Beyond Cosmetic Multiculturalism
The Guatemalan government and the guerilla umbrella group URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) signed the long-awaited Acuerdo de Identidad y Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas (Accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples) in March 1995. Fellow anthropologist Manuela Camus and I were just finishing research on the actions and demands of Maya organizations in the context of the country’s incipient “democracy” and the peace process. As a result, we got to see first-hand the surprise and illusions that the text aroused, and the possibilities it opened for the rights and opportunities Mayas had been seeking.
The Accord was no gift. It came about in response to the struggles engaged in by organized indigenous groups over a long period of time.
When Manuela and I first arrived in Guatemala in 1987, we were struck by the fact that in a country that had “recuperated its democracy,” indigenous people were not officially recognized—except perhaps as a tourist attraction. We found the socio-political organizations of these same indigenous people (officially considered inexistent) sought to establish that they had been the targeted subjects of repression (also officially considered inexistent).
In 1992, we began to analyze this mobilization, which had gained even more steam in the context of the 500 Years of Resistance Campaign and the utopian enterprise of awarding the Nobel Prize to Rigoberta Menchú—a woman, an indigenous person, a peasant. Guatemalan indigenous organizations were demanding more and more forcefully that they be recognized as The Maya People, and, as such, that they had the right to participate in the peace negotiations between the Guatemalan government and the URNG. With the negotiations, the fact that there had been an armed conflict was finally being recognized, and the situation of the indigenous people was one of the “substantive” themes that had to be discussed and resolved. But the indigenous people did not consider this discussion adequate. “We want to be present in this discussion. None of the parties represent us; they are not Mayas.”
We could not forget how these same people had so recently experienced so much death and destruction. These indigenous peoples had been the objects of the greatest and most systematic massacre committed by a Latin American army in the 20th century, with 150,000 Guatemalans killed after little more than a year of Efraín Ríos Montt’s “scorched earth” campaigns.
Over the years, indigenous activists have confronted civilian and military authorities both physically and politically. In the context of Guatemala’s history of repression, the Mayans’ persistence, solidity and moral security is especially impressive. Columns of peasant men and women symbolically took over the center of the capital city. They took on the responsibility of critiquing Guatemala’s new “democracy.” They questioned the assumptions of a Guatemalan nation based on the negation and exploitation of more than half of its population. This questioning is precisely what the Army hoped to nip in the bud through its massacres.
As we read and learned about the process of organization the indigenous people had been engaged in for decades, it began to become apparent that not only had the Army wanted to wipe out the indigenous communities as allies of the guerrillas, but that it wanted to put an end to something more profound and much more threatening. The army feared that the indigenous population could begin to seriously question the foundations of the country’s social structure. And now they were doing just that, demanding that they be taken into account, that they be considered first-class citizens in a distinct manner from other citizens. They insisted that they be considered as a People, the Maya People, and demanded rights that they had been denied since the beginning of European domination.
In 1991, the Consejo de Organizaciones Mayas de Guatemala had published the “Specific Rights of the Maya People” which demanded bilingual education, officialization of Mayan languages, and regional autonomy. Demetrio Cojtí—one of the Mayan intellectuals who wrote the document—justified the demands by explaining, “These are the same rights that ladinos [non-indigenous or mixed-race Guatemalans] have enjoyed for years and that we wish for our own culture.” In invoking the word “people” in the Accord, the Consejo was underlining the Spanish use of the word (“pueblo”) which means a collective body that shares a history and culture and thus merits official recognition and political sovereignty.
The Accord on Identity offered the possibility that Mayans (along with the Xinca and Garífuna) could leave behind subalternity and develop their own identity, while being recognized as part of what was now defined as a “multicultural, pluri-ethnic and multilingual” Guatemalan nation. But it did not mention the autonomy, the “Specific Rights of the Maya People” they had demanded. Autonomy aroused fears and frictions among ladinos, though no one quite understood what it meant. Nor did the Accord deal with the question of more just distribution of the land or the effects of the repression on the indigenous communities. “It is not everything,” a Mayan leader commented. “It is a good beginning. Now that we have recognition as a People, we can fight for everything else.”
And they fought. During the following four years, organized Mayas applied all their energies to achieving the possibilities contained in the Accord. In 1994, leaders and activists of all sorts of political tendencies, men and women of different generations and people from all social classes joined together in the Coordination of Organizations of the Maya People of Guatemala (COPMAGUA). Mayas with ties to the URNG who returned from exile or emerged from clandestinity joined with those indigenous activists who were already working in Guatemala City. Regional and local leaders who had made the mobilizations of previous years possible also joined forces.
These were the golden years of Mayan politics. Mayan organizations had reached sought-after unity and were negotiating directly with the Guatemalan state, with international recognition and support. It seemed that the historical subordination and exclusion of the indigenous communities in Guatemala was being done away with.
However, things didn’t happen that way. The referendum (Consulta Popular), needed to approve the constitutional changes that arose from the Peace Accords such as the Accord on Identity, was repeatedly delayed. When it was finally held on May 16, 1999, fierce racist and fear-driven campaigns against reform had begun to dominate the national scene. The enthusiasm of the Mayan organizations did not manage to fill the breach that separated the peace process from the dynamics of the majority of the population: only 18% of Guatemalans voted. Slightly more than half of them voted against the constitutional reforms. With the arrival of General Efraín Ríos Montt’s reactionary Guatemalan Republican Front to power at the end of 1999, all illusions of peace and unity vanished.
