Monday morning began with a visit to Plataforma Holandesa, the Dutch Platform against Impunity in Guatemala. When we arrived at Plataforma Holandesa’s Guatemala City office, Representative Anabella Sibrián treated us delegates to delicious pecan nut cake and coffee, and gave a Presentation titled “Guatemala: Main Problems and Solidarity.” The presentation explained the historical, social, and political factors that contribute to violence and impunity, and introduced how international solidarity could play a role alleviating these problems.
Anabella’s presentation was very helpful in teasing out the origins of the power dynamics around access to land that Lorena Cabnal and Lolita Chavez had discussed. Since Anabella’s presentation helped me understand the factors influencing the work of many of the people we met, I want to use this information to do the same. Rather than summarizing the entire presentation here, I will include bits and pieces in future posts to better explain the social, economic, and political influences on Guatemalans’ struggles. For example, I will address Anabella’s discussion of how mining licenses affect indigenous communities in my upcoming post about the community of San Jose del Golfo.
After Anabela Sibrián’s presentation, we met with men and women from the community of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, shortened as “Santa Lucia Cotz,” a small town on Guatemala’s South Coast with a past and present sugar cane industry. The community of Santa Lucia Cotz had been rocked by violence and subsequent impunity, a living example of the historical dynamics that Anabella had discussed in her presentation.
The parents of these men and women sitting in front of us had worked on Santa Lucia Cotz’s sugar plantation in the 1980s, and had advocated for improved working conditions. Their parents, a “mix of labor leaders, members of the Committee for Peasant Unity, (CUC), and catechists,” were among the many people of Santa Lucia Cotz disappeared by the economic elite due to their organizing efforts to attain labor rights. Children when their parents were disappeared, the adults sitting in front of us stated that these facts regarding their parents’ disappearance, as well as their parents themselves were never spoken about.
Since this initial silencing, the community of Santa Lucia has engaged in many efforts to bear the voices of their families forward. The community members we met had stated that they have looked at the role that state terror played in contributing to their silence regarding the disappearance of their family members as well as their feelings of guilt.
Now, their voices are rising out. 60 families have given testimonies regarding their parents’ disappearance, and have also submitted DNA samples to help forensic scientists recover the bodies. The bodies that have been recovered have received Christian burials in accordance with the families’ religious beliefs. Many families have received psycho-soical support to help them address the trauma of the disappearances.
Community members have also formed an organization to provide positive intergenerational support for one another. They have formed a Christian Association, which includes youth training workshops, where youth can meet and talk about what happened to their families. A community member stated that their parents were struggling for a better life for all Guatemalans, and as their children, they wish to do continue the struggle.
The community members acknowledged that they are “moving slowly in the right direction,” and are working on generating an intergenerational dialog. The community hopes that the Christian Association can also improve the quality of life for elderly women and widows of the disappeared, who are living in extreme poverty.
I felt especially moved to listen to how the community was weaving together these many generations–old and young that were affected by the disappearances–in a way that promotes individual independence and community resiliency. I was reminded of a theory I had learned from a role model of mine, who had compared connecting individuals to sources of support and empowerment to how a wheel extends outward from one hub to many spokes.
One such way that community members are building these spokes is through advocating for their rights as present day workers in Santa Lucia Cotz’s sugar industry, and recuperating the historic memory of their disappeared family members. The community has written a book titled Porque Queríamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza/Because we wanted to get out of poverty: The memorable history of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa. Porque Queríamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza combines text, stunning images, family photographs and letters in order to document the community’s search for their disappeared families, and convey how “mechanisms of terror can reproduce themselves.”
Porque Queríamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza also addresses the community’s emotions–the fear to speak out against the disappearances, which had created “a perpetuating pattern as a tool to generate terror.” The community members admitted that they know the people who are guilty of disappearing their families, but due to impunity and intimidation in Guatemala’s judicial system, they cannot bring their cases forward. In fact, many families had to flee their homes and were evicted during the 1980s.
