By Yanis Iqbal
On 21 November, 2020, thousands of Guatemalans rallied in the central square of the country’s capital, took over the Congress and set fire to several rooms inside. The immediate trigger for this outburst of anger was the 2021 budget – now revoked by the Congress after sustained protests – which, despite being the largest in the country’s history, slashed funding for both education and healthcare. The spending plan was negotiated in secret and approved by congress before dawn on 18 November, 2020. It was passed while the country was recovering from the devastating hurricanes Eta and Iota – a perfect example of disaster capitalism.
With thousands of people suffering from hunger throughout the country as a result of decades of neoliberalism, export-oriented agro-industrialization and the government’s recent carelessness in response to Hurricanes Eta and Iota this year, the opaque budget proposed to cut funding to combat malnutrition and dedicated $1.9 billion for servicing interest payments. It intended to additionally reduce the budgets of the judiciary which has overseen many government corruption cases. While the budget clearly tried to abandon the poor in the midst of a pandemic, it gave no shortage of funds to politicians. Politicians negotiated an extra $65,000 to fund their own meal budgets. Moreover, the budgets of the nation’s Departmental Development Councils (CDC), bodies run by governors and mayors without significant supervision, were nearly doubled. Out of the $13 billion of the total budget, the budget for the CDC accounted for roughly $4 billion.
In response to the protests, Vice-President Guillermo Castillo offered to resign, telling Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei that both men should relinquish their positions “for the good of the country.” In contrast, the President reacted to the anti-austerity demonstrations through a message which stated: “I reiterate that you have the right to demonstrate according to the law. But we cannot allow vandalism either to public or private property. Whoever is proven to be involved in these criminal acts will bear the full weight of the law”. This tone-deaf approach towards the legitimate grievances of the people resulted in repression being utilized against agitators.
Immediately after the fire at the Congress, the Police Special Forces moved in against the protesters with anti-riot gear, tear gas canisters and water cannons. Fourteen demonstrators were treated at the nearby hospital due to excessive force and effects of the tear gas—one lost an eye, and another remained in serious condition—and 40 were arrested. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned this state repression as an “excessive use of force” by the police. Undeterred, protests continued for a second day with demonstrators again filling the central square and carrying signs with slogans including “I would rather die as a rebel than live as a slave” and “Giammattei Out.”
Instead of representing a simple opposition to the 2021 budget, the protests in Guatemala were organically rooted in the wider framework of capitalism which has comprehensively devastated the daily lives of the poor. The inter-mixing the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate emergency – the latter of which affected a combined 935,000 people – converted the country into a powder keg capable of being ignited by a single event – in this case the 2021 budget. Contemporary protests, therefore, are not an episodic occurrence – they are part and parcel of a nation torn apart by a “normality” which designates permanent poverty and endless exploitation.
Whenever Guatemala has tried to work even a bit for the people, predatory forces have intervened, thwarting processes of social change and heavy-handedly imposing capitalism from above. In March 1951, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán took office as the President of Guatemala. Landless movements and the Left had fought to elect him so that he could push through a moderate land reform agenda of nationalization. This project threatened the US based United Fruit Company which owned a lot of land in Guatemala. As a result, the CIA got to work, the goal being: to “remove covertly, and without bloodshed if possible, the menace of the present Communist-controlled government in Guatemala”. Through a covert operation named PBSUCCESS, the US overthrew Árbenz in a coup in 1954 and installed retired Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas who said, “If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify, I will not hesitate to do so.”
