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News from the South: Focus on Guatemala

'Another Mesoamerica is possible'

On July 21, leaders of indigenous, campesino and grassroots organizations from throughout the Central American nations and Mexico gathered in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, for the Mesoamerican Forum, fourth in a series of meetings discussing the defense of ecological culture throughout the isthmus. The groups gathered are directly opposing the Puebla-Panama Plan (PPP), an isthmus-wide mega-development initiative aggressively promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Mexican writer Armando Batra, author of The Heirs of Zapata, a study of post-revolutionary Mexican campesino movements, called the PPP an example of bad capitalism, what Mexicans often call, "savage capitalism." Batra claims that it is dividing Mexico. "It serves the interests of the northern, white part of the country which is a neighbor to the U.S., and condemns to poverty the southern, indigenous part which is a neighbor to Guatemala." But, echoing a frequent slogan at the Forum, he asserted that "another Mesoamerica is possible." As an alternative development model, he called for "rebuilding the links between rural and urban sectors, with agricultural production for internal consumption based on local cooperatives."

Indigenous representatives from Guatemala at the Forum included opponents of the planned massive hydro-electric project on the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Juan Ixbalan of Guatemala's National Indigenous and Campesino coordinator (CONIC) called the IDB-backed project, which would flood vast areas of rainforest, "a new conquest of Maya territory."

Guatemala news

Even as technocrats portray privatization and mega-development proposals as part of an inevitable march towards democracy and modernization, ghosts from Central America's violent recent past are returning to haunt the isthmus. Guatemalan indigenous leaders are currently preparing a case against former military dictator - and current presidential candidate - Rios Montt on genocide charges for his 1980s "scorched-earth" campaign against Maya Indians. The indigenous-led Justice & Reconciliation Association (AJR) is coordinating witnesses to 1980s massacres from 24 communities in the departments of Quiche, Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango and Alta Verapaz.

Said Neela Ghoshal, a New York City schoolteacher who recently served as a human rights observer with the AJR and attended the Forum: "The Guatemalan courts probably won't hear the case, so they will have to go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. But they are really committed to seeking justice."

On July 25, just days after the Forum ended, violent riots rocked Guatemala City as supporters of Rios Montt - mostly former members of his paramilitary "civil patrols" - took to the streets to protest a court ruling that barred his candidacy under a law blocking former coup leaders from the presidency. The protesters erected barricades of burning tires and attacked random pedestrians, leaving one television reporter dead of heart failure. Five days after the riots, Guatemala's top Constitutional Court would overturn the ruling, allowing the ex-dictator's presidential campaign to proceed. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher quickly assured that U.S. relations with Guatemala would not be disrupted if Rios Montt is elected.

Another speaker at the Forum, Raul Moreno of El Salvador, representing the rural development group Sinti Techan (Nahuatl for "maize for the people") condemned the pending Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), asserting that these agreements would "modify the judicial order, subordinating the labor code, environmental laws and human rights. The PPP is not neutral - it benefits the U.S. and its giant corporations. The PPP is not reformable." Nor, he asserted, is it inevitable. "We can resist. Electricity and the national health system remain public in Costa Rica, despite the desire of the government and the World Trade Organization to privatize, because the people don't want it."

Magda Lanuza of Nicaragua's International Study Center noted that plans for water privatization are even more advanced in her country than in Honduras. Several Nicaraguan departments - including Leon, Chinandega, Jinotega and Matagalpa - already have private contracts to manage their water systems with such firms as the French water giant Suez (whose contracts with local governments in South Africa have won international criticism as soaring water rates have left many poor communities without access). Now, as in Honduras, the water privatization program is to be instated nationwide - as a condition of a loan from the IDB. Magda predicts a political battle. "Local communities are prepared to defend their water resources," she said. "They understand that water is life."

Hydro-energy is also being privatized in Nicaragua. The private firm Hydrogesa has won a contract to manage the Apenas dam in Jinotega, and the scandal-ridden Enron actually bid on it in 2002. But following public protest, the contract now suspended pending a national law on water privatization. Local Matagalpa Indians were relocated when the project was first built in 1960s, and now oppose its privatization.