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“People Are Outraged”: General Strike in Guatemala Denounces Corruption & Mishandling of Pandemic

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Image Credit: Twitter: @AgenciaOcote

We go to Guatemala to speak with an opposition lawmaker and a Maya K’iche’ leader who joined Thursday’s major national strike demanding the resignation of right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei and other government officials facing allegations of corruption. Major highways were blocked for hours as protesters marched through Guatemala City and in rural communities denouncing corruption, a worsening economic crisis and the government’s catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic. The demonstrations are the “third chapter of our history in the fight against corruption, which started in 2015,” says Lucrecia Hernández Mack, Guatemalan physician and a member of the Guatemalan Congress with the political party Movimiento Semilla who was the first woman to lead the country’s Ministry of Health. “People here in Guatemala are just outraged.” Indigenous governments and people across Guatemala united in leading the call for the mass mobilization, adds Andrea Ixchíu, Maya K’iche’ leader, journalist and human rights defender in Totonicapán, Guatemala. “We are tired [of] how in the midst of the pandemic the Guatemalan government is stealing the money from the vaccines and militariz[ing] the country.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We end today’s show in Guatemala, where thousands took to the streets across the country Thursday for a massive national strike demanding the resignation of the right-wing President Alejandro Giammattei, as well as other government officials. Major highways were blocked for hours as protesters marched through Guatemala City and in rural communities denouncing corruption, a worsening economic crisis and the government’s catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic.

COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket, with hospitals collapsing or on the verge. Meanwhile, less than 2% of the population of Guatemala has been vaccinated.

The national strike was called by Indigenous leaders, who vowed they won’t stop until there’s radical change in Guatemala. This is Indigenous rights defender María Caal Xol, speaking Thursday from the region Alta Verapaz.

MARÍA CAAL XOL: [translated] We have been resisting, and we will continue to resist against these injustices that have Indigenous communities on our knees. We will continue to protect our dignity, what our ancestors inherited to us, what our grandmothers and grandfathers inherited to us, those who have been disappeared, persecuted and assassinated for over 500 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is a student movement leader speaking from a roadblock in Guatemala City.

LAURA AGUIAR: [translated] We must learn that we, the students, have to be part of the change. The urban region has to learn from collectivity, because individuality is only going to make our situation worse.

AMY GOODMAN: The national strike comes after recent mobilizations in response to the abrupt ousting last week of Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, who was then forced to flee the country. He went over the border into El Salvador. The move also prompted the U.S. government to suspend some of its cooperation with Guatemala’s attorney general.

Well, for more, we go to Guatemala City, where we’re joined by Lucrecia Hernández Mack, Guatemalan physician and a member of the Guatemalan Congress with the political party Movimiento Semilla. That’s “the seed movement.” In 2016, she became the first woman to lead the Ministry of Health in Guatemala. She’s the daughter of the late Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, who was assassinated by U.S.-backed security forces in the early '90s. And in Totonicapán, Guatemala, we're joined by Andrea Ixchíu, Maya K’iche’ leader, journalist and human rights defender.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to start with Congressmember Mack. Can you talk about the significance of this mass protest, and what has prompted it?

LUCRECIA HERNÁNDEZ MACK: Well, we could say that these manifestations and demonstrations are sort of like the third chapter of our history in the fight against corruption that started in 2015. In 2015, we saw, with the CICIG, the International Commission Against Impunity, we saw cases that revealed the participation of the vice president and the president involved in corruption. And we saw many demonstrations. We also had a strike, a national strike, that finally made the vice president and president to resign.

Then we had a second chapter where basically the corrupt strike back. And we see how the public institutions start being taken over, like the Supreme Court of Justice, the Constitutional Court, the Electoral Court, etc., etc. And finally, the FECI, Juan Francisco Sandoval is ousted by the attorney general. And this is basically the third chapter, where people here in Guatemala are just outraged, and we go back into the streets and demand for the president, Giammattei, and the attorney general to resign also.

And what we see is that we are just fed up with corruption. If we continue to go this way, we basically have no public institutions free of corruption. So, this is the moment where we have united political parties with social movements, with ancestral authorities, communities, rural communities, citizens from the urban areas, students, motor taxis, think tanks, NGOs, activists, everybody is coming together to say, “No more. We don’t want this anymore.” And interestingly enough, this is a movement that has been led by ancestral authorities. So we are basically saying, “We don’t want this anymore.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Andrea Ixchíu into the conversation, Maya K’iche’ leader, journalist, human rights defender. You’re in western Guatemala. This was an Indigenous-led mass protest. Can you talk about what’s happening in your area, the significance of the Indigenous leadership, and particularly describe the Guatemalan blockades, Indigenous people taking to the streets and blocking the highways?

ANDREA IXCHÍU: Hello. Thank you for this space.

I think it’s really important to say that — well, we always say it — that Indigenous peoples have been mobilizing for more than 529 years against colonialism, corruption and the pillage of our ancestral lands. The Indigenous government of Totonicapán, where I came from, decided to call for these big mobilizations and to call to this national strike, reunited with other Indigenous governments from all over the country, because we are tired how, in the midst of the pandemic, the Guatemala government are stealing the money from the vaccines and militarizes the country.

