On November 26, members of Guatemalan Maya, Mestizo, Garifuna and Xinca communities met to make a historic decision to ally with the Convergence for a Democratic Revolution party to run senatorial candidates in the the 2015 presidential election. This meeting was a grassroots and participatory assembly aiming at consolidating a platform for the participation of indigenous peoples.
Iximché is a Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican archaeological site in the western highlands, approximately one hundred kilometers from Guatemala City. I arrived there on a cold and windy morning, together with thousands of other people from different remote areas in the western regions of the country. They had all come to participate in a consultative assembly, gathering four ethnic groups coexisting in Guatemala: Maya, Mestizo, Garifuna and Xinca, to make a historic decision to run senatorial candidates in the fall 2015 presidential election.
Lolita Chávez, a Mayan Quiché community leader, stood on one of the pyramid-temple ruins in front of the participants, and declared: “We are making a unanimous decision to participate politically, so the indigenous peoples can get into power.”
The Consultative Assembly, organized by a convergence between the Mayan People’s Council (CPO) and the political party Convergence for a Democratic Revolution (CRD) constituted by former left-wing party New Nation Alternative (ANN), was a grassroots and participatory assembly aiming at consolidating a platform for the participation of indigenous peoples and their proper authorities in the elections next year.
This assembly was the culmination of a long process of popular referendums that initiated in 2005 and has led to 74 subsequent referendums, in which nearly two million indigenous people throughout the country have participated and have “created a mass movement asking for change,” according to Udiel Miranda. Miranda, a lawyer for the CPO, identifies as a member of the Mayan Mam ethnicity. The Mam community is one of 23 Mayan ethnic groups in the country, and is also and the biggest of those Mayan groups, consisting of approximately 2 million people.
Miranda says that the community referendums, held in accordance with international conventions and organized by community members together with local authorities, have demonstrated indigenous people’s right to self-determination within their territories. The referendums have often been organized as a result of social conflicts resulting from mining and hydroelectric mega projects – or the threat of such projects – imposed by transnational corporations on Mayan territories.
“It is the first time in the history of Guatemala that Mayan authorities and community leaders have met with popular social sectors organizing the Mestizo population in a joint political proposal originating from the Mayan people,” says Pablo Monsanto, one of the most experienced left leaders in the country and Secretary General of the political left party New Nation Alternative (ANN) in Guatemala. ANN is now transforming into the Convergence for a Democratic Revolution as part of the new alliance with the Mayan people’s representatives.
While other political projects initiated by political parties and outside organizations have sought to involve Mayan communities in political projects, some consider this Convergence to be the first time that Mayan people in Guatemala have initiated and participated in the creation of their own political proposal, creating democratic and participatory processes by holding referendums and assemblies within communities.
Eliu Orozco, who is also of the Maya Mam community and a spokesperson for the CPO, says “There have been alliances between left parties and movements before, but this time it is the already existing Mayan community authorities that are speaking through a political party, which will serve as ‘vehicle’ to climb the stairs to political power. In this way, we put an end to an era in which the political parties have used us as stairs in order to get to power.”
The intense environmental destruction of extractivist projects in Latin America have disproportionately affected indigenous communities, who suffer from displacement and the polluted water and food sources caused by mining and other projects. “It is urgent that the people get control over the natural assets that our country offers, because the wealth must be redistributed to benefit all, and not only a small group of people, underlines Udiel Miranda.
The CPO-CRD Convergence will aim to gain seats in congress by running their own community leaders from the different ethnic groups as candidates. The strategy is to try to get into congress in order to promote the political agenda of the indigenous peoples of the country.
“There is great need to stop legislation that is being approved in favor of a small and very strong economic group within the country and promote legislation in favor of the majority indigenous population,” says Udiel Miranda.
In front of the crowd at Iximché, Lolita Chávez shouted: “We want to create a plurinational state in which the indigenous people are fully recognized and exert self-determination in their territories!” The crowd burst into spontaneous cheers.
The choice of Iximché as a location for the encounter is of historical and symbolic importance. Around 1500 AD, this ancient city was the capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan kingdom. In 2007, it also saw a visit from United States President George Bush, as well as a Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala, a term from the language of indigenous Kuna peoples, located in present day Panama, for the continents of North and South America.
Valezca Reyes came to the Convergence from Izabal, in eastern Guatemala, and has decided to join the campaign. She identifies as a member of the Garifuna community, whose members are descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib and Arawak peoples. Garifuna communities are located on the Caribbean Coast and have historically been excluded from political participation. They have suffered discrimination on all levels of society and, in most cases, lack access to arable land.
“As the Garifuna community,” Reyes says, “We’ve seen that we are invisible in our country and our political participation has been minimal so far. It is time for us as Garifuna to see our interests represented on a political level. Traditionally the political parties in our country force people to vote for them. This time is really the first time I have heard that our voice as community is being raised. It has been preceded by a long struggle on community level, and we Garifuna should join Mayan and social movements to continue this struggle to change the system,” says Reyes.
Considering the alarming situation in the country, where curently large groups of children and small farmer families, the majority indigenous people, are suffering famine and lack access to basic welfare services due to discrimination, there is a great need for strong political action.
Pablo Monsanto sees this political project as “the beginning of a new historical path in the spirit of the revolutionary movements of Latin America.” Only the future will tell if he is right.
As I left Iximché, the participants were scattered in the grass eating their lunch before boarding the local colorful buses that would take them home. For many, this journey would take until sunset.
Christin Sandberg is a Swedish journalist based in Guatemala. Christin follows human rights-, indigenous and feminist grassroots movements and is interested in many forms of expression, such as art, politics and social movements, that can induce social change in society. Christin believes in diversity, equity and justice. You can see more of Christin’s work at christinsandberg.wordpress.com