By Edgardo Ayala
SANTA CATARINA PALOPÓ, Guatemala, Mar 4 2023 (IPS)
Centuries of racism and exclusion suffered by indigenous peoples in Guatemala continue to weigh heavily, as demonstrated by the denial of the registration of a political party that is promoting the presidential candidacy of indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera in the upcoming general elections.
On Mar. 2, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled against Cabrera’s party, the leftist Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP), which had appealed a Feb. 15 Supreme Court resolution that left them out of the Jun. 25 elections.“There is a racist system and structure, and we indigenous people have barely managed to start climbing the steps, but with great difficulty and zero opportunities.” — Silvia Menchú
Cabrera’s candidacy and that of her vice-presidential running-mate Jordán Rodas are now hanging by a thread, with their hopes depending on a few last resort legal challenges.
The deadline for the registration of candidates is Mar. 25.
A centuries-old racist system
Guatemala’s political and economic elites “are looking for ways to keep her (Cabrera) from registering; everyone has the right to participate, but they are blocking her,” Sonia Nimacachi, 31, a native of Santa Catarina Palopó, told IPS. The municipality, which has a Cachiquel Mayan indigenous majority, is in the southwestern Guatemalan department of Sololá.
“We would like a person with our roots and culture to become president, I think it would help our people,” added Nimacachi, standing by her street stall in the center of town.
Nimacachi, a Cachiquel Mayan woman, sells “granizadas” or snow cones: crushed ice sweetened with syrup of various flavors, perfect for hot days.
“There is a racist system and structure, and we indigenous people have barely managed to start climbing the steps, but with great difficulty and zero opportunities,” Silvia Menchú, director of the K’ak’a Na’oj (New Knowledge, in Cachiquel) Association for the Development of Women, told IPS.
The organization, based in Santa Catarina Palopó, carries out human rights programs focused on indigenous women.
“Racism has prevailed, we are mistreated everywhere by the government and the authorities, we are seen as people with little capacity,” said Menchú, of the Maya Quiché ethnic group.
An alleged illegality attributed to Rodas, the vice-presidential candidate, was the cause for denying the MLP the right to register for the elections.
Analysts and social organizations perceive obscure maneuvering on the part of the powers-that-be, who cannot accept the idea that an indigenous woman is trying to break through the barriers of the country’s rigid, racist political system.
Cabrera is a 51-year-old Mayan Mam woman who is trying for a second time to run in the unequal fight for the presidency of this Central American country of 14.9 million inhabitants.
Of the total population, 43.7 percent identify as indigenous Mayan, Xinca, Garífuna and Afro-descendant peoples, according to the 2018 census.
In the 2019 elections Cabrera came in fourth place, winning 10 percent of the total votes cast.
In the Jun. 25 general elections voters will choose a new president for the period 2024-2028, as well as 160 members of Congress and 20 members of the Central American Parliament, and 340 mayors.
In Guatemala, the ancient Mayan culture was flourishing when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century.
The descendants of that pre-Hispanic civilization still speak 24 different autochthonous languages, most of which are Mayan.
Years of exclusion and neglect of indigenous rural populations led Guatemala to a civil war that lasted 36 years (1960-1996) and left some 250,000 dead or disappeared.
A blatant maneuver
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) rejection of the MLP arose from a complaint against Rodas, who served between 2017 and 2022 as head of the Office for the Defense of Human Rights.
In that office, Rodas strongly questioned alleged acts of corruption by the current government of Alejandro Giammattei, who took office in January 2020.
The criminal complaint against the vice-presidential candidate was filed on Jan. 6 by the current head of the Office for the Defense of Human Rights, Alejandro Córdoba.
After Cabrera and Rodas attempted to register as candidates, Córdoba said he had “doubts” about some payments allegedly received by his predecessor in the Office for the Defense of Human Rights.
His “doubts” apparently had to do with some alleged illegality on the part of Rodas, but since Córdoba has not described it in detail, his statements have been nothing but a weak half-hearted accusation.
However, that was enough for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to reject the MLP on Feb. 2, which triggered protests by rural and indigenous people, who blocked roads in at least 12 parts of the country.
According to Guatemalan law, all candidates for popularly elected positions must have a document that attests that they have no pending legal issues.
But analysts have pointed out that this document should only take into account actual legal rulings handed down by courts, and not “doubts” vaguely expressed by some government official.
By vetoing Rodas, the TSE automatically bars his presidential runningmate Cabrera, who may actually be the ultimate target of the maneuver, since she is the one who is trying, once again, to win the votes of the indigenous population.
On Feb. 15, the MLP runningmates filed a provisional injunction with the Supreme Court, so that it would take effect immediately and overrule the TSE’s decision, while the Supreme Court studied and resolved the matter in depth.
But the injunction was rejected, so the MLP appealed the next day to the Constitutional Court, asking it to review the case and order the Supreme Court to admit the provisional injunction, to allow the fight for the registration of Cabrera and Rodas to continue forward.
But the appeal was denied Thursday Mar. 2 by the Constitutional Court.
However, the Supreme Court has not yet issued a final ruling on the injunction, but only a provisional stance. This means that when it is finally issued, if it goes against the MLP, Cabrera and Rodas could once again turn to the Constitutional Court, in a last-ditch effort.
But it seems as if the die is already cast.
In a tweet on Thursday Mar. 2, Rodas wrote: “The constitutional justice system has denied my constitutional right to be elected and denies the population the right to choose freely. We await the Supreme Court ruling on the injunction and the position of the @IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights). Our fight continues.”
Cabrera’s second attempt
This is Cabrera’s second attempt to run for the presidency. Her first was in the 2019 elections, when she failed to fully capture the indigenous vote.
“I would dare to think that the majority of the indigenous population did not vote for her because of those instilled prejudices: that she is a woman and also indigenous, not a professional, are issues that have nothing to do with the dignity and the quality of a person,” argued Silvia Menchú.
She added that the right-wing parties have been allies of the country’s evangelical churches, through which they keep in submission segments of the indigenous population that end up supporting conservative parties, rather than a candidate who comes from their Mayan culture.
To illustrate, she said that in Santa Catarina Palopó, a town of 6,000 people, there is only one school to cover primary and middle-school education, “but there are about 15 evangelical churches.”
The TSE’s veto of the registration of Cabrera and Rodas puts the credibility of the elections at risk, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) warned on Feb. 27.
In a joint statement, the two organizations said the electoral authority’s rejection of aspiring candidates “is based on dubious grounds, puts political rights at risk, and undermines the credibility of the electoral process.”
“The electoral process is taking place in the context of a decline in the rule of law, in which the institutions responsible for overseeing the elections have little independence or credibility,” they stated.
In addition to Cabrera and Rodas, the TSE also rejected the registration of right-wing candidate Roberto Arzú, because he allegedly began campaigning too early.
HRW and Wola added that “efforts to exclude or prosecute opposition candidates create unequal conditions that could prevent free and fair elections from taking place.”
Meanwhile, the TSE did endorse, on Feb. 4, the presidential candidacy of Zury Ríos, daughter of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who governed de facto between 1982 and 1983.
In 2013 the general was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for the massacre of more than 1,400 indigenous Ixil people in the north of the country.
He was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but the Constitutional Court later revoked the ruling. Ríos Montt died in April 2018.
Article 186 of the Guatemalan constitution prohibits people involved in coups d’état, or their relatives, for running for president.
Meanwhile, snowcone vendor Sonia Nimacachi said in the central square of Santa Catarina Palopó that she still held out hope that Cabrera would be able to register as a candidate.
“If they let her participate, I would vote for her again,” she said, while serving a customer.