Originally Posted on January 2007
by Jackie McVicar
It’s hard to believe I finished my time as a Human Rights Accompaniment Volunteer almost a month ago, but October has snuck up upon us and already we’re getting ready for Thanksgiving. I came back to Canada on September 12, a bit earlier than expected for a number of personal and practical reasons. After almost nine months in Guatemala, save a few weeks home in the spring, the past few weeks have certainly given me plenty to think about.
I began my in-country orientation and training with the Coordination of International Accompaniment in Guatemala (CAIG, in the Spanish acronym), in Guatemala City on January 15. Later that week, I was asked to accompany based in the capital, on “short term” cases, essentially accompanying human rights defenders in a number of different cases, from labour rights to land and justice, to women survivors of violence and witnesses to a forced disappearance during the time of the violence. I eagerly agreed and became part of a four-person team that traveled throughout the country. Although I arrived expecting to accompany the genocide cases, the “long term” assignment of accompaniment that the CAIG has taken on, which I knew more about, I looked forward to the challenge of the diversity of the short-term cases and getting to know the larger context of the human rights movement in Guatemala.
January was a busy month and without delay, I began working. I first traveled to the eastern province of Chiquimula, where the CAIG had begun accompanying only a few months earlier. The case of, “El Jute,” in Chiquimula became highly publicized because it was one of the few documented cases of forced disappearance in the eastern part of the country, where, in 1981, army commissioners came to the community looking for the victims, seven in total, and took them away, never to be seen again. There are allegations that those disappeared were guerilla-sympathizers or more probable, that a family feud caused the conflict which lead the family with more power, and ties to the army, to take action. Twenty five years later, the families of the disappeared have organized and are fighting to find a justice in a country where impunity runs rampant. This was my first experience in the eastern provinces of Guatemala and it gave me some more insight on the economic and social situation of the region. Like so many Guatemalans, the rural peasants that make up the members of the El Jute Victims Committee are poor, have little access to land, are discriminated against, and are struggling for survival.
Later in January, the CAIG received an emergency call to consider accompanying a case for a union activist and organizer, who had barely survived an assassination attempt the day earlier. The CAIG decided to accompany the case and two accompaniers were immediately sent to a hotel where the victim was staying while he made plans to flee to the United States as a refugee. The ten day pre-departure involved us accompanying him 24-hours a day, taking rotations in order to stay rested and alert, while he had meetings with union solidarity groups from the US, Coca-Cola legal representatives and his family, who had no idea when or if they were going to see their beloved again. This was a well documented case of a Coca-Cola subsidiary that tormented, harassed and eventually tried to kill an employee trying to help organize a number of non-unionized employees. The company stopped at nothing, trying to kidnap his wife and intimidate his small children by sending thugs to tie them up and question them about the activities of their father. Though Coca-Cola’s efforts to destroy this man and his family were incredible, the family’s resistance was what showed the most ingenuity and strength. They faced many challenges, sadness and fear as their father left for the US, a move he did not want to make, but today manage to survive, hoping that one day he will be able to return to Guatemala, without fear. Now in the US, this brave man continues to face uncertainty as he goes through the refugee process and his family.
Soon, January became February and we began accompanying past residents of Finca Nueva Linda and the face of impunity and need for solidarity became painstakingly clear to me. This is a tragic case of abuse of power of large plantation owners on poor, marginalized peasant workers. For me, the people of Nueva Linda represent the fight against oppression and impunity in Guatemala. Though forced off the land where many of the peasants have lived their entire life, they aren’t looking for land to settle the injustice that was done; their resistance and determination to find who killed Hector Reye are the catalysts to their fight against impunity. Nueva Linda is a classic case of corruption, discrimination and control of the rich and powerful minority population over a poor community in resistance. Knowing too much about secret business negotiations, Hector Reyes, a plantation administrator, disappeared under suspicious circumstances early one morning from his home on a plantation near the pacific coast of Guatemala. After his family and the rest of the community were forced off the land because of demanding to know that had happened to him, many live today in palm-leaved shelters outside of the plantation, on public property on the side of the road. International attention was brought to the case when over 100 Nueva Linda sympathizers camped out in the Central Park of Guatemala City for three weeks and Amnesty International reported the struggle on their website. A few European Embassies met with Nueva Linda leaders, as did the President of Guatemala, Oscar Berger who told Beti Reyes, one of Hector Reyes’ daughters, to “go home and end your suffering.” A week later, while they were still camped out in Central Park, Beti gave birth to her third child, a son, who was given his disappeared grandfather’s name. Two days later, she returned “home” on the side of the road, but her suffering has not ended. Today, the family of Hector Reyes (minus his wife who had to flee illegally to the US to get away from constant threats and harassment), struggle on to resolve the case of the forced disappearance of their father. In the eight months of accompaniment, I spent many hours in Nueva Linda, slowly developing a relationship of confidentiality, respect and solidarity. What they asked is that I tell the story of the people there, how the Guatemalan government refuses to investigate the crime and how foreign embassies refuse to hear their story, because it isn’t in their interest to hear of human rights abuses that are happening. They hope that by breaking the silence of impunity, Guatemala authorities will have to act.
