May 2018. My first week in the project, the team were managing emergency after emergency. Bullets had been fired at the car of a well-known indigenous rights activist in the middle of the night. In a separate part of the country, crowds of workers from a hydroelectric company surrounded a house where the leaders of those opposing the mega project were gathered, throwing stones and threatening to kill certain individuals if they came out. The team in Guatemala City had been immediately informed and were activating the emergency support network, calling the police to make sure they arrived on the scene, and staying on the phone to the threatened individuals until they were safe. We later accompanied them to file a complaint at the public prosecutors office, our presence sadly increasing the likelihood of them being seen and listened to. I would come to understand that cases like this were rarely investigated, and the probability of perpetrators being brought to justice slim to none.
I was lucky enough to meet, accompany and be inspired by many incredible people this year. The names I was bombarded with in my first few weeks and the unknown voices on the other end of the telephone were soon familiar faces, people who might drop in at any time of the day for a cup of coffee and a chat. But what I never got used to was the reality they were working in. In fact, the more I knew about them, their struggles and what they were up against, the more incredulous I became.
When I think of resistance, I think of the human rights lawyers trying to put military generals responsible for war crimes behind bars and ensure that the innocent go free, but without a robust and independent justice system to back them up.
I witnessed many trials where the verdict was handed down in favour of the powerful party, despite a striking lack of evidence, after the defendant had spent months, often over a year in detention awaiting the first trial. I heard a range of excuses used for the adjournment of court hearings – the judge is on holiday, has suddenly fallen sick, or perhaps he's hearing another trial. A key witness, or even the public prosecutor doesn't turn up, or maybe the defendant simply hadn't been transferred from the prison that day. We'd accompany the lawyers on a 6 hour journey only to find around half the time that the hearing had been suspended, so we would turn round and come back.
I think of the Mayan women leading the struggle for indigenous land rights in Alta Verapaz, the department with the most unequal land distribution, up against a racist partriarchal elite. Lesbia and Imelda, the two women who lead Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA) in Las Verapaces are targets of constant threats, intimidation, and smear campaigns, questioning their capacity as leaders and shaming them because they are women.
Last year, as a result of their tireless negotiations with government institutions in roundtable meetings, they managed to relocate 81 families from five communities. These communities, many of whom have suffered evictions, now finally have their own lands to live on and cultivate. We accompanied Lesbia and Imelda to the official ceremony in the new community, where land titles were handed over. It was a celebratory day with food and music, but there was an unmistakable sombre feeling, with hundreds of members of other communities represented by CCDA lamenting the fact that for them solutions were far from sight and their future was anything but certain.
I think of the Chorti communities in the east setting up a peaceful resistance camp outside an antimony mine to block access to workers and force the mine to close, literally dodging bullets but steadfastly refusing to move until they had won their battle. We would get phonecalls in the middle of the night to tell us there had been another round of gunfire, that luckily noone had been hurt, but could we call the police and try and persuade them to come, as they weren't responding to the requests of the community members.
I think of the people for whom activism isn't a lifestyle choice, something you opt in and out of depending on interest and competing priorities. For them, it's part and parcel of the injustice they live day to day, resistance is the only way to defend basic rights.
Corruption is at the heart of poverty, injustice and human rights violations in Guatemala. The year I was there the fight against corruption faced severe setbacks as the government sought to consolidate power before the elections of June 2019. Years of hard won civil society achievements were being overturned, threatened by legislation being pushed through Congress granting amnesties for war crimes. We witnessed the dismantling of the UN-backed anti-corruption body, the CICIG, and the overt disregard for the Constitutional Court that allowed for these changes. Twice we thought we were in the midst of a coup and set about making emergency plans. Political analysts still argue that there has been a coup in Guatemala, a slow-motion one that gradually saw the deterioration of democratic institutions.
Up against all these political and structural problems, it's hard not to question the value of the work we do. But just as you're losing sight of this, you hear someone we accompany say that since PBI's been coming to their community, the level of conflict has reduced and they don't experience the threats that they used to, or that because of PBI they know they're not alone and feel motivated to keep fighting.
It's easy to assume when you see things deteriorating that the defense of human rights is having no impact. But what we don't see is what the country would look like if human rights defenders weren't able to do that work. How many more mines and hydroelectric projects would have been installed without consulting communities if companies weren't put off by the fuss made and the lengthy and expensive court-proceedings they become embroiled in? One of the main lessons I'll take away from my year in Guatemala is that success doesn't always have to be visible, and in an environment where the space to dissent is closing in, the very act of resistance is success.
Emily Spence 2019