By Dánae Vilchez / OpenDemocracy
Guatemala’s upcoming general election on 25 June is a transformative moment for the country as Indigenous women activists seek to break into the political arena, in an attempt to promote women’s rights, environmental policies and other progressive measures that aim to help poverty-stricken Indigenous and rural communities.
These candidates are also trying to preserve the country’s fragile democracy, following recent setbacks under the leadership of right-wing president Alejandro Giammattei, who has been in office since 2020.
After the last elections in 2019, the representation of Indigenous deputies in the Congress of the Republic was less than 10%, despite the Indigenous population accounting for 44% of the population, according to the latest census in 2018.
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In Guatemala, Indigenous peoples, who are predominantly Mayan, have always suffered discrimination, including during the long-running civil war (1970-96), when they were targeted by the state’s military forces. Today, 21.8% of the Indigenous population are affected by extreme poverty (compared to 7.4% of the non-Indigenous population). Indigenous women in particular face significant obstacles in accessing education and healthcare.
Telma Suchí, 56, a social worker from the Maya Kʼicheʼ people, is running for a council seat in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city, home to more than 200,000 people.
A survivor of obstetric violence, Suchí has spent the past two decades advocating for sexual and reproductive rights and fighting for better healthcare for women and girls and the recognition of Indigenous midwives. She made the life-altering decision to embrace a political career after becoming increasingly frustrated by the corruption of Guatemala’s traditional political parties.
“What the traditional parties have done is to enrich themselves or to steal from the municipal coffers,” she told openDemocracy. She believes that by holding a position in local government, she can support her community and also oversee the mayor’s office, which is plagued by allegations of corruption and nepotism.
Suchí is a candidate for the Movement for the People’s Liberation (MLP), a party founded in 2016 by Indigenous Mayan, Xinca and Garifuna and peasants. The MLP seeks to tackle government corruption and Guatemala’s lack of access to healthcare. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) ranks Guatemala as the country with the lowest investment in social affairs.
Suchí recalls witnessing the stark disparity between the resources available and the assistance provided to people in need. “I saw it in hospitals, in schools. They were giving people scraps when there were much more resources to give them,” she said.
Presidential candidate blocked
Guatemala has more women than men, according to the 2018 census, more women registered on the electoral roll, and more women affiliated with political parties. But men are more likely to be in leadership positions in politics. Of the 30 political parties participating in the 2023 election, only four boast a female head.
This gender imbalance at the top is reflected in the absence of issues that disproportionately affect women, such as abortion (severely restricted in Guatemala) and the gender-based violence that pervades society: between 2008 and 2022 there were 10,600 reported femicides in the country.
Among the 22 presidential candidates in this month’s election, 18 have pledged support for the ‘Life and Family’ declaration, an initiative by the ultra-conservative Guatemalan group Family Matters (AFI) to uphold traditional family values, oppose abortion rights and equal marriage, and to appoint like-minded individuals to executive positions. Signatories include the two leading women candidates.
Indigenous women – some new to politics, some more experienced – are running at both local and national levels in efforts to shake up Guatemala’s political landscape. But they suffered a setback in February, when the electoral authorities blocked the MLP’s presidential candidate Thelma Cabrera, citing pending legal cases against her vice-presidential running mate, former Guatemalan ombudsman Jordán Rodas. The accusation against Rodas has not been disclosed, with the Prosecutor’s Office seeking to have the investigation be declared confidential.
Cabrera, 52, a prominent human rights defender from the Maya Mam ethnic group, came fourth in the last presidential election in 2019. She is an outspoken critic of the current political landscape. “Guatemala is a dictatorship because the [status quo] excludes the Indigenous peoples,” she said.
Cabrera’s personal history is deeply intertwined with the struggle for justice. As a young woman, she worked in coffee plantations in western Guatemala, where low wages, gruelling hours and rampant mistreatment of workers fuelled her discontent, propelling her towards activism.
After marrying and assuming the role of a housewife, Cabrera found herself drawn to the Committee for Campesino Development (CODECA), a nationwide lands rights organisation focused on Indigenous communities and the rural poor with more than 200,000 members.
This organisation, which has been running for more than two decades, became a platform for her to protect the forests and Indigenous communities within her locality.
Cabrera told openDemocracy the accusations against Rodas are false and the move is a tactic to prevent Indigenous leaders from gaining power in Guatemala. “We are talking about structural changes, about founding a plurinational state. We are talking about drafting a political constitution in which our people are represented, so they are afraid of that,” she said.
Cabrera refused to pick an alternative running mate, as she said doing so would have betrayed the mandate bestowed upon her and Rodas by the party’s assembly, an expression of the people’s collective will.
“While a misogynistic and fascist state attempts to hinder our candidacy, it does not deter me. [Other] women are stepping up as congressional candidates and in local elections, ensuring the voice of the people resonates,” Cabrera said.
