When we saw the Guatemalan Congress building ablaze on the 21st November, some of us expressed total dismay at the destruction of public property. Some of us were simply confused because in the UK, this seemingly came out of nowhere. But Guatemala – like Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela – has experienced a wave of protests over the last two years, and we only see the most sensational aspects of them. Protests in Guatemala may seem detached from our own lives across the Atlantic; these protests have demonstrated the value and success of mass mobilisation, so we in Britain should be watching more closely.
Guatemala is one example as to why we should be watching these political events unfold rather than avert our gaze to disturbing happenings in faraway places. We not only deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from each other’s histories, but we also neglect our own country’s role for the current state of places like Guatemala.
Guatemala has experienced back-to-back hurricanes amid a global pandemic while anti-corruption and anti-austerity protests have been taking place since the government’s austerity-based budget plan for 2021 was released, proposing to cut spending on healthcare and education. This plan would also prioritise privately managed infrastructure projects while exacerbating the public debt.
However, the majority of people my age (late teens to early twenties) are probably unaware of the recent demonstrations in Guatemala, let alone its troubled political history. Therefore, we need to contextualise the current protests to have an idea of how vast the political, economic, and social problems are in Guatemala, and how protest is currently playing a fundamental role in changing the country’s political direction. After losing the 2006 mayoral elections in Guatemala City, he was the director of the Guatemalan prison system where he was arrested due to his implication in the extrajudicial killings of seven prisoners in 2006.
President Alejandro Giammattei assumed office this January as part of the conservative party ‘Vamos’. Giammattei is an anti-abortion, anti-same-sex-marriage conservative who aims to reintroduce the death penalty as well as putting the military in charge of civilian security in order to manage drug trafficking and organised crime. The legitimacy of his vote is often called into question and his approval ratings have plummeted by 34 percentage points since his presidency.
Oftentimes in the United Kingdom, we dismiss instances of corruption or injustice by alluding to countries which are lower down on the Corruption Index such as Guatemala. Governmental corruption may be devastatingly prevalent in Guatemala, but the mass mobilisation of the Guatemalan people to advocate for themselves and the victims among them is something that we in Britain should be paying attention to.
Since Giammattei’s assumption of office, the controversy has continued to follow him. Giammattei’s ruthless budget plan would increase the meal stipends of congress representatives by $65,000. Meanwhile, hospitals find themselves oversaturated due to the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath of two natural disasters. This budget plan was released in the midst of protests for other burning issues in Guatemala such as the shockingly high rate of femicide in early October. It was no wonder that hundreds quickly took to the streets, pushing for the resignation of 125 of the 160 members of congress.
In the UK, we have let our protests against injustice fizzle out and return back to our normal social media feeds and empty streets. Whether it has been anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter protests, the rolling back the medical rights of transgender youth, or the turning away of asylum seekers on dangerous waters, passivity does us no favours. Guatemala and other protests in Latin America demonstrate that consistent protest works and knowing that can be a useful tool for advocating for the most vulnerable in our society.
In response to mass protests, Giammattei tweeted that demonstrators who damage public or private property “will have the full weight of the law fall on them.” Despite this, the budget was suspended at the final hurdle when the police turned a blind eye to protestors breaking windows and setting the congress building ablaze. Arguably, the Guatemalan government took advantage of the series of tragedies in Guatemala to roll out harmful legislation at the expense of the most vulnerable.
There is a reason we tend to be blissfully unaware of what goes on in Central and South America in Anglo-phonic countries such as the USA and the UK, and it isn’t as simple as a mere language barrier. Our role in the political unrest in Latin America has been closer than we might like to think. For example, the CIA’s backing of the Guatemalan genocide of the Ixil Maya population during the 1980s, or Margaret Thatcher’s close relationship to the Pinochet dictatorship. We have often meddled in the political affairs of Latin American countries and turned a blind eye when the consequences result in the deaths of thousands and national destabilisation.
However, I think the reason for our ignorance is somewhat reversed in this case. Historically, we have been kept in the dark over Latin America at the risk of putting ourselves in a bad light, but I don’t think that this is the reason why we should be paying attention now. Latin American countries such as Guatemala can not only enlighten us on our own government’s past actions, but can show us that protest and popular mobilisation is an effective tool to roll back unpopular legislation.
Words by Elizabeth Sorrell
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