Guatemalan Campesino Organizations Mobilize to Demand Agrarian Reform, Energy Nationalization

On February 10, 2015, thousands of indigenous campesinos from across Guatemala associated with the Committee for Campesino Development (CODECA) took to the streets of Guatemala City in the first large march of the administration of Jimmy Morales. The campesinos were continuing a decade-long struggle to demand that the Guatemalan government nationalize the electrical system.


On February 10, 2015, thousands of indigenous campesinos from across Guatemala associated with the Committee for Campesino Development (CODECA) took to the streets of Guatemala City in the first large march of the administration of Jimmy Morales. The campesinos were continuing a decade-long struggle to demand that the Guatemalan government nationalize the electrical system.

“The cost of electricity has been rising higher and higher every year,” said Francisco, an elderly campesino originally from a small community near Nebaj in Ixil Triangle, who was displaced by the internal armed conflict. “It is difficult to pay the cost every month. We want the price to return to the price that it once was.”

Rural farmers such as Francisco have seen their monthly electric bills rise to roughly .25 cents per kilowatt, which can add up to the equivalent of 25-100 dollars USD a month. Prior electric bills were far more reasonable for campesinos, averaging around 10-25 dollars.

These costs are greatly outside the monthly income of many families in one of the most unequal societies in Central America. Rising costs have hit the communities in Guatemala that struggle with poverty especially hard, especially as, according to Economic Commission for Latin America and Carribbean (CEPAL) levels of poverty have been steadily increasing since 2011, with today nearly 60 percent of the population living in poverty.

The campesino organization concerns expand beyond just the high cost of energy, and reflect the precarious state of Guatemala.

“(Today) we express our profound concern about the entrenched corruption in the state bodies, which have sunk the country into poverty, hunger, and pain,” representatives from CODECA wrote in their declaration ahead of the march. “It is necessary to be alert before this ‘new government’ so that we do not permit the continuation of corruption in the country.”

Other rural farmers from the National Coordination of Campesino Organizations (CNOC), and The Union of Campesina Organizations of the Verapaces (UVOC), as well as workers from the public hospital of San Juan del Dios, joined the campesinos associated with CODECA. The organizations were presenting eight demands for a number of reforms to the new administration, including the nationalization of energy, end to the exploitation of mining and hydro energy, the end of the criminalization of human rights defenders, the administration’s guarantee that companies pay adequate taxes, and that the administration resolve the health crisis by guaranteeing that hospitals had the adequate medicines and supplies.

The protesters had left their homes early in the morning in order to participate in the march, which began early in the morning at several points around Guatemala City. The organizations met in the center and gathered outside the Presidential Palace, National Palace, as well as the congress to demand that the administration comply with their demands.

“We are here to demand that the administration pass an agrarian reform,” said Carmen Mendez, a leader from CODECA from Retalhuleu, who was protesting outside the Presidential Palace. “The transnational companies are sowing rubber, African oil palm, and sugar cane in our communities. These crops don’t bring us jobs. We want the administration pass an agrarian reform that would permit us to stay on our lands to sow rice, beans, and maize, foods that sustain us.”

She adds, “We are also here to demand that the government cease persecuting human rights defenders. Human rights defenders are the only ones that are working to protect the rights of the most vulnerable populations in the country.“

As protesters gathered, leaders from the organizations met with Vice-President Jafeth Cabrera, and other high-ranking officials from the administration within the presidential palace to present the demands to the new administration.

Continuing Calls for Nationalization of Energy

The organization has led the movement for the nationalization of energy since 2008. That year, CODECA held a series of assemblies across the country to discuss the problems facing communities, and among the problems discussed was the high cost of energy.

“The community advocates expressed that one of the serious problems affecting communities are the abuse and ill-services company” said Leiria Vey, one of the leaders of CODECA. “Then CODECA asked the management of (ENERGUATE) to deal with complaints and review mechanisms of service to communities but there was no response to these requests. The organziation also asked Congress and the executive to review the agreement concession with the company, but there was also no response.”

The campesino organization launched their demands to nationalize energy following the failures of the state and of the company to respond to their concerns.

The rise in the cost of energy followed the privatization of the Guatemalan energy distribution company, ENERGUATE, as well as the production of energy in 1997. The privatization came about following the signing of the Peace Accords, which brought an end to 36-years of internal armed conflict, but also ushered in the neoliberal consensus, and led to a structural adjustment program that privatized key public sectors such as energy.

In 1997, the Spanish firm Unión Fenosa purchased the Guatemalan energy distribution company. In 2011, British firm Actis, a private equity firm, following the collapse of Unión Fenosa acquired the company. And in 2015, the energy distribution company was sold to an Israeli firm called IC Power, which is a subsidiary of Kenon Holdings ltd.

The privatization of energy has been coupled with the Inter-American Development Bank’s calls for the regional integration plans such as Plan Mesoamerica, which both have labeled Guatemala as the energy producer for the region. These plans have resulted in the Guatemalan government declaring that the country would double energy production by 2025.

Contrary to the promises and hopes of the United States government and the Inter-American Development Bank that the increase in energy production will lead to decreased prices, the increase in energy production will only benefit the companies involved in the production and distribution. Furthermore, the expansion will only lead to further forced evictions of indigenous communities across the country.

Currently there are nearly 230 permits for the construction of hydroelectric projects in the country. Each one has been met by the mobilization of communities in defense of territory and land.

Political Prisoners for the Struggle for Energy

The organizations’ position on the nationalization of energy led the previous administration of Otto Pérez Molina to declare the organization a “social cancer that can expand and affect the economic interests of the country.” Following the former president’s declaration, the leadership of CODECA faced crimial charges for their struggle for the nationalizaiton of energy.

On March 15, three leaders of CODECA went before a judge in the department of Huehuetenango on charges the theft of electic energy, carrying out criminal activity against the national security, and “attempted scam.”The leaders, Mauro Bay Gonon, Blanca Julia Ajtúm and Mariano Garcia, had been arrested in June 2014 in Huehuetenango, and eventually released to house arrest.

The judge acquitted the leaders of the charges of carrying out criminal activity against the national security due to the fact the the Guatemalan Procecutors Office failed to show that they had committed the crime. The leaders were sentenced for the other charge, but any jail time was suspended if the leaders avoided any other charges or arrests in the next four years.

“There you can see a clear manipulation by the judge,” said CODECA leader Leiria Vey. “Because there is no crime in the ‘special case of attempted fraud’ – this was something determined during the trial, and could not be verified as a recognized crime.”

But despite this case, members of CODECA have maintained that they will continue with the struggle for the nationalization of energy.

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, and the North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo