Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Human Rights Accompaniment: Caitlin Power Hancey

Hi everyone,

I'm in my last week of human rights accompaniment work here in Guatemala, and it is going FAST… Since the last update I’ve been working mostly with the corto plazo or "short-term" accompaniment team, based in Guatemala City. I was also lucky enough to return to Ixcán, my original region in the north, for one week in August. Things have been busy. We've been short accompaniers for the last month or two which has meant a lot of running around, switch-hitting, and serious opportunities to keep learning about the diversity (and commonalities) accross various Guatemalan struggles for social, political, and legal justice.

[Check out http://www.breaking-the-silence.ca/ (English) for more info about human rights accompaniment in Guatemala and the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network. For past or future human rights accompaniment reports see http://breakingthesilencenet.blogspot.com/ (English)]

The corto plazo team responds to punctual accompaniment needs in the capital and various regions of the country, and accompaniers travel as needed. This usually means short visits with human rights defenders, lasting anywhere from a few hours to several days. Sometimes the accompaniment is a one-off deal for meetings, public events, or court appearances, and others take the form of regular visits—anywhere from weekly to every few months. In the last 6 weeks I've accompanied 9 different organizations in six regions of the country, with three different accompaniment partners. To say the least, the pace of the work varies...

3 corto plazo cases: Panzós, El Jute, and SITRAPETEN

  • During a 3-day outing this week to remote villages near Panzós, Alta Verapaz, my partner Kim and I spent an average of 8.5 hours a day in the cab of a Toyota pick-up through some of the most beautifully wacky mountains I've seen yet. We accompanied community mental health workers with ECAP http://www.ecapguatemala.org/, an organization that offers support to individuals and communities who survived numerous human rights violations during the armed conflict. In one village, they were meeting with community leaders and families to prepare for upcoming exhumations of 25-year-old mass graves located in old encampments deep in the mountains, where community members escaped when the national army invaded their village in the early 1980s. In another village where exhumations had already taken place there were preparations for inhumation (or reburial) ceremonies.
  • Last weekend over a 3-day visit to the eastern department of Chiquimula, we hiked a couple of hours a day through mountain footpaths between household visits, and, because it was harvest time, ate ridiculous amounts of fresh boiled and fire-toasted elotes (corn on the cob) and tamalitos de elote (sweet mushy corn cakes steamed in the husks). We visited members of a small committee of campesinos in the village of El Jute who are carrying forward the first legal case in Guatemala prosecuting a military officer (a colonel)—along with three local former military commissioners—for the forced disappearance of 7of their family members in 1981. See http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1386/1/ (English), an article by a former accompanier, for more info.
  • I've attached an urgent action (in English and Spanish) for a case we accompany in Guatemala City . SITRAPETEN is a recently organized labour union of workers at Salvavidas, the largest purified water distributor in Guatemala. Union members have been recently identified as the most persecuted category of human rights defenders in Guatemala. SITRAPETEN members with close to 15 years of experience in the company have been fired for organizing and have suffered violent reactions and intimidations from the company's private security force and other unknown attackers. This week, they were threatened by armed men in front of the national palace, where there are camping out in order to pressure the government to respond to their situation. Please consider writing to Guatemalan officials to encourage the protection of SITRAPETEN members’ nationally and internationally sanctioned rights to free association—a sample letter and more info are attached.

Regional Update:

  • The Xalálá dam project I mentioned in my last letter has been delayed (again!). The closing of the international bidding process has been postponed until November, and the project start date has been delayed for 2 years, until 2015. In part, this is because the multinational companies involved in the bidding have expressed concerns to the Guatemalan government about who will be responsible for consulting with local communities. The affected communities see this delay as positive—according to the folks we accompany there, it gives them more time to organize and gather and share information. It also means they’ve made it known nationally and internationally--at least at some level--that there will be many “affected communities”, despite the government’s previous assertions to the contrary, and that these communities require consultation. See http://www.prensalibre.com/pl/2008/agosto/22/258762.html (Spanish) for the most recent Guatemalan news article announcing the delay.

It’s been a true privilege and an inspiring, brain-and-heart-stretching experience to participate in this work in Guatemala . I hope to do more of it. I also hope you’re all well, and I look forward to seeing many of you in the next few months. Until then, un abrazo, y cuidense mucho.


P.S. To those of you who've been asking--my health is fine, thanks! I recovered quickly from the dengue, etc., and have had no problems since except for sneezing and coughing at the city smog. No worse than an August visit to Toronto .

More info:

-http://acoguate.blogspot.com/ (Spanish website for the Coordination for International Accompaniment in Guatemala )

-http://www.justicianuevalinda.org/ (Spanish, English and French)

-http://www.mimundo.org/ (Photo essays in English and Spanish)

-http://www.caldh.org/ (Center for Legal Action on Human Rights--in Spanish--with information about national and international genocide trials)

-http://www.albedrio.org/htm/otrosdocs/comunicados/diversasorganizaciones-072.htm (In Spanish—Declaration by Communities and Social Organizations in Ixcán on the International Day for Indigenous Peoples in Defense of the Earth and our Natural Resources--related to the Xalálá dam project)