In the new period of “post-conflict normalization” which followed, the Guatemalan government became more concerned with finding a place in the global neoliberal economy than with the reconstruction of the Guatemalan society and nation. The Maya people became distressed at the dashing of their expectations. In 2000, COPMAGUA disbanded. When Manuela and I returned to the theme of indigenous rights in 2001, there was a sense of incomprehension in the atmosphere, as if it were the end of an era, filled with uncertainty about the future. What we termed cosmetic multiculturalism was taking shape—a construct that has since shaped Guatemalan government policy and actions. On the surface, it seems that the transformation of the Guatemalan state is advancing. Subsequent governments have appointed Mayan figures to important positions, among them Culture Minister, General Director of Bilingual Education, and Secretary of Peace. Specific spaces for themes raised by indigenous activists—usually Mayas—have been opened—the Academy of Mayan Languages, the Fund of Indigenous Development, the Defense Council for Indigenous Women, the Presidential Commission Against Discrimination and Racism, and the multitude of small offices within ministries that make up the Indigenous State Coordinator.
Nevertheless, things are not so simple. Year after year, reports indicate that the Accord on Identity has been the accord with the least of its stipulations fulfilled. The involvement of Mayan institutions in the state represent “institutional incrustations” dependent upon international cooperation “in a state that “thinks mono-ethnically”, as Demetrio Cojtí observed after serving as Vice-Minister de Education for four years. “The Maya issue” is no longer on the table, having been resolved through the existence of these offices, with the use of multicultural terminology such as “interculturality,” “cosmovision” and “multilinguism,” and with the ubiquitous Mayan ceremonies in which presidents and other officials continually participate.
Almost all the activists and leaders who had been in COPMAGUA took up government posts. Maya politics were now being exercised from within the state itself and international organizations rather than from indigenous organizations. Maya activists were transformed into public policy managers. Those who had seen the Accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a “good foundation” had to join the government so that this good foundation could be laid. Once the foundation had been instated, however, the state closed the matter—“the indigenous problem was resolved.” The more radical and questioning demands of the accord were forgotten. Further, the state appropriated the capacity to define who was or was not “Maya,” using the definition for its own benefit—it did not apply the concept of “indigenous peoples” or the rights obtained from this status beyond the “politics of recognition.”
Instead of reducing the historical breach between the poor and rich, Guatemala’s new neoliberal policies have led to an increase in inequality. Guatemalans, especially the Maya, have been forced to enter into the international migratory circles in order to survive. When Mayans seize farmland that had previously belonged to them; when they protest against the mining companies that have destroyed their landscapes, their property and even their lives; when they protest against having their wallets emptied by transnational electricity companies, they are not considered Mayas with a millenary culture, like the few who hold government posts but rather “peasants” or sometimes even “terrorists.” Their protests against the marginalization they face in the global economy are criminalized. They suffer from a repression that has certainly not disappeared—even if the armed conflict has.
The actors that put all their effort in ending the conflict and its causes have become obsolete as protagonists, subsumed in marginality. The creole oligarchs have returned to power after the armed conflict, even under “social democratic” parties. Uninterested in resolving the socioeconomic problems of the country’s majority population and even less in the fact that racism is a defining factor in the society, they have supported neoliberal ideologies that approve of their form of understanding the relation between politics and economy. They play the card of indigenous rights as a way of stemming off further conflict: instead of violence, neutralization.
Moreover, the issue of indigenous rights served to drum up international support. It is paradoxical that in the United Nations, Guatemala supports the new Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, while in the country itself, bilingual education takes up only 5% of the Education Ministry’s declining budget. The international stance also contrasts with the fact that the right to hold referendums, spelled out explicitly in Agreement 169, which was ratified more than ten years ago, has consistently been denied by the Guatemalan government to the communities that have asked for legal validation for the consultations they have held on open-pit mining in their territory.
In the face of this situation, the Mayas are once again showing their capacity for pressure and protest. But it is very difficult to mount a resistance, perhaps even more so than before the Accord. Neoliberal policies are doing away with many of the possibilities for collective action. And the shadow of the conflict is seen much more clearly than ten years ago, when we believed that we had won. Communities are disarticulated; a complete generation of leaders is missing, and those who remain are involved on a national level, neglecting their local communities. What has been achieved is that now everyone talks about indigenous rights and Mayan culture, but there is not a narrative that justifies those who fought against inequality and racism. Indeed, demands for social justice are continually met by repression, renewing the idea that the status quo can never be changed. Leaders, once they assume roles in the state, often become separated from the population; the lack of votes for presidential candidate and Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú is one example of how indigenous leaders in the national government fail to maintain a grassroots base.
However, popular protests against mining companies, cement firms, agro-industry and other projects shows that the indigenous people are keeping up the struggle for their rights beyond those granted by the government. By taking to the streets, indigenous activists are insisting on more than cosmetic multiculturalism; they are seriously questioning the foundations of the country’s social structure and the socioeconomic rights from which they have been historically excluded.
Santiago Bastos is a Spanish anthropologist who lived in Guatemala since 1988, dedicating himself to research on diverse aspects of the life of indigenous Mayas—from their subsistence in cities to political mobilizations and changes in concepts of identity. He has lived and worked in Guadalajara, México, since 2008. He has recently edited a volume with Roddy Brett, El movimiento maya en la década después de la paz, 1997-2007 (F &G Editores, 2010). Other books, all co-authored with Manuela Camus, include Quebrando el silencio: Las organizaciones del Pueblo Maya y sus demandas, 1986-1992 (1993), Abriendo caminos: Las organizaciones mayas desde el Nobel a la Paz (1995), Entre el Mecapal y el cielo: Desarrollo del movimiento maya en Guatemala (2003).
Santiago Bastos es un español radicado en Guatemala desde 1988, donde se ha dedicado a la investigación de diversas dimensiones de la vida de los indígenas mayas desde la subsistencia en las ciudades, hasta la movilización política y los cambios identitarios. Ahora reside y trabaja en Guadalajara, México.