In 1960, Civil War broke out between US trained counterinsurgency forces and leftist guerrillas. James Painter writes in “Guatemala: False Hopes, False Freedom” that “the Army’s response [to leftist activists] was to launch a campaign of terror that has rarely been paralleled for its savagery (and lack of publicity) in the history of Latin America.” The Civil War lasted 36 years from 1960 to 1996 and resulted in over 200,000 deaths, the majority of which were indigenous civilians. The war included waves of violence which targeted Indigenous populations. One such wave of violence was the “scorched-earth” campaign or “la violencia” that took place from 1981 to 1983 and in which 100,000-150,000 people were killed. The Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification stated in 1999 that the national army was responsible for the destruction of 600 villages and 93% of the deaths in the civil war. Mayan school teachers were often targeted and killed by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s because it was believed the teachers were helping the opposing guerrillas.
Ever since the coup of 1954, Guatemalan subalterns have continued to battle a downward spiral of neoliberalism, filled with existential wretchedness and capitalist madness. Income inequality and poverty in Guatemala are extremely high. In 1998, Guatemala had the second highest incidence of poverty in Latin America, just behind Nicaragua. According to the United Nations (UN), the overall poverty rate in Guatemala increased during the 1990s and early 2000s (the years of neoliberalization); in 2002 it stood at 57% of the population. The incidence of extreme poverty was even more disturbing at 21.5%. In 2002, the poorest 20% of the population shared 1.7% of the national income, while the richest 20% possessed 64% of the national income. 71% of the indigenous population was considered to be living in poverty. The starkness of poverty in Guatemala is epitomized by an ossuary pit near the back of La Verbena Cemetery. In 2012 the Guatemalan Forensics Team began to perform exhumations in the pit, attempting to locate the remains of about 45,000 bodies in the pit, the vast majority of them victims of the violence of poverty; of having died because they were impoverished or because families could no longer afford the cost of a tomb in the cemetery.
Despair and deprivation are put on full display in the agricultural sector which has been utterly ruined by savage neoliberalism. In 1988, the Guatemalan Bishops issued a pastoral letter entitled “The Clamor for Land” wherein they argued that the agrarian problem was the country’s most important issue. “The clamor for land”, the bishops stated, “is without doubt the strongest, most dramatic and desperate cry heard in Guatemala.” Two-thirds of the agricultural land in Guatemala is dominated by 2.5% of the country’s farms, less than 1% of landowners hold 75% of the best agricultural land, 90% of rural inhabitants live in poverty, 27% of rural dwellers do not own land and more than 500,000 peasant families live below the level of subsistence. Such a high level of land concentration and rural poverty implies that peasants are invariably subjected to unprecedented amounts of hardships and live a life of complete bleakness.
In a 1977 article, Norma S. Chinchilla, wrote:
Although agricultural production has become large and modern, working conditions are almost as harsh as they were under forced labor. Seasonal workers, recruited on large fincas [farms], often work as a family unit to pay off loans incurred earlier in the year. Their hours are long, their rations meager, their housing sparse. Women and children risk transportation in open trucks and often die in accidents or of carbon monoxide fumes. They live primitively, with as many as 500 workers in large open-air dormitories that have dirt floors and laminated roofs, no sanitary facilities, electricity, or portable water. They sleep on the ground, in hammocks, or on straw mats. They are given about twelve to fourteen pounds of corn per week, one to two pounds of beans, and occasionally some sugar and rice. Children receive half rations and women none if they do not work because of their young children. Sickness among workers who migrate from the highlands to the coastal lowlands is common. Insecticide poisoning is frequent.
With worsening material conditions, class tensions in Guatemala are continually re-surfacing in the form of social explosions. There is no end in sight to rising class struggle since Guatemala has an exceptionally weak healthcare system which will keep burdening the poor with incalculable pain. In his book Becoming Evil, James Waller notes that “over 60 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in dispersed rural communities of less than 2,000 people. Health and educational services are scarce to nonexistent in most of those communities. All told, 45 percent of the population lack minimal health services, and the mortality rate for children under age five was 67 per 1,000 live births in 1995—one of the highest such rates in the industrialized world.” As systemic contradictions come to a head in Guatemala, protests for dignity and justice will keep occurring in the country.
Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India.
Originally published in Dissident Voice