need to increase their knowledge of politics in order for
them to contribute further to the public good in their country. So, a number of
practices are currently being promoted which have to do with political and
citizen education, training for journalists on budget and public expenditure
auditing, and information on the functioning of public institutions and citizens’
civic and political rights – among them, notably, Transparent Congress, Visible Guatemala and the Citizens’ School (where young
activists are in charge of courses and training sessions).
The protests generated a wave of hope that has led to increased social interaction and citizens’ consciousness of their power and responsibilities. An example of this is Young People of Guatemala in the city of Antigua: their mission is citizens’ empowerment, dialogue with public representatives, and citizenship promotion. New movements are also emerging which will presumably become in due course political parties, in a country where there exists a consensus on the incapability (and lack of interest) of the existing political parties to represent citizens.
It is important to remember that, in the last 30 years, two presidents have had to leave office in Guatemala, that poverty in districts like Alta Verapaz and Sololá exceeds 80% of the population, and that Guatemala is the Latin American country with the highest number of political “disappearances”. Despite all this, today many people and organizations in Guatemala are helping to create political practices in accordance with the possibilities and realities of the 21th Century.
This article is part of the research project Emergencia Política (UPDATE). Beatriz Pedreira and Rafael Pouço are travelling through 12 countries in Latin America to meet people, organizations and governments which are offering solutions for the emergence of more up-to-date politics in line with the challenges of the 21st Century.
Translated from its original in Portuguese by Patricia Velloso, member of DemocraciaAbierta’s Volunteer Program