In a previous blog post Lori talked about some of the history of Santa Maria Tzeja. I am going to tell you about what happened since to create the exciting climate for reform that we are experiencing in Guatemala City this week.
When the refugees of SMT returned from Mexico they found that the government had given their land to new settlers who were supportive of the government. Can you imagine coming home from another place to find that someone else was living in your house and supporting their family on your land? The returning refugees were forced onto land that was farther from the church and selling/shopping area. This land was even more hilly (everything is hilly, this was just way more hilly) and the jungle had not been cleared for farming. The villagers are subsistence farmers. They had to start from the beginning by clearing the jungle. This happened all across Guatemala for years.
While we were in SMT we walked for breakfast (rice, beans and tortillas) in a host family’s home. The walks were sometimes 25 minutes up and down steep hills in each direction. This process was repeated at dinnertime to another host family’s home for more rice, beans and corn tortillas. Did I mention that we ate a lot of rice, beans and tortillas? Each time the family wants to go to church, sell something, buy something, get transportation to a larger town, etc. they walk that 25 minutes and continue to pay the penalty of resettlement.
Several facts resound! There is a long history of corrupt governments taking land from indigenous people in Guatemala. The people had no civil rights. For many years Guatemala was controlled by dictators whose armies terrorized the people.
Eventually some brave people began to speak out; many were killed. People were not allowed to organize or demonstrate for their rights. Even so, a few embers began to glow. In SMT the parents felt very strongly that their children must be educated and go to college. Several of the first college graduates from SMT now play a large role in working for reform in Guatemala. The fire of the people’s quest for justice could not be extinguished….it grew and grew, and in recent years organizations working for justice have sprung up across the country. There is excitement in the air. The people are ready for change and are organizing to make it happen. The Ecumenical Council of Churches is a loud voice proclaiming the people’s right to justice.
Officially Guatemala is a democracy. They do have a constitution and an elected government. They have many political parties who all seem to be campaigning against corruption. Many of these political parties have had representatives elected to Congress. The next election is scheduled for September so there are many campaign signs and trucks driving around with blaring messages calling people to vote for their candidate. At the same time people are making demands that corruption be eliminated. The Ecumenical Council of Churches has a platform of requests.
In advance of elections the political parties in charge skim off huge amounts of government revenues to be used to finance their campaigns. This is money raised through a sales tax. There are numerous loopholes in the tax laws, which allow the wealthy to avoid paying any taxes so the government revenue is really coming from the people living in poverty. Guatemala is known for having one of the worst taxing systems in the world. Their taxing commission (the equivalent of our IRS) has been taking a cut of taxes before giving the rest of the revenues collected to the government for the government budget. Candidates are able to take money from government coffers, from companies, wealthy individuals, and even drug traffic-ers, and they do not have to report where they got the money or how they spent it. The people are demanding transparency and accountability.
Another area of corruption is that the parties in power pass laws to keep some people from voting. They are designed to limit the participation of women and to prevent the indigenous people from voting. The people are demanding a stronger Election Commission who will ensure that no one is denied their vote.
In Guatemala the media is controlled by the parties in power, so minority parties and the indigenous viewpoint are never heard. The people are asking for a free press, which is accessible to everyone.
When our group met with the Ecumenical Council of Churches we heard a very comprehensive and detailed presentation of all the various forms of corruption in Guatemala. I asked the presenter if he knew the total cost of corruption in Guatemala. In that discussion he said that he didn’t know if Guatemala was more corrupt than the US because the Guatemalans are very open about it and name it corruption. It caused me to consider efforts in the US for campaign finance reform, minimum wage laws, and the need for changes in laws that prevent every citizen from exercising their right to vote. These issues are called corruption in Guatemala.
In SMT I saw the people govern themselves using a very democratic (elections of completely new committee leaders every year) system to have justice in their small community. I was amazed. I have never seen a group of people manage themselves so effectively democratically. Each candidate is limited to one year in office and must wait for many years to lead that committee again.
The Guatemalan people are rising up against all these forms of corruption. They are standing up for justice. I pray for their safety and success. I will also be visiting my elected officials to ask the US government speak out for justice for all Guatemalans.