International Women’s Day was a central point in March. In light of the fear that many Guatemalan women live in, IWD was not only a day to celebrate, but was also a day to challenge authorities and society to face up to their responsibilities to protect and respect women and their families. In Guatemala, 20% of the total number of murders is against women, yet little is invested, neither financially nor ethically, in prevention. The “femicide” that is happening in Guatemala is one of the few things that is not discriminatory. Women and girls of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, income levels and societal ranks are targeted. One grass-roots organization that we accompanied, Sobrevivientes de la Violencia, Survivors of the Violence, receive constant threats, are persecuted and tormented for being one of the few organizations that support women and their families in cases of violence (they offer legal and mental health support, rehabilitation services, a hospice and transition home, child care and more). Following intense lobbying by Amnesty International supporters and those involved with solidarity networks around the world, the Guatemalan government was forced to show support for women’s support networks and designate funding for programs. Though the government has been less than enthusiastic about the funding, today Sobrevivientes receives a grant to have a larger office space (they ran the support centre from the coordinator’s home before), and money to pay support workers, including lawyers, administrators, therapists and social workers. This case proves that writing to government officials, Urgent Actions and Post-card writing campaigns can have a positive impact and make a difference!
Shortly before coming home for my grandfather’s funeral in April, and shortly after returning from that experience to Guatemala, we accompanied an exhumation and an internment ceremony. Contemplating death in a Canadian and later a Guatemalan context, I thought much about grieving, remembering, honouring and surviving. My grandfather was surrounded by all the people on earth that cared for him the most, from his contemporaries to his children, grand children and great grand children. In Guatemala, the exhumation I accompanied represented a twenty-year effort by a community gravely affected by the Guatemalan civil war. As on-lookers stood by, anthropologists dug the suspected clandestine grave site and found only one of the two bodies they were looking for. This man, whose bones and clothes were identified by his daughter, was killed for suspected guerilla support. He was murdered and secretly buried near a wood lot on the outskirt of the community. At the interment I attended, in a different accompaniment situation, three bodies were laid to rest with Mayan and Christian rituals performed, in a community that resisted the threats of the army and paid the ultimate price. In each case, whether in Canada and Guatemala, grief, remembrance, honour and survival may transpire differently, though each is integral in healing. Survival, or the next step, is even more important in Guatemala, when evidence from exhumations and interment ceremonies can be used to prove that genocide did in fact happen. The realities of a war that officially ended ten years ago are at times overwhelming, and even today people are unaware, and at times unable, to keep on fighting. Exhumations and internments are only part of a larger process for justice if family and community members are able and willing to proceed.
In the final few months of my accompaniment work, mining and natural resources were once again highlighted. A protest following a week-long mining awareness campaign ended at the Canadian Embassy, for the first time. Later, community mining consultations were organized in five municipalities of Huehuetenango, a highland province rich in natural resources. Though it is the responsibility of the government to make plans for the consultations, such coordination has never happened. Over 50000 people participated in the consultations and later the vote, where the overwhelming majority (99%) voted against mining in their communities, yet the Guatemalan Congress, the Canadian Mining Companies and the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala have completely disregarded the process. At the mining protest, I met some people from Panzos, whom we had been accompanying through their process of bringing light to the massacre which happened there on May 29, 1978. Twenty-eight years after the massacre supported by Canadian Nickel Mining Company, INCO, which killed dozens of people, survivors are still protesting the mining that is happening in their communities. In particular, they are angry about the loss of land and water resources, little opportunity for citizens to participate in decision making in their own development and foreign companies who give back only a very small percentage (1%) of their profits after stripping the land of its value. “Canada” to many Guatemalans, is synonymous with mining and is not regarded very highly, despite the Canadian embassy’s efforts to demonstrate that mining is good for them. The face of Canada is changing in Guatemala thanks to large resource extraction companies and I believe we must act now, politically and economically to show we are a country that respects human rights and autonomous indigenous development -- let us be a leader in social, environmental and corporate responsibility, before it’s too late.
My time as a Human Rights Accompanier was a rewarding, challenging and at times, overwhelming experience. Accompaniment responds to a real need for independent international presence in Guatemala, which provides physical presences, political engagement and distribution of information. It is a form of solidarity and a way to support human rights defenders who are struggling to help reconstruct a country broken by war and violence.
If you or your organization, committee or church would like to support a Canadian volunteer to work in Human Rights Accompaniment in Guatemala, please contact Beth Abbott at: ACCATL@web.ca Thank you for your ongoing support, letters of encouragement and financial contributions which make accompaniment possible!