The anti-corruption prosecutor is dismissed without justification. And the prosecutor was investigating a recent meeting between the president, Alejandro Giammattei, who received in recent weeks investors related to nickel mining companies that operate illegally in Guatemala and that are violating the rights of the Maya K’iche’ communities that lives in the region of El Estor, Izabal, an area of exploitation, of monocultures, of mining, and that have lived very hard the effects of the pandemic and the climate crisis.

So, a lot of Indigenous communities have been militarized during the pandemic. We haven’t received attention and social programs during pandemic. And especially in the K’iche’ area, the voices of the women, as María Caal, that you heard at the beginning, is telling how a lot of companies is operating in their lands without consultation and consent from the communities. So we see with preoccupation how the president is reuniting with these land investors, with these mining contractors a few months before a consultation is going to be done in El Estor, because the communities needs to give their opinion about the mining operation in the area.

So, during the pandemic, as I said, the country was militarized. There was multiple violent evictions, where a lot of Indigenous communities were expelled from their lands, from their communities. So it’s suspicious, these kind of meetings that the special prosecutor anti-corruption was investigating against the president when he was removed from his position. So, as Indigenous peoples=, we have always been organizing against the exploitation of the land, the defense of the water, the defense of the territories. And because we are tired that this state that is very well administrated by economical elites, military and drug traffickers, are just denying our access for a dignity, a life in dignity.

So, when the people says that Indigenous communities are blocking the roads, we said, “No, we are mobilizing for a life in dignity, where we can have deep political changes in the way that our country is organized,” because the ones that have been blocking the road for develop and life in dignity are the crime elites that refuses to make changes and that are [inaudible] Guatemalan state.

AMY GOODMAN: Lucrecia Hernández Mack in Guatemala City, you are in Congress. For people outside Guatemala who may not be familiar with the term the Pacto de Corruptos, the Corrupt Pact, talking about a group of business people, political leaders, well, if you could describe what they are and their ascendancy now, also particularly in Congress, and what it means for human rights all over Guatemala?

LUCRECIA HERNÁNDEZ MACK: Yes. The Pacto de Corruptos was very visible when in Congress there was an attempt to protect the president, Jimmy Morales, back in 2017. And what we see is that this is the alignment of economic elite, politicians, even drug traffickers here in Guatemala, as well, that have links to politicians. We also see, you know, public authorities involved. And what has happened is that they have taken over public institutions in order to protect themselves from justice, guarantee their impunity. And so they have taken, basically, like I said, the Electoral Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Constitutional Court. They are going after the human rights ombudsman. And we see that they have also used the public institutions to pursue independent judges, political opposition, journalists, civil society leaders, activists with various actions, like smear campaigns, troll factories, threats, harassments, criminal complaints or accusations. And they are basically undermining the state, the government. They are using the state and the public institutions for their own benefit. And they are basically undermining the democracy and the justice system. So, this is what has the people fed up, because we can no longer tolerate any more advance of this Pacto de Corruptos, the Pact of the Corrupt.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Andrea about the demands, the Indigenous demands for the Guatemalan government to establish a plurinational state. What does that mean?

ANDREA IXCHÍU: Well, the Mayan, Xinca and Garífuna Indigenous authorities propose a route to a new political pact, because we know that it’s not going to be easy. We wait to build a plurinational popular assembly, a constitutional assembly, because it’s really important and it’s really urgent to transform from the roots the political pact that has denied the very existence of Indigenous authorities, our ways of living and organizing, the ways that we administrate our lands. So, we are saying that that needs to change, that we need a country where the people can live in dignity and in respect. And that means sitting down and speaking with the politicians, sitting down and speaking with the people organized all over Guatemala. So we know that it’s going to be a path. It’s going to be a long way to go to. But also it’s an urgent thing that we need to keep doing, because the crisis that we’re living is — the conditions that we live in are ugly.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Lucrecia Mack, in this last minute, you were the first woman minister of health of Guatemala, before you became a congressmember. Describe the COVID situation right now.

LUCRECIA HERNÁNDEZ MACK: What we’re seeing right now is the overlapping of the political crisis with the economic crisis and the health crisis. And the health crisis is not only a problem with the vaccines, with the vaccination. Like you said, we have less than 2% of our population vaccinated. But right now we are in the third wave. So we are seeing record figures of cases and deaths from COVID-19. And right now hospitals, public and private, are just full. They are saturated. The health workers are just burned out. And that’s why we also saw health workers yesterday participating and joining and supporting the national strike. And the government is very reluctant and resisting to take measures in order to control the pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We’ll continue to follow the situation. Lucrecia Hernández Mack, member of the Guatemalan Congress, first woman health minister of Guatemala, before she was a congressmember. And Andrea Ixchíu, Maya K’iche’ leader, journalist and human rights defender, joining us from western Guatemala. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe.

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