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An Interview with CODECA: defending Human Rights and Mother Earth in Guatemala

By Sonja Rijnen-


In late 2022, MEP Clare Daly and her team invited senior members of CODECA to visit the European Parliament in Brussels. CODECA (Comité de Desarrollo Campesino) is a plurinational group made up of different actors fighting for human rights and structural changes in Guatemala.

CODECA originally emerged from an indigenous peasant movement but is now made up of over 100,000 members and has significantly expanded its work also to urban areas. The organisation's key aim is to "rebuild the concept of Buen Vivir" in Guatemala. They work to defend the right to land and food sovereignty, labour rights, Mother Earth, the territories of indigenous peoples, and gender rights among others.

In between their busy schedule while in Brussels, LatAm Dialogue editor-in-chief, Sonja Rijnen, had the chance to sit down with Leiria Vay Garcia, a member of CODECA's political leadership and Gustavo Maldonado Colanders, who works on the urban coordination of the movement, and learn more about the current situation in Guatemala and how CODECA strives to make real change in the country.

Below is the interview (transcribed and translated from Spanish).

How did your organisation begin and what are the main objectives of CODECA?

Well, CODECA is a plurinational organisation that encompasses the different types of people that live in Guatemala and also the different sectors. CODECA was born 30 years ago when it was founded by indigenous people who dreamed and fought for workers' rights and the rights of the earth.

Let's continue with a broad question that will be useful for context- what is the current situation in Guatemala politically and specifically regarding human rights?

Guatemala is a country with great cultural and natural riches. However, it is also a country that has very high rates of inequality, poverty and emigration. Today, remittances represent 20% of GDP and this is because there is more and more emigration to the US of those who want to find a better quality of life and live the so-called American Dream. This situation shows the levels of injustice in the country and this is all because there is a very unequal distribution of wealth.

In Guatemala, there was an internal armed conflict [1960-1996] which was fueled by issues related to land and its re-distribution in favour of a few. Almost 30 years ago in 1996, when the peace deal was signed, the indigenous and rural workers were optimistic about the effects the deal and the end of the war would have. We thought it would generate better living conditions. But, now the situation is very different and today, there are more daily deaths in Guatemala than during the armed conflict. People die from malnutrition but also through other systems of state repression.

It is said that in Guatemala there is democracy and rule of law, but unfortunately, in reality, indigenous and rural people, young people and women live without rights and without a state. We say that these people live without a state because the state does not reach them and they are isolated. Many do not have access to basic services such as education and health care. They say [that Guatemala is a democracy] because every four years we hold elections. However, the decisions of the population are never respected and there are no mechanisms to ensure that the citizens can freely choose.

When the peace deal was signed 30 years ago, we were told that Guatemala was an underdeveloped country and that efforts from the state were focused on developing the country. We all believed this. But, most people have not received what they expected from the discourse of “development”. For example, when the peace deal was signed, under the logic of development, the government that signed the deal opened the country to big transnational organisations to privatise the country’s services and goods. They began extractive projects in our lands and we were told that this is "development". Now, years later, we realise that every day we have actually had the destruction of our land. Basic services have been privatised, restricting our access to them. The land that was given to rural peasants was infertile and could not be used. It was actually after the signing of the peace deal that emigration out of the country increased. This is because, in Guatemala, most do not have the chance to live with dignity.

What does CODECA do to fight against this situation?

Well, we do a few things. We organise ourselves to fight for land rights and workers' rights. However, we realised that fighting just for this does not resolve many problems. This is because land rights in itself and the way it is structured in Guatemala does not correspond to what really affects people. For these reasons in 2012, we reflected as a movement on what were going to be our main aims to really be able to advance and improve human rights.

The outcome of these discussions, which lasted a year, was that we reached the conclusion that all the problems came from the fact that the people had believed that proposing laws would mean that they would actually become enacted policies. But this never happened because those that make the decisions, have the power and are in Congress simply do not respond to the interest of indigenous and rural peoples or all sectors that have historically been excluded and marginalised.

This is one of the reasons why we realised we had to fight to give nature rights and to fight for the logic that nature’s life depends on us. To advance on this we have to transcend [the old logic of development] and work with nature to live alongside it and live according to Buen Vivir. Our current fight is to achieve structural change in Guatemala through the creation of a plurinational state.

Along this logic, the movement decided that, because fighting from outside the political structures was not leading to change, we had to create a political instrument and become part of the party system and create a formal political party. The political parties in Guatemala are made from above (they have owners). The MLP (Movement for the Liberation of People) party was created horizontally, with the people in mind and it registered itself in 2018 to take part in the 2019 elections. For their first participation in elections, they put forward Telma Cabrera [to run for president]. She is indigenous and from a rural area and has been subject to many forms of discrimination that exist in Guatemala, so for us, it was significant that she was running. She came fourth in the elections. This was the first of the movement’s political experience. Now it’s doubled in force.

Why did you decide to visit the European Parliament? In what ways can the international community help your cause?

We are here with two objectives. The first one is because our movement has been stigmatised and criminalised. In fact, there have been direct attacks on people who work with us and they have assassinated 24 people who are part of our movement. Our proposal for structural change has created fear amongst those in power in Guatemala. Of course, in order to maintain the illusion of democracy, for the leaders it benefits them to allow some protests and that there [is some discussion]. But, when our movement started to be organised and really advanced, we were no longer an actor that somehow helped them maintain this illusion of democracy, but a movement that puts their economic interest at risk. For these reasons, they have targeted us.

So, we are here to denounce the repression our organisation and movement face as well as all of the human rights violations in Guatemala. We want to demonstrate that we are a movement defending human rights and that our right to propose alternative ways of life to the Guatemalan people is being hindered. As we fight a lot for the protection of Mother Nature, this is not only relevant within Guatemala but all around the world.

The second reason we are here in Europe is that there have also been a series of actions that have shown that in Guatemala they have been stopping our political movement from advancing. They tried to hide our proposals through communication methods and we were also not allowed to open a bank account. This all represents electoral fraud. We are here to ask the European Union and other parliamentarians from EU institutions to observe the next elections in Guatemala. This is because we believe that, unfortunately, in Guatemala, the will of the population is not respected. Our movement has grown, we have fought for human rights and Mother Nature and we have quite a high level of popularity in the country. The official results of last year’s elections do not reflect the will of the people.



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