Guatemala v Honduras: comparing prospects for change
[This post is published in Spanish on the 3500 milliones blog]
From Honduras, I went to Guatemala for a couple of days. Didn’t have time to get out into the countryside, which is a real shame since rural Guate has to be one of the most amazing places to visit in Latin America. But a series of conversations with NGOs and academics raised some really interesting contrasts with Honduras. Apologies for these gross generalizations based on such a short visit – feel free to put me straight:
What’s more positive in Guatemala? Compared to Honduras, the legal and institutional panorama feels much more promising – the Peace Accords of 1996 that brought an end to Guatemala’s bloody civil war have left a legacy of institutions such as local ‘development committees’ bringing together civil society and local government, with some access to (or at least influence over) spending decisions. Previous governments have passed a Food Security law, and approved a policy (falling short of a law) on ‘integrated rural development’ (IRD, but nothing like the discredited IRD approaches of the 1980s) that has been endorsed by the new president, Otto Perez Molina, despite his position on the right and as a former general. Some activists reckon these laws and ‘invited spaces’ just suck the energy out of social movements and their allies without actually delivering anything, but most people think they exert some traction on government policy and spending priorities, as well as influencing public attitudes on issues such as indigenous rights (Guatemala’s population is majority indigenous, but anti-indigenous prejudice is rife among the white and mestizo elites).
There were interesting divergences in analyses of the new government, with some (including big aid donors, apparently) seeing it as a step forward because, for all its right wing views, it brings a military discipline and a willingness to face down Guatemala’s overweening private sector – a fiscal reform passed in the government’s first two months, closing down some tax loopholes, seems to bear that out. Guatemala might just be on the way to acquiring an effective state of sorts, although once the honeymoon wears off, my bet would be on it returning to incompetent/corrupt business as usual (the finance minister resigned while I was there after opposition attacks on the fiscal reform).
The legacy of the Peace Accords is linked to a second point – there seems to be lots of appetite for engagement at municipal level, from both state and social movements, whereas in Honduras, the peasant movement seems to feel that only the national state is worth engaging with. Currently, one area of real energy is a semi-spontaneous series of ‘popular consultations’ at local level on mining and big hydro projects involving hundreds of thousands of people across the social spectrum in rural areas (not just campesinos), and an overwhelming vote against the big projects. The protest votes are often supported by local mayors. The process is not legally binding, but it is galvanizing opposition in the countryside.
The subnational focus has also softened the polarizing rhetoric on expropriating/redistributing land by adopting a ‘territorial’ focus in the discussions on IRD that includes water, indigenous rights, ecosystem services and talks in general terms of the ‘democratization of land’. This reportedly makes it much easier to talk to different groups than the over-riding emphasis on land redistribution that dominates (and polarizes) debates in Honduras.
What was similar between the two countries? The rural-urban divide seemed just as great, with peasant movements showing little interest in finding allies in the cities, and a lot of urban prejudice against the peasants. There are few signs of the peasant movement and its NGO allies adapting its language or tactics to build bridges with the cities (about half of the population and rising), e.g. by focusing on urban food prices as well as farmgate prices for small producers.
What’s worse in Guatemala is the additional component of racism, although interestingly, ILO Convention 169 (on indigenous rights) seems to have had some influence in terms of attitudes and policies, as well as promoting indigenous assemblies that have become an important source of social organization. The Convention was drafted by an old Guatemala hand, Roger Plant, so he should be happy (but probably isn’t – meeting a happy human rights activist is about as likely as a farmer telling you they’ve had a good year………)