Guatemala’s “Huelga” Protests Draw Attention to Corruption Among Elites

A weathered truck driver dozes amid a sea of traffic, one of countless others left stagnant across roads nationwide. His cargo a mere cog in the machine of the economy now halted by a network of roadblocks organized by protesters demanding transparency and justice.

The disruptions of November 7, 2017, are known as “huelgas,” a form of social protest whereby participants strike on motorways, drawing attention to political and social issues.

It is now summer, and thousands of Guatemalans are continuing their endeavor in what has become a routine display of political dissidence. Protesters gathered at Guatemala City’s historic center to make their demands: the resignation of President Jimmy Morales and justice for the murders of dozens of human rights defenders.

The International Commission against Impunity has been investigating Morales for corruption on allegations of illicit campaign financing for his victorious 2015 election campaign. Chief Prosecutor Thelma Adana in April 2018 stated that there is sufficient evidence to again seek to have Morales’s immunity stripped, after a failed attempt by Commission head Iván Velásquez Gómez.

Morales’s 2015 election scandal has struck a raw nerve among Guatemalans, mirroring his predecessor Otto Peréz Molina’s multimillion-dollar fraud case, which was also exposed by the Commission, resulting in widespread demonstrations and Molina’s resignation and prosecution.

The political climate in the country has only further intensified following Morales’s attempted removal and deportation of the Commission’s Gómez last August. The Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned Morales’s ruling, however, and the president continues to evade the Commission’s intensifying pressure. Protesters in the region have mobilized amid rising social tension, demanding that Morales and 158 allegedly corrupt members of Congress step down.

According to Forbes, the Commission is an “international benchmark in the fight against corruption and impunity.” The Commission is held in high regard among Guatemalans, who gave it 70.1 out of 100 confidence points according to studies by the Latin American Public Opinion Project. The Project’s findings concluded that the Commission obtained a higher level of confidence rating than any other institution in 2017.

Moreover, the Guatemalan government’s desire to appease the US and Israel in their own pursuit of interventionist diplomacies has prevented it from addressing domestic social issues affecting Guatemalan people.

Morales, for instance, followed the US’s lead in December 2017 by announcing the relocation of Guatemala’s Israel embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, drawing masses out to the streets in protest. Though Morales was elected on his supposedly moral rhetoric, his actions reflect an interest in improving US relations and attempting to dismantle anti-corruption entities.

Additionally, speculation surrounded the funding of a private flight that Morales and other government officials took to the celebration of their embassy move in Jerusalem. It was later revealed that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson provided the flight, raising questions about the intervention of US elites in Guatemala’s alluring support for Israel.

These foreign relations, coupled with Morales’s corruption allegations and other longstanding domestic issues, have created a tense sociopolitical climate among Guatemalans.

A Disrupted Journey Through Guatemala

I was swept into the November huelgas by chance while travelling from Chiapas, Mexico, to meet friends in Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán. Chiapas is famous for its own unique rebellion, where the Indigenous Mayan revolutionary “Zapatistas” continue to fight to this day for land rights.

I crossed from Chiapas into a region of Guatemala where the Comité de Desarrollo Campesino, or Peasant Development Committee (CODECA), originated. CODECA is a human rights organization established by Indigenous communities in 1992, committed to “improving the situation of the rural poor in Guatemala,” and the organization behind many of the November and June protests.

As I hesitantly boarded a small van departing from the Tecún Umán terminal in the Ayutla municipality, one elderly woman took a curious pleasure in grinning at me, the only foreign passenger, for the entire commute. Twenty-eight adults and an infant all squeezed economically together in the van, travelling for 10 minutes before encountering our first huelga.

What first struck me was the mechanical regularity at huelga checkpoints. Commuters were obviously hindered by the disruptions, yet showed no signs of discontent or frustration, reflecting an unspoken, shared support of the protests. Pedestrians were guided through like clockwork, their cooperation exchanged for passage. It was a disjointed yet fascinating movement to experience firsthand.

Protected by tire spikes and armed with a banner, this first group of activists made up one of the smaller demonstrations, but each checkpoint was subject to various semi-formal limitations. We exited the van just short of the huelga and walked in our cluster through the crowd before being quickly ushered under the protesters’ banner to the other side. We waded through the gathering to where crowds thinned enough to reveal a line of buses and boarded efficiently. In no time, we were again traveling across the Guatemalan countryside.