Perseverance and power
Leslie Sunun, more often known as Tz’ules Sunun, is running to represent the Sacatepéquez department in Central Guatemala in Congress.
A Ladina woman with a strong connection to her Indigenous roots, Sunun is an Aj’qi’j (a Mayan spiritual guide) and a fervent environmentalist. She invested years in community projects to rescue animals and also ran a community kitchen providing food to those who lost their livelihoods during the pandemic.
But it was her involvement in a citizen-led movement against the building of a massive religious school by the evangelical megachurch Casa de Dios that brought her to political activism. The school threatened the tranquillity of San Juan del Obispo, a small town near the historic city of Antigua, in an area already burdened by water and transport shortages.
“The proposed school symbolised a concrete monstrosity distorting the sacred essence of this valley. I launched an online petition to get 10,000 signatures, to rally support. Through perseverance, we achieved our goal, effectively halting the construction,” she said. The government is yet to approve or refuse the construction plans.
“That experience made me realise the power I possessed,” Sunun added.
The MLP then approached her and asked her to run as a candidate for Congress. Sunun is using her newfound platform to fight against policies that jeopardise the environment, sexual and reproductive rights and the Mayan cosmovision.
“Walking around Guatemala, you realise the aftermath of 36 years of war,” she explained. “We have to work on mental health, sexual education, protecting the environment – we need to promote laws that protect us.”
MLP’s candidates offer a unique blend of experience, including women with a strong background in politically driven movements. Leading the party’s electoral list for Congress is Blanca Ajtun, a Mayan woman and renowned human rights activist. She served as vice-president of CODECA, a position that exposed her to threats and imprisonment – activists for the organisation have long faced repression, intimidation and worse.
A significant event in 2014 exemplifies the challenges faced by Ajtun and her comrades. She and two other CODECA members, Mauro Vay and Mariano García, were kidnapped by agents of the national energy company, Energuate, on 26 June. They were released by the police but then detained and held in custody for 96 days, for no reason and without a court warrant.
But Ajtun remains resolute in confronting energy companies, powerful landowners, and political elites. “If development only serves the interests of the powerful, transferring our wealth to multinational corporations, then it is the people who must reclaim what is rightfully ours,” she said.
Democracy under threat
Since the end of the civil war in 1996, Guatemala has made modest strides towards democracy, but that progress is now under attack.
The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body established by the government in 2007, provided a glimmer of hope.
For more than a decade, the CIGIG held numerous high-ranking government officials accountable, including ex-president Otto Perez Molina (who was finally imprisoned for corruption in December 2022), two other former presidents, a Supreme Court magistrate, and several ministers and members of Congress. It also led to the removal of corrupt judges and the indictment of powerful drug traffickers.
But in 2018 then-president Jimmy Morales decided not to renew the CICIG’s mandate, claiming it was unconstitutional and threatened national security. His move, which effectively put an end to any progress in the administration of justice. aimed to shield the country’s elites, including himself, who were under investigation and facing prosecution for electoral crimes.
Following in Morales’ footsteps, Guatemala’s current president, Giammattei, has further eroded the rule of law. This was apparent in the banning of Cabrera’s candidacy last February, at least two other presidential candidates have also been banned, including frontrunner Carlos Pineda, the candidate for the centre-right Citizens Prosperity Party, who was leading the polls. On 26 May, he was banned from running after being accused of failing to comply with requirements of the Electoral and Political Parties Law.
Now, former first lady Sandra Torres is most likely to make it to the second round run-off. Torres is on the centre-left but has recently become more conservative, choosing as her running mate evangelical pastor Romeo Guerra, seemingly in efforts to appeal to conservative groups and economic elites.
Next behind Torres in the polls, are ex-UN chief of staff Edmund Mulet and Zury Ríos, the daughter of Guatemala’s former dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide against Indigenous people in 2013. Mulet and Ríos are in close competition, with polls suggesting they have similar levels of popularity. The Guatemalan constitution does not allow Giammattei to run for re-election as president – and his successor, Manuel Conde, is languishing in fifth place in the polls.
Cabrera and her comrades say these are the candidates of the country’s economic and political elites, who seek to perpetuate a model that excludes Indigenous groups, promotes extractive economies and is in bed with organised crime.
“The little democracy we had – well, it’s over. This is a dictatorship,” Cabrera said. “In this election, the ‘peoples’ don’t have anyone to vote for, so we are calling to submit an invalid ballot on the presidential line-up”.
Dánae Vílchez is a Nicaraguan journalist based in Guatemala. She became openDemocracy’s Mesoamerica correspondent in March 2022, after a stint as a fellow in 2021. She is also Central America correspondent with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and has an Erasmus Mundus master’s degree in journalism, media and globalisation, with a specialisation in politics. She was previously a fellow with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Pikara Magazine, eldiario.es, Confidencial and AJ+, among others.