In our last update at the end of June we provided a broad summary of the first one hundred days since the onset of COVID-19 in Guatemala. We highlighted some of the significant ways in which the Guatemalan government was failing to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic and consequently exacerbating the dire conditions for small scale farmers, human rights and land defenders, Indigenous populations, and working class Guatemalans. In the weeks since, the government has pushed forward with its decision to begin reopening the economy and phase the country into what it calls the “new normality.” Despite local reports demonstrating increased hardships faced by the majority of the country’s population in regards to community spread of the infection, lack of access to food, employment, health, and security, the Guatemalan government began shifting gears towards the new normality by significantly loosening the country’s mobility restrictions and lifting interdepartmental travel, reducing curfew hours, allowing for the opening of malls and restaurants, and hinting at an opening of borders in the weeks to come.
In the words of the President, “We only have two paths, we either get it (COVID-19), or we save ourselves from getting it.” To this end, an intricate stoplight system was put in place to colour code each of the country’s 340 municipalities and help mark distinct restrictions based on the prevalence of infections in each area. Aside from being confusing and inaccessible, this plan lacks clarity as to which government institutions will oversee compliance to the new restrictions and how they will do so. In a live address to the nation on August 9th President Giammattei stated that “Guatemala’s COVID-19 situation is above world average” and thus a move away from addressing the impacts of COVID-19 by the government was necessary in order to focus on other aspects of running the country. Essentially abandoning Guatemalans to save themselves if they can, many see the government’s rush to open the economy as a way to cater to the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF) who for months have been pressuring the government to resume business as usual. The government’s failure to deliver on its social security promises and acting in the interest of industry have led to Giammattei’s popularity reaching an all time low in the country and in the past weeks, calls for transparency on the distribution of funds by the government have been mounting.
Six weeks into the new normality there continue to be a rising number of infections despite a decreasing amount of testing. As many continue to die as a result of the pandemic, including dozens of mass graves being filled by unidentified bodies, there are conflicting reports between the number of deaths provided by the government’s Ministry of Health and the National Registry (RENAP). The government’s phasing into an open economy risks disastrous consequences for containing the pandemic. Combined with endemic corruption and political meddling in Guatemala’s top courts through threats and intimidation of anti-corruption judges and human rights defenders, but also forced displacement and violence against Indigenous communities, and the murder and disappearance of community leaders and organizers, Guatemala faces an even more compounded situation. Although many have understood the stoplight system and the easing of restrictions as an open invitation to flock to the coastal areas and other popular tourist destinations, some have also channelled the feeling of angst into continued resistance and organization. Many grassroots groups have continuously held virtual forums, community events, press conferences, and most recently, demonstrations were held in front of the national palace in defense of an independent courts system.
Breaking the Silence (BTS) partners are being deeply impacted by this in multiple ways and are also providing exemplary responses in the face of these challenges. In the Rabinal region, the Community Legal Clinic (ABJP) continues their work to provide legal support to support communities despite obstacles such as the temporary suspension of cases such as the Maya Achi’ case on sexual violence and the looming threat of the amnesty law which would provide retroactive immunity to war criminals and set them free. The New Hope Foundation (NHF) meanwhile continues to support and train teachers in delivering educational guidance to students as well as providing support to families with the distribution of school work as well as basic foods. Partners in Xinka territory have continued to support their communities with education campaigns, providing basic food and hygiene supplies, and supporting the Peaceful Resistance through the reopening of the Casillas encampment despite mounting defamation campaigns, intimidation, threats and criminalization charges faced by communities in resistance. In the central highlands, the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP) has continued to broaden their engagement and reach of communities in support of local, organic, and native agriculture to fortify food sovereignty in the region by creating markets for local farmers. Also in that region as well as nationally, the Highland Small Farmers Committee (CCDA) has overcome the destruction of their offices due to heavy rains and continues to mount political pressure in denouncing the state of siege and increased militarization in various regions of the country including Nahualá/Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán as well as Izabal and Alta Verapaz. On August 13th, they held a press conference where they called for the immediate distribution of Congressional funds for small family farming, and transparency with respect to the selection of beneficiaries for productive projects.
In this context, we continue to affirm the need and relevance of our work as a network in providing ongoing observation, accompaniment, and support related to the defense of territory, security, and truth, justice, and impunity. We anticipate the weeks to come to be marked by the evolving struggles of Guatemalans protecting the rule of law, organizing in defense of human rights and land defense including resisting the attacks against proper consultation processes with Indigenous communities in regards to their territories. As these struggles persist, so too will the new normality of COVID-19 and its ensuing detrimental social, political and cultural impacts. It is of vital importance that in the weeks and months to come we remain vigilant to the various calls for action and solidarity from our partners, understanding the entrenched links between the challenges they face today and the disposition to take responsible action that we hold in the Global North as a result. We thank you all for your continuous commitment to solidarity and invite you to keep engaging with our network as we move forward in support of our partners. We will continue to provide periodic updates and opportunities for you to join and support our work.