Guatemala: Popular Mobilizations

September 25, 2007

During the last year Guatemalans have increased their efforts to organize themselves- to defend their rights, to protest existing working and living conditions, and above all to demand an end to the ever-escalating tide of official and semi-official repression. Recent events that began as isolated strikes, work stoppages, student demonstrations or spontaneous takeovers, have quickly mobilized unprecedented popular support and taken on a generalized political character.

The most impressive example was a peaceful protest march organized in November by the miners of Minas de Guatemala, a locally owned company in the village of Ixtahuacan, department of Huehuetenango, 330 kilometers from the capital, which produces tungsten and antinomy for export. The Miners Union is affiliated with the CNT (the Social Christian labor federation) and the CNUS, a coalition of eight major labor organizations including the Communist and Social Christian federations. (See "Dateline" in January, 1977, Report). The march was a response to the mining company's announcement that it was shutting down operations and firing all 300 miners because of low returns-an announcement that coincided with an ongoing bargaining session for a new collective contract.

Following the company's refusal to negotiate, the CNT and the CNUS called for a march to the capital to demand that the miners be reinstated, and their working conditions improved. On November 11, 71 miners and their families, mostly Mam indians, began the long march. They walked between 30 and 50 kilometers a day, through predominantly indian highlands, surprising everyone, including labor leaders, by the unprecedented support they received along the way Thousands of people, peasant farmers for the most part, came out to the highways with food, water, clothes, money, and their placards offering solidarity and protesting their own situation.

The miners demand for reinstatement became a powerful, spontaneous, and very politicized show of general discontent. But for the ruling classes perhaps the most threatening aspect of the march was that for the first time large sectors of the indian population demonstrated openly, and, moreover, side by side with industrial workers, small farmers (minifundistas) and migrant workers. Workers in most major plants in the capital organized a fundraising support campaign.

President Laugerud was out of the country at the time, and Mario Sandoval Alarcon, Vice-President and acknowledged leader of the extreme right wing, was in office as chief executive. Although he made several public statements denouncing the miners and the CNUS as subversives, the strength of the march and its support forced him to give in to the miners' demands, and pressured the company to reinstate all of them with reassurance of no reprisals. The announcement was made two days before the marchers were scheduled to arrive in Guatemala City, in hopes of ending the march before it arrived. But the miners and their supporters turned the event into a victory celebration, and marched into the city where they were met by 60 to 80,000 people.

Among those demonstrating in the city were members of a simultaneous march of sugar mill workers from Pantaleon, 87 kilometers south of the city. Pantaleon, a large sugar mill, owned by the Herrera Ibarguen family, had used the same tactics and fired 52 workers in order to destroy the union before upcoming collective bargaining. The two marches met at the entrance of the city, and walked together through mobbed streets to a victory meeting. Because of low sugar prices and reduced production, the 52 sugar workers were not reinstated, but the union was not destroyed.

Shortly thereafter, on New Year's Eve, Pantaleon owner Herrera Ibarguen was kidnapped by the EGP, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. In a series of communiques carried by the press, radio and TV, as part of the guerrillas' demands for Herrera's release, the EGP recalled his history as a founding member of the ultra-right MLN party and member of Guatemala's richest families. As Minister of the Interior (Internal Security) under President Arana Osorio (1970-74), they charge, Herrera was responsible for the torture and murder of nine revolutionary leaders, among others; for brutal repression of the 1973 teachers' strike; and for helping create a "Death Squad" connected to the Second Precinct of the National Police. Since 1974, Herrera has been President Laugerud's representative on the powerful State Council (an advisory body of government and business leaders). In the same communique, the EGP claimed responsibility for the death of Luis Canella, another member of the State Council, close Arana associate and officer in CACIF, the umbrella organization of large private enterprise.

In a second communique, the guerrillas analyzed the crisis of Guatemalan society as determined by two strategies: on the one hand, a "new dynamic of counterinsurgency" pursued by the oligarchy and imperialism; and on the other, a new beginning of popular war. The EGP placed the miners' march and other strikes and demonstrations, as well as their own actions, within the framework of popular war. Recent EGP actions include the kidnapping of the Salvadorean ambassador at last June's Inter-American Development Bank meeting, shooting down two Army helicopters on the U.S.-owned henandoah Oil Company's exploration site in northern Quiche, and several burnings of sugar and cotton plantations on the southern coast. Finally, the EGP called for both open and underground organization within the mass movements, and for mass participation in self-defense and in the guerrilla war.

The miners' march and kidnapping represent the culmination of a very active and militant year. The popular classes, and the two main organized forms of popular struggle at the moment, the labor movement and guerrillas, have shown a qualitative growth in strength and political awareness, resulting in new and innovative forms of struggle. Though organized labor represents only two percent of the workforce, even this limited extent of organization constitutes a threat to the ruling classbecause of the amount of popular support any sign of struggle is able to mobilize.

The government has been unable to openly repress any of the many demonstrations this year, although most of the labor leaders have been threatened during the last few months, and the repression continues both in the city and the countryside in an effort to eliminate support for the guerrillas. Most observers feel that the current administration is bent on holding elections next March as a show of "institutionalized democracy," and is holding off heavy repression until after the balloting. All the demonstrators during the last months have been in agreement on one point: nothing will change for them regardless of which of the three military candidates wins.

Tags: Guatemala, resistance, miners strike, popular mobilizations

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