The crowd sits on the front steps and hides in doorways to escape the glaring midday sun in the plaza in front of the Corte de Constitutionalidad (the Supreme Court of Guatemala). Men and women have come from all over Guatemala, some ladino and some Mayan, and are hanging out under the watchful eye of a few well-armed police officers. Only about half the people are paying attention to the man speaking over the loudspeaker. It's not that they don't care, it's just that they plan to hold a vigil there ALL WEEK, so they'll probably have an opportunity to hear it all again.
The crowd isn't here to make trouble. They're here to make history.
Constitutional reform is one of many changes stipulated in the peace accords signed between the government and the guerilla army on December 9, 1996. The reforms, as they currently exist, cover four major issues and consist of 50 different articles. A small percentage of the population opposes the reforms; they are the nation's wealthy, but small elite class. These conservative groups are threatened by the potential of a more democratic country.
Inside the court, the justices are hearing arguments against the proposed reform and the proposed referendum (vote) that would activate the reforms. One of the main arguments the opposition is circulating is that it is unconstitutional to make all 50 articles into one single "yes" or "no" vote. The crowd outside is unanimously for the reforms and is here to pressure the court to throw out the arguments against them.
Walking among the crowd, I feel as if I am witness to a peaceful act of revolution. Gloria, a Mayan woman from Tecpan, senses it, too. "We are in this moment deciding history" she told me. She wants the vote to happen soon, because if the reforms pass, her ethnicity, culture, and language will be officially recognized in her country. "We ask that they hold the referendum on the reforms no later than May."
"Why is it important to you that the referendum remain one question?" I asked. "Many of Guatemala's citizens are illiterate." She pointed out. "How could they vote on a ballot with 50 different questions?" I had never thought of it that way. Only 65% of the population is literate, and many of them only partially. Rural, indigenous populations, particularly women, make up the vast majority of the illiterate Guatemalans. Linking the vote to literacy - as was done in the 1950's - would effectively eliminate the section of the population which is already most vulnerable to exploitation.
What's in the reforms?
Historically in Guatemala, the civil police force has been inadequate. Instead, the army patrolled the streets. The army has been repeatedly accused of violating civil rights. The constitutional reforms will mandate that a civil police force be in charge of internal affairs, and the military will only protect the boarder. As the army is said to have perpetrated many human rights abuses during the civil war, removing their presence from the interior of the country will hopefully strengthen the peace.
I left the scene with a lot on my mind. I realized that Guatemalans are working to institute policies and protective systems that I take for granted at home in the United States. American history tells us that lynchings and institutionalized racism used to be common, even acceptable, in the United States. Seeing the legislative process here in Guatemala helps me appreciate why and how things have come to be the way they are in my own country.
AFTERNOTE: I sent this article to the web site over a week ago, but somehow it got lost in cyberspace and didn't make it. Since then, demonstrations have been occurring across the country, but the court has ruled that it is indeed unconstitutional to make the referendum only one single question. The court recommended that Congress split the referendum into six questions based on the six themes it covers: Guatemalan Indigenous Rights, Legislative Branch, Executive Branch, Judicial Branch, a System of a Council on Development, and the Guatemalan Military and Civil Security Force (Police).
Abeja - Men of Maize
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