French human rights group Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme, or Acting Together for Human Rights, attributed the widespread support among Guatemalans for CODECA’s efforts to the continued discrimination and repression of poor populations, stating, “CODECA is particularly committed to the defence of the right of rural workers … more specifically women and children, to fight against their ‘invisible’ work which has grave consequences such as no schooling, illiteracy … [and] lack of autonomy of women.”

Private electricity distributor Energuate, sold by English private equity firm Actis Capital to Israeli firm Kenon Holdings, is another responsible party in this repression. In recent years, members of CODECA have been detained and killed throughout their struggle for rights, including beatings and the arrest of CODECA president during protests in 2014 against Energuate.

These activists were killed for demanding the nationalization of electrical distribution, a move that would return their electricity payments to the state and not a foreign corporation. Thousands participated following a power outage affecting 328,000 in April 2014, where protesters claimed Energuate deliberately caused the outage.

In late August of the same year, there was an immense backlash from the Indigenous population following the congressional approval of the “Monsanto Law,” introduced by the US through trade agreements that privatized seeds. Education programs explaining the detriment of the law were established in Sololá, a major agricultural city with one of the country’s largest Indigenous populations. Two days later, 25,000-30,000 protesters shut down the Inter-American highway with successful huelgas that saw Congress repeal the law.

During more recent protests this June, activists demanded justice for seven of their leaders who were murdered in prior weeks for defending their rights to land and natural resources.

Further, CODECA’s blockades angered Guatemalan trade institutions for the “economic losses generated,” according to Latin American News Agency Prensa LatinaBy halting commercial trade routes, the organization created a fiscal impediment for other private companies operating in the region.

Like the Zapatista revolutionaries from Chiapas, CODECA is a remarkable movement in its grassroots tactics. Their struggle is another page in a long narrative of revolutionaries who preceded it, written by the likes of Simón Bolívar, Emiliano Zapata and Che Guevara. CODECA continues those leaders’ contributions to social resistance that still define much of Latin America’s politics.  

Beyond Coatepeque, I ventured deeper into the Retalhuleu Department where another, larger huelga and its turnout reflected stronger community sentiment. The atmosphere here was unforgettable, with buzzing vehicles and vibrant crowds of participants. Arm-in-arm, a young couple weaved blithely through the still traffic to the passionate cries of organizers bellowing through megaphones while microcapitalists maximized the moment to sell products. To the oblivious couple, the huelga provided a spontaneous moment to bask in each other’s company amid the thriving political atmosphere.

By now I had a working knowledge of the dynamics of these demonstrations, though what impressed me most was their sheer effectiveness. The protests were temporary clots in the veins of the country’s feeble infrastructure: You could almost feel the industrial transport line grinding to a halt like inert blood, malignant to the body of the Guatemalan economy. Drivers swaying in hammocks tied from their truck axels exemplified the stagnant commodities clinging to checkpoints dotted all over this region of Guatemala.

The communities living where I travelled are no strangers to social action, seemingly habituated to these kinds of blockades, and prepared with their own pragmatic responses. For instance, as I ventured deeper inland where larger municipalities housed bustling communities, huelgas resembled active hubs of local economic potential.

These hubs were a testament to how effective the huelgas were in hindering macro-level economic activity as local markets and street vendors blossomed. The huelgas seemed to highlight the country’s contrasting economic interests: The protests served the interests of the working class while bringing attention to elite corruption.

Still, government backlash is evident in a bill designed to restrict freedoms of the press and of expression, potentially prohibiting blockades of this kind. The bill was authored by Congressional Commission member Hernandez Azmitia, who has labeled huelga participants as “terrorists” setting out to “cause damage to private initiatives.” Dorian Taracena is among the lawmakers who opposed the bill, seeing its language as broad enough that it “could be used to interpret protests and strikes as criminal acts.”

The final leg of my journey was a peaceful boat ride across the breathtaking volcanic Lake Atitlán nestled among steep mountains. As my dawn-to-dusk journey was nearing completion, I felt invigorated by the perseverance of the Guatemalan people and their network of organized disruptions that both fulfilled their political purpose and accommodated the needs of locals. As a student of political science, I was beyond intrigued: I was inspired by the collective action.

My tumultuous journey through rural Guatemala became an invaluable insight into the country’s domestic politics. I quickly learned that Guatemalans were a people on the move, and gained an appreciation of their struggles, an inspiring story unfolding in real time.