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On June 25, Guatemalans will head to the polls to elect the next president, 160 members of Congress, Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) representatives, and 340 municipal mayors. If no presidential candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, a second round will be held later in the year between the two frontrunners.
The elections have raised concerns about the rising levels of authoritarian acts that have excluded several presidential candidates. Community organizations, ancestral authorities, and other domestic actors, alongside international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the Washington Office on Latin America, the European Union, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have called for free and fair elections and expressed concerns about the deterioration of the rule of law in Guatemala. The elections are taking place within an already precarious context for those who have opposed government corruption, state-sponsored violence and militarization, and extractivist industries that have contributed to structural inequalities and displacement.
Thelma Cabrera, a Maya Mam human rights defender and founding member of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), was one of the candidates prevented from running for office after her vice-presidential running mate, Jordán Rodas, was disqualified under dubious conditions. I spoke with Cabrera at the end of May about the situation in Guatemala, the proposals of the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP) party she represents, and how she views the current conditions within the context of the elections. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
[See also: Guatemala’s Democracy in Tatters.]
Giovanni Batz: Can you provide an update on what is happening in the Guatemalan elections? Why did they prevent you from running?
Thelma Cabrera: In Guatemala, the presidential elections are approaching, as are those for mayors and congresspeople. The same parties, the same people from the same political parties, are participating. They only change their name, color; they use masks. They have already been in Congress, in the mayors’ offices, and so on, they have been in public spaces. Even though they are accused of corruption, even though they are stained with the blood of martyrs, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal has registered them to participate in these upcoming elections.
The MLP is a political instrument of the peoples that was born from the people due to the needs of the communities, our demands. We initially proposed 12 thematic pillars, which then became 19 thematic pillars, for addressing structural problems. In other words, MLP is a national project that proposes to write a new political constitution originating from the peoples and a Constituent Assembly process to change the entire political and judicial situation and all the rights that are now being violated in Guatemala.
This posed a threat to the interests of CACIF [Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations, the leading private sector lobby], or of the powerful here in Guatemala. And that is why they prevented us from registering as presidential candidates, because we met all the legal requirements established in the Electoral and Political Parties Law. They claim that Jordán Rodas did not comply with the registration requirements, but Jordán Rodas did comply, and so there is no justification. They accused me of early campaigning.
These are the limitations and obstacles that were placed on the MLP when registering the presidential ticket. But this is a struggle, in fact we are always struggling with our brothers and sisters in the territories.
GB: Who is the Pact of the Corrupt? How have they co-opted the judicial system?
TC: The Pact of the Corrupt is an agreement that exists within Congress. It relates to the agreements that CACIF or the powerful make to be able to plunder our wealth and enact harmful laws against the people. For example, the NGO law [with which the government can remove the registration of NGOs], and Law 6181 that makes impoverished peoples and small- and medium-sized businesses pay more taxes, even though transnational companies do not comply with paying taxes.
There’s also Decree 08-2023 to repress and directly persecute people who protest, for example, the increase in electricity and gas prices, the increase in water charges. People have no way to demand their rights because what they are offered is jail. The Pact of the Corrupt agrees as a group to endorse laws like this, and thus the votes to pass the laws become possible.
Regarding the cooptation of the judicial system, we’ve seen this in the way the murders of defenders have gone unpunished. Also, in the behavior of the Supreme Court of Justice, the Constitutional Court, and the magistrates with the legal actions presented regarding registration of the MLP presidential ticket. They obey each other. This demonstrates that we do not have a state; everything is co-opted. Even the judicial system is against the peoples because it is only dedicated to persecuting defenders of human rights and Mother Earth.
GB: How is the judicial system being used against Indigenous communities, journalists, and human rights defenders?
TC: The judicial system has carried out the same practice against Indigenous peoples, defenders of Mother Earth, journalists, and intercultural journalists. When intercultural journalists point out the realities of what is lived in the communities, they face severe persecution. However, the peoples always engage in communications.
GB: What is the MLP’s political platform? What is the objective of the MLP in these elections?
TC: Although the presidential ticket was not registered, we are accompanying the struggle of our people in the territories. We have candidates for municipal mayoralties, both men and women, because there are also sisters who are participating as mayoral candidates, and we are accompanying this. We are also accompanying the candidates for Congress at the national level. That is the way we are now accompanying the struggles in the territories.
We have decided as peoples to cast a null vote on the “white ballot” for president because we do not have representatives. There are the mafias, there is the Pact of the Corrupt, and there are also the supposed leftists who have also been obedient to the boss when they are in Congress and do not defend the people. So there isn’t an option for us. We have decided to vote null on the white presidential ballot.
On the “yellow ballot” for PARLACEN [the Central American Parliament], in our communities we have determined that PARLACEN must disappear, because it is an unnecessary expense for the country. That is why we have also decided to cast a null vote on this ballot.
That is the platform that we are working on from the MLP, as a political instrument in these elections, because our fight will continue after the elections pass. This is the context. We must navigate the context because the peoples decide in assembly with our representatives. The system does not recognize our assemblies, but for us, our assembly decisions are legitimate.
GB: What role does the international community play in Guatemala?
TC: The role played by the international community in Guatemala is that of observer. Guatemala is responding to the violation of the rights of citizens to elect and be elected, and in this case the MLP. The racial discrimination, the patriarchal discrimination against an Indigenous woman who represents the peoples, is visible. So, these complaints must be known at the international level because Guatemala also must comply with agreements that have been made within the international community. The role that the international community plays is to hold Guatemala accountable for these violations of law, and it has helped a lot in the denunciations that we have made at the international level to question the country.
GB: Guatemala seems to be becoming more authoritarian. What is the future of Guatemala? Where is the hope for Guatemala today?
TC: As far as whether Guatemala seems to be becoming more authoritarian, it is. It is a dictatorial, sexist, racist state because [authoritarianism] prohibits the right of the people. It is more than being under a dictatorship of the powerful in Guatemala. The future of Guatemala is the further sinking into the abyss of so much looting, murder, and so much migration, which is the result of the looting that transnational companies have carried out in Guatemala.
Within all this, the only hope Guatemala has left is the proposals of the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples as a political instrument, because it is a proposal that came from the people, and it is a movement. It is not just another political party.
We are mobilizing with our own resources, with our conscience, and we show that we are not financed by the oligarchy or by construction companies. So, it is the only hope left for the people of Guatemala at this time.
And, well, we can tell you that we are firm in the struggle. We cannot remain standing if we do not, more than ever, have great strength. Because we are clear that they wanted to uproot our roots, but they never could. And now we are thousands, and so we will return in all the contexts that are coming in the future, because we are working for the organization of the people, the defense and the recovery of Mother Earth. We are fighting from the territories and not only for an electoral position, or a piece of bone, but for the construction of that plurinational state for the well-being of the peoples.
Giovanni Batz is Assistant Professor in the department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is author of the book La cuarta invasion (2022).