Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time: What Grand Rapids can learn from Guatemala
Over the past month, civil society in Guatemala has done what many people in the US can hardly imagine. The popular movements of Guatemala have forced the President of Guatemala from office, resulting in his arrest and imprisonment.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was forced from office a month ago by a massive uprising of civil society that is tired of corruption and impunity. Molina and some of his cabinet members had pillage an estimated $100 million dollars from the government treasury to finance their lavish lifestyles. Guatemala civil society had known about this corruption for some time and did what they have done so many times in the past, they took to the streets.
Thousands of Guatemalans are protesting government corruption and they have not stopped protesting, despite Molina being behind bars. New elections have been held, but Guatemalan civil society is not putting their hopes in the electoral process, since the leading political parties are run by the wealthy sectors of the country, along with former military personnel. Guatemalans are well aware of the fact that there needs to be systemic change, especially for the majority indigenous population.
A great deal can be said about the ongoing efforts to create justice in Guatemala, but that is not the point of this article. For those who want more details on the uprising in Guatemala, I recommend the following online resources: Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, Upsidedown World, Washington Office on Latin America and the Latin America Working Group.
Having participated in international solidarity work in Guatemala on numerous occasions since the late 1980s, it is always inspiring to me to see how courageous and powerful the popular movements are in that tiny Central American nation. What I want to do in this article is to talk about why those of us who live in Grand Rapids should care about what is happening in Guatemala and what it is that we can learn from the grassroots organizing being done there.
What is the Grand Rapids connection to Guatemala?
Grand Rapids is currently home to an estimated 4,000 Guatemalans. Most of the Guatemalan diaspora that calls West Michigan home, are of Mayan decent and speak Mam, Quiche or Qanjobal. Many of them are migrant workers, work in one of the service industries or own small businesses. There are even Guatemalan soccer teams that exist in Guatemala. But what brought these people to Grand Rapids?
Guatemala has been dealing with colonialism, racism and war ever since Europeans first invaded the Mayan world in the early part of the 16th century. The United States government has had a particular interest in Guatemala since the late 19th century, mostly for economic reasons, with US-based multinationals like Chiquita owning a tremendous amount of land.
Guatemalans overthrew the US-backed dictatorship in 1944 and began an experiment with participatory democracy that was too much for Washington and the capitalist class to the north. The CIA orchestrated a coup in 1954 and put in place another military dictatorship to support the wealthy elites, which are the true ruling power in Guatemala. After decades of a brutal counterinsurgency war that was funded by the US, Guatemala was able to have a ceasefire in 1996. However, the social inequities and systems of oppression that caused many to take up arms remained, despite the legal end to the war.
During the counterinsurgency war, many Guatemalans fled to Mexico. Many stayed there, while others continued north and entered the US, often as undocumented political refugees. Some of the first Guatemalans to come to Grand Rapids, were part of the Central American Sanctuary Movement. As the repression continued, others came north and the Guatemalan community created informal networks to house new refugees and find work for each other.
Even after the 1996 Peace Accords were signed in Guatemala, thousands were fleeing the country annually, since the Guatemalan economy was devastated from decades of repression, racism and ongoing exploitation. In 2005, the Guatemalan government, along with other Central American nations, signed a trade agreement with the US, known as CAFTA. Modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), CAFTA created new opportunities for foreign investors to exploit the resource rich nation. The gap between the wealthy and the poor grew and out of desperation, many Guatemalans continued to come to the US to find work, often where other Guatemalans resided.
Therefore, it is important that we recognize that the Guatemalans that reside in Grand Rapids are here because of the direct result of US military and economic policies. In fact, not only should we welcome these political and economic refugees, we should support the popular movements in Guatemala, which seeks to dismantle the systems of oppression that would prevent more forced migration to cities in the US like Grand Rapids.
Another connection between Grand Rapids and Guatemala is rooted in longstanding US policy. One of the demands of the current uprising in Guatemala is that the US government also be held accountable for its role in the military repression and economic exploitation of their country. For example, the ousted President Molina was a military leader in the 1980s, during the most violent years of the US-backed counterinsurgency campaign. Guatemalans want US heads of state to be held accountable for their role in the murder, torture and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of their family members, neighbors, co-workers and friends.
Participating in solidarity with Guatemalans does not just mean we morally support their struggle, it means providing the kind of support they are asking of us, which is to demand accountability for past crimes and to work towards ending military and economic policies that continue to do harm.
What We Can Learn from Guatemala
Once we have owned the role the US government has played in creating violence, exploitation and forced displacement in Guatemala, we need to pay attention to how Guatemalans organize themselves. Here are a few things we can learn from Guatemalans that might actually create the change we want to see here in Grand Rapids.
Call for Systemic Change – The popular movement in Guatemala isn’t calling for some quaint reforms of the existing system, they are calling for systemic change. Guatemalans aren’t calling for a renegotiation of CAFTA, they are calling for an end to CAFTA. The popular movement in Guatemala wants political and economic autonomy, something the Mayan people haven’t enjoyed since the European Conquest. People in Grand Rapids talk about buying local, which is often just another repackaging of capitalism, plus it doesn’t examine how local companies exploit the resources and labor of Guatemala. Sure, I can feel better about getting coffee from Kava House than Starbucks, but the coffee is still being grown in countries like Guatemala and Guatemalans are experiencing massive rates of hunger and poverty, because so much of the agriculture is devoted to exports.
Take it to the Streets – With growing corruption at the highest levels of the Guatemalan government, people did not circulate more online petitions, they took to the streets. And taking to the streets in Guatemala does not mean getting a permit to march, it means taking over the streets and shutting down business as usual. Systems of power will not be negatively impacted unless there is a cost. Also, taking to the streets is not just the choice of young anarchists, rather it is what all sectors participate in – unions, students, feminist groups, indigenous organizations, farmers, teachers, etc. Guatemalans understand that direct action is what is necessary to create real change, change that benefits the most marginalized, not those with privilege.
Elections are just a tactic – The popular movements in Guatemala have attempted to create and support more independent political parties, but they only see elections as one possible tactic for change. In the US, we are constantly being told that if we don’t drop everything and vote for this candidate or that political party. In Guatemala, they understand that the forces in power have always corrupted the political process, just like what happens here in the US. The Guatemalan popular movements many participate in elections, but they also never stop directly resisting the forces of exploitation and oppression in their communities, plus they are always working on creating new forms of community that compliment the resistance efforts. For example, while fighting the current exploitation of US and Canadian mining companies, communities are creating worker run co-ops or occupying land to create more autonomy.
In my book, Sembramos, Comemos, Sembramos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time, I shared a story about what a group of Guatemalan women had told us one night, while we were providing international accompaniment for their organization, which was being targeted by the military. These women told us that they were grateful for our solidarity work and providing them some space to do the work they needed to do. However, as the night wore on, they told us that the most important thing we Americans could do, was to go back to our country and change the system their, because US policy had such a negative impact on their country. They told us that they would take care of Guatemala, but that we needed to fight for liberation in our country. In other words, their liberation was directly connected to ours and our liberation was directly connected to their.
La Lucha Sigue en Guatemala and Grand Rapids!