Heading into 2021 Guatemala was recuperating from a series of environmental and political storms. The end of the hurricane season wrapped up after a higher than usual amount of rain which saturated the soils across the country and exacerbated the devastation brought on by the tailends of hurricanes Eta and Iota.
Entering Guatemala through the Caribbean coast just over a week apart from each other in early and mid November, both storms affected the Atlantic coastal regions, parts of the eastern borders with Honduras and the highlands along the transversal northern highway. Surplus rains due to climate change combined with deforestation and soil degradation, largely inflicted by agro-industries such as palm-oil, pushed rivers out of their banks and into communities, leaving many flooded and homeless. To this day, there are communities that are still inaccessible due to collapsed bridges. The devastating impact of the storms came at a time of heightened vulnerability and despair as the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic intensified.
On the political front, the end of November also saw the culmination of discontent against the government which resulted in the #21N & #28N protests. Images of the burning of the Congress building made world headlines and presented a stark manifestation of the anger held by large parts of the population. Protests erupted across the country to demand the resignation of the President and Congress’ Board of Directors for approving the 2021 fiscal budget. Guatemalans were not content with the government’s handling of the pandemic in addition to the weak relief response to the hurricanes, and with Congress’ announcement of significant funding cuts to public services in the 2021 budget.
Further demands of the peaceful demonstrations included the disbandment of the controversial Centro de Gobierno, an entity established by President Giammattei to assist him in overseeing the work carried out by ministers, which was seen as overlapping with already existing government offices at an unusually high expense to tax-payers. Under mounting pressure, Giammattei eventually conceded and announced that this unnecessary entity would close at the end of the year, leading to what many criticized as a simple re-shuffling and distribution of those positions into other branches of government. Nonetheless, the list of demands persisted and also included the resignations of Minister of Interior Gendri Reyes, as well as Attorney General Consuelo Porras.
November’s focus on the weather and the discontent at the government’s failures pushed worries about the COVID-19 pandemic out of focus and into the distant background. Repeated calls by the Minister of Health to maintain social distancing and security measures against the pandemic seemed to be relegated to backpage news, only to slowly creep back closer to the spotlight in the first weeks of 2021. Currently into a so-called 3rd wave of the pandemic, Guatemala recorded the highest number of positive cases in a single day at 1809 cases on January 12th. This positivity rate of 30.6% on January 12 was outmatched by a 52.85% positivity rate a few days later on January 15. As COVID-19 continues to expand across the country, the Guatemalan government has begun to accelerate agreements to obtain vaccines through the COVAX program as well as directly from pharmaceutical companies. According to government sources It is expected that 100,000 doses of the vaccine will arrive in Guatemala sometime in February, well into a time where hospitals are at capacity, Oxygen availability reaches peak demand, and many continue to lack basic necessities for basic survival let alone medical care. Boasting a population of over 17 million people according to its last census, almost a year into the official recognition of the pandemic, it is still unclear what the Guatemalan government’s strategy will be to protect its population.
As Guatemalans settle into the new year and pass the first year mark under the Giammattei government, the legacies of corruption and impunity carried forward continue to place a heavy burden for the majority in the country. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disastrous effects of climate change in the region, the absolute destitution of many leave few options for survival. As seen through the recent attempt of the migration caravan coming from Honduras with over 6,000 people, the only recourse for many is to escape the extreme poverty, state violence and destitution they have been subjected to. While many struggles continue to be waged in the pursuit of justice, accountability, and peace across the mesoamerican territories, the lack of political will and interest continues to pave challenging conditions for the majority.
As a network, Breaking the Silence continues to prioritize the need for action and solidarity. Through the support of our members across the Maritimes and the work of our staff and cooperants, we provide virtual and on-the-ground support as well as human rights accompaniment and community development support to partners in Guatemala. We move forward into the uncertainties of 2021 with a renewed sense of energy to continue doing all that we can to support the ongoing initiatives of our partners. We invite you to stay connected to our work and our regular updates for more direct ways joining our solidarity efforts in the Maritimes and Guatemala.
BTS Lead Cooperant