In recent years, the community has gone through a healing process, and people feel empowered and strengthened. Now, when they see the authors of the crimes, they feel angry, but motivated to continue their struggle. In one man’s own words, Porque Queríamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza “recognizes and validates the work of many fathers, who were “humble men with big hearts.” Although the people of Santa Lucia Cotz do not want to confront the perpetrators of their families’ disappearances, they want the perpetrators to know that there is a search for truth in Santa Lucia Cotz. To quote another community member, “We wish to share what’s inside of us. We have gained strength from valuing our own experience.”
The meeting concluded with a sharing of Porque Queríamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza. Turning the pages of this book filled me with overwhelming awe. I have such great belief in the power of words to share experiences and feelings. Porque Queríamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza ensures that the spirits of Santa Lucia’s disappeared were not snuffed out, but linger on in those who love them and in those who read this book. Despite my limited Spanish, I read the values guiding the disappeared–love for their families and pursuit of justice–in every page. I was so moved that the community of Santa Lucia Cotz could turn their lived experiences of such sorrow into a beautiful labor that lovingly memorialized their forbearers’ struggle.
Learn more about international solidarity efforts against impunity in Guatemala
1. “GUATEMALA PLATFORM IN NEDERLAND.” http://www.hivos.nl/dut/community/partner/10008652 This website explains: “The Dutch Platform against Impunity in Guatemala is a joint initiative of Impunity Watch, Solidaridad, Novib, ICCO, Cordaid and Hivos. Plataforma Holandesa links lobbying efforts to support Guatemalan human rights organizations that are advocating against the culture and structures of impunity.”
2. Briscoe, Ivan and Marlies Stappers. “Breaking the wave: critical steps in the fight against crime in Guatemala.” http://www.clingendael.nl/publications/2012/20120100_briscoe_breaking.pdf The authors have given an Anabella Sibrián an acknowledgement for her support with this report.
3. Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) http://cicig.org/ The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala is a comprehensive website that contains up-to-date articles and audio interviews.
Learn more about the communities from Santa Lucia Cotz
1. YouTube. Memoria viva para una Santa Lucia distinta/Living memory for a different Santa Lucia. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzZLizcGB8M This powerful 8 minute YouTube film shows members of Santa Lucia’s community speaking out about the disappearance and massacre of their family members, and the perpetrators’ efforts to intimidiate and silence them. The film also features footage from the community presenting Queriamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza.
2. Sielhorst, Sven. “Workers’ rights are the heart of a sustainable sugarcane industry.” Solidaridad Network. November 21, 2011. http://www.solidaridadnetwork.org/blog/workers-rights-are-heart-sustainable-sugarcane-industry. Sven Sielhorst works for Solidaridad Network, an international organization that initiates corporate social responsibility and fair trade to combat poverty worldwide (Solidaridad is also one of Plataforma Holandesa’s partners). Sven has given a speech that explains the social context in the Santa Lucia Cotz sugar cane plantation that led to the labor leaders’ strike and disappearance in the 1980s. Sven commends Queriamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza and the labor leaders’ bravery. He also describes the present day working conditions in Santa Lucia’s sugar cane industry, which sadly continue to disenfranchise workers and create an environment of fear.
Learn more about Queriamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza
1. Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa. http://dewegvansantalucia.com/ The visually stunning website for Queriamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza is written in Spanish and Dutch in the same beautiful shade of teal blue as Queriamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza’s cover.
2. “Porque queríamos salir de tanta pobreza: la memorable historia de Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa contada por sus protagonistas.” Archivo Historico de la Policia Nacional. http://archivohistoricopn.org/pages/inicio/actualidad/porque-queriamos-salir-de-tanta-pobreza-la-memorable-historia-de-santa-lucia-cotzumalguapa-contada-por-sus-protagonistas.php?lang=EN The Historical Archive of the National Police (AHPN) has written this article about the official presentation of Queriamos Salir de Tanta Pobreza on April 25, 2012.