Michelle Liang (she/her), Internacionalista 2023

Welcome to my first Friends & (Chosen) Family Letter from Guatemala. Part of my responsibilities in my year with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), in the road to global solidarity, is to write a letter to my communities back home around every two months. In the following letter, I do my best to paint a colorful picture of the lucha in Guatemala without falling into romanticization, or even a tourist blog akin to the expedition diaries of past colonizers or present day tourists. I simply aspire for this letter to serve as a messenger, in the road to awareness and global solidarity. This is the first of several that will come, in which I hope to expand upon many topics further.

In Guatemala, the people are facing an attempted coup and over 50 days of Indigenous resistance that started with weeks of bloqueos- in which protestors blocked key points of highways across the country, stopping the transport of people, produce, commerce, and business as usual.

At the start of the bloqueos, people flocked to grocery stores for food to stock their fridges, reminiscent of the long lines at grocery stores at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was in Xela at Spanish school during the bloqueos- my host mom returned from the grocery store with bags of food, stating that the scene at the grocery store was far more chaotic than it had been during COVID.

I joined a few of these demonstrations before my time at NISGUA. I saw the bloqueo at Totonicapan burst from the center of a key intersection for what seemed like a mile down each street, crowded with people chanting, talking, and resting- some people had been there for over six days.

And yet other bloqueos, informal ones organized by neighbors, would consist of a string stretched across the road, tied to plastic chairs on each side of the road. A loudspeaker perched on a chair would blast music, with ten to twenty people dancing and chanting. So numerous were these small bloqueos that it was nearly impossible to transverse a route of 20 minutes in Quetzaltenango- we would get on a bus, cross a bloqueo, walk for ten minutes, cross another bloqueo, board a pick up truck for five minutes, cross another bloqueo, and so on.

Some of you may remember my stressful time traveling from Xela to the capital (in which the buses stopped running due to the bloqueos, then my taxi cancelled before I was scheduled to leave, and eventually I had to message someone on WhatsApp and pay him in cash on the day of to board a private plane). Then, infiltrators blocked the aqueduct and we had to conserve our water by only washing dishes at night with rainwater and not flushing the toilet until it was absolutely necessary. It was at that point that I deeply felt how much we take water for granted in some parts of the Global North. I recount these experiences not to center myself in this- my teacher at Spanish school lives in a community from whom a nearby business owner has been stealing water for years, not to mention the land and water defenders I was to meet later at NISGUA and their experiences- but because such is the nature of human empathy, that my experiences will likely strike a deeper resonance with people who know me. I had the smallest taste in those moments of how the bloqueos affected people around the country- in the struggle to obtain food, water, and necessary transportation.

Watching highways shut down across the country and shut down the country, I could only admire the power of organizing in Guatemala.

In an open street, there is an overpass and many people with banners.

Photo by: NISGUA Internacionalista. A blockade at Totonicapán, Guatemala. 2023

The corruption today, many Guatemalans would say, started in 1524 with the Spanish invasion and continued with the invasion by the United States’ C.I.A. in 1954 through the 1980s. Today, the Pact of the Corrupt consists of a strong network of government, military, organized crime, and businesses.

In the 2023 presidential election, the Pact of the Corrupt ran four strong candidates and blocked a Mayan Ma’am candidate from running. No one expected Bernardo Arévalo, a progressive candidate outside of this pact, to win the election in June 2023.

In a white tent in the background banners of the struggles of the Peoples, below these mats.

Photo credit: NISGUA Internacionalista. A tent in front of the Ministerio Publico under which Indigenous protestors slept. Guatemala City, 2023.

In August, around when I started Spanish school in Guatemala, the Ministerio Publico seized the ballots for an “investigation”, not unlike former president Trump’s call for a vote recount after President Biden won the U.S. presidential elections in 2019. Since then, opponents have also moved to suspend the Semilla Party, the party of President-Elect Bernardo Arevalo, and strip him  of political immunity so that they can charge him with “instigating” a student protest at the University of San Carlos (in which students occupied the university for a year against fraud in an university election)- just as they have arrested 27 people, 5 of whom are connected with the Semilla Party, for property destruction, sedition, and other outrageous accusations in connection with the student protest, even though neither Arévalo nor the Semilla Party had anything to do with the protest.

With ongoing attacks from opponents to block President-Elect Arévalo from taking power on January 14, 2024, the Indigenous resistance continues. Every day, a different Indigenous community travels to the capital from hours away to protest outside of the Ministerio Publico and Congress. These days, in front of the Ministerio Publico, a line of tents is present- each tent belonging to a different Indigenous community. In a 24-hour shift, a leader will present a mic and ask who wants to speak; people will rise to the center to share words of rumination, anger, and fire; a loudspeaker will play Christmas songs, and someone will set up a gigantic pot of beans and tortillas to feed everyone for dinner.

Under a white tent, a line of people wait for food to be served.

Photo credit: NISGUA Internacionalista. Line for food for protestors at the Public Prosecutor’s Office

In November, I embarked on my first two community visits, which we call salidas.

In my first salida, I went for lunch with an anti-mining contraparte (in his 40s) and his wife at his house, which extended into post-lunch bread and coffee and lasted until the sun went down; he lived in a rural part of Guatemala with chickens and ducks in the front yard and open land behind his house from which he pulled beans to gift us. In the middle of lunch, as he was telling us about the lucha, his father (probably 80 years old) entered- it turned out the father had also been involved in lucha, in which they physically blocked the mining construction company by camping outside of the mine 24 hours a day for years.

In my second salida, we attended a wide assembly of land and water defenders in another region of Guatemala. The day before the assembly, we visited some contrapartes- in the room sat two people over eighty years old who were there at the beginning of the lucha and the other the current leader. They recounted the origin stories of their group and prepared us for their assembly the next day. At the assembly, people from all over the departamento (state) came, some from two hours away, to meet in person since many people lacked access to the Internet, in order to share their luchas, challenges, and successes in the defense of their water, such as fighting for municipal water protection agreements.

Landscape of Guatemala. With blue sky and green grass and mountains at the bottom

Photo credit: NISGUA Internacionalista. Landscape of Guatemala. 2023

Land and water defenders in Guatemala have been doing this work for decades- their organizations are not merely the framework or hull of organizations, propped up by foreign agencies- but in themselves they are so substantial, and substantially grassroots.

I will close with something one of my fellow accompaniers said: “Neither we nor NISGUA are the main characters in this lucha- and that’s the way it should be.”

Donate 1) directly to la Asamblea de los Pueblos de Huehuetenango en Defensa del Territorio por la Autonomía y la Libre Determinación de los Pueblos (ADH), a community of local land and water defenders, 2) to offset accompaniment costs, and/or 3) to the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA).