I’m sitting at the airport in Guatemala waiting for the flight to Atlanta. We spent part of the morning with Rigoberta Menchu Tum commemorating the death of her father, burned to death in the Spanish Embassy, 32 years ago today, along with 36 others. There were two survivors, but one was taken away from his hospital bed, in serious condition with horrible burns. His tortured body was found a few days later. It was a very spiritual ceremony, perhaps even more so given the death of Rigoberta’s sister last week after several years of fighting cancer.
The first morning after the delegation arrived in Guatemala City, Liz and I went to Rigoberta’s house to pay our respects before the family took the body to her husband’s hometown for burial. She read us a beautiful poem and tribute she’d written to her sister. Rigoberta told us that this was the first proper burial she’d been able to give a member of her family. They have never been able to find the remains of her father, her mother who was tortured and killed, and her brother who suffered a similar fate.
The peace accords in Guatemala were signed 15 years ago and there has been some progress in that regard in the country. Yet the country remains violent and violence against women and human rights defenders is rampant despite laws and various new state agencies dedicated to the protection of women. As in Mexico and Honduras, women we met with said laws don’t matter unless they are implemented. They want justice and an end to impunity.
Last night a few of us met with the new president, Otto Perez Molina, former military officer and head of intelligence in one of the most ravaged parts of the country during the internal conflict. When he strode out of his office to greet us, I had no problem imagining him in uniform. He is still fit and has the bearing of an officer.
His main discussion point was that he’s only been in office for two weeks and there are a lot of challenges facing his government. He says he’s committed to progress here and to eradicating poverty, which he plans to do by increasing taxes on companies and using some of that money to better the lot of indigenous communities. He said he was committed to broad consultation with civil society.
I noted that we’d met with indigenous women in Panajachel who told us that their community consultations and consensus position of not wanting big businesses – hydroelectric projects, extractive industries and agribusiness – where they live weren’t being heeded. He kind of brushed that aside and said those weren’t the kind of consultations he envisioned. But we also were confronted with a case of his lack of consultation.
One of the things that the women we’d met with earlier in the day were angry about was the fact that he had not consulted with them about his newly appointed Presidential Secretary for Women, Elizabeth Quiroa. They said she wasn’t a bad person or anything but in the years since the peace accord there have always been consultation with women’s group. We were not going to meet with Quiroa because it could be interpreted as legitimizing her. Low and behold, in a manipulative maneuver, when we were awaiting the president, who showed up to participate in the meeting but Elizabeth Quiroa. So much for consultation.
When I mentioned the pleasure in seeing Rios Montt being brought before a tribunal with charges of genocide, among others, Perez Molina begged to differ. He does not agree that there was genocide during the war – nor ethnocide when I used that different word. Then he agreed we should disagree as it will be the justice system that will make the determination
Another point we brought up with him was the situation of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who is under pressure and is confronting a defamation campaign because of what she’s been able to accomplish in terms of bringing people to trial. There’d been rumors either that she was going to resign or be removed from office by the president. She confirmed to us during a meeting with her that she has no intention of resigning and her term under the constitution is for four years. The president re-confirmed his support for her as attorney general and mentioned that he’d even had a press conference with her to clearly demonstrate his support.
As a final note when our meeting with him was over, he invited me to come back and see all the progress his government will make. I told him I very much looked forward to it and be keeping a close eye on him and the situation in Guatemala.
We were able to see some of the beauty of Guatemala on our trip to Panajachel on Lake Atitlan where we met with indigenous women who were involved in the fight against the big businesses that were pushing them off their lands, violating their human rights and having a big and negative impact on their environment. Three of the women at the meeting were under arrest orders for participating in demonstrations against the companies. These were the women who had talked with us about the series of community consultations that arrived at the consensus position of saying “NO!” to companies on their lands.
One of the women said, “We are defending the land that our ancestors called ‘Maya.’”
Another, “Individually and collectively, we’re living with the effects of that time; again we are living what we lived 30 years ago. Soldiers come to throw us off our land. Many women are isolated and raped. They continue to treat us like they have for decades. I’m here in the name of many who came before me and those of us who have suffered and are suffering now. Finally we want justice and we want an end to impunity. I despair because we need to be able to leave an inheritance for our children and our grandchildren….
“Please don’t leave us alone.
“I want to tell you this is all true. It’s not a horror story. Every time I tell the story it hurts. Please don’t leave us alone. We want justice. We want those who caused all this harm to be judged. Please don’t let our stories remain in your notebooks, help us. The new government is re-establishing 150 bases to areas from which they had been removed after the peace accord.”
“We are criminalized for defending our rights and our land.”
“We defend the land because it is defending our life. We defend the land because we are part of existence.”
“In our communities we’re not just threatened by megabusiness but also by the relationship between the narcos and the government.”
“Defending our land has been a struggle of more than 500 years.”
We stayed in Panajachel over night and the next morning took a boat across the lake to spend some time at the Pavarotti School of the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation. Some 98% of the students there are indigenous and among other things, the school teaches practical skills, such as weaving and carpentry, as well as courses in their mother language and their culture as well as classes in Spanish.
I know I am leaving big swatches of the trip out of the various blogs I’ve been writing. I think what is most telling is the consistency of the voices and messages from the various women and women’s organizations we met with, whether in Mexico or in Honduras or in Guatemala. As one of the human rights defenders said, “What we really need to do to change things is to get to the root of things which is machismo, sexism, misogyny, and patriarchal systems.” Or as my friends His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have said at different times, “Men have had their chance and all they’ve done is make a mess of things. It’s time to turn everything over to women.”