This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Herizons magazine. By Jackie McVicar
Guatemala has had its share of political turmoil in the past six months. In April, the UN-mandated International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala uncovered a customs fraud ring involving high ranking public servants and elected politicians who had stolen tens of millions of dollars of potential state revenue. People from the small Central American country were outraged and spontaneous protests sparked a grassroots movement calling for the resignations of those involved – a courageous act in a country where decades of internal armed conflict led to a genocide against the civilian population.
Sandra Moran was one of the people who took to the streets with her drum. Over twenty years ago, as part of an activist music group, Moran had denounced state violence during a US-backed war against communism. When military death squads began threatening and killing people close to her, she was forced into exile in Nicaragua, Mexico and Canada before returning to Guatemala for good in 2004. Back home, Moran became a fierce and dedicated LGBT activist and one of the most visible faces of the feminist movement, working to publicly denounce the impunity, fear and violence that is used as a political strategy to oppress Guatemalans struggling for social justice.
Ten days after the customs fraud scandal broke, a people’s assembly met to analyze the situation, and Moran was there. “This wasn’t a new crisis, it uncovered corruption that touched one institution…but this was a state crisis.” Moran notes that public institutions have been co-opted to serve private interests in Guatemala. “We need to create a constitution where we recognize our pluri-nationality and an economy not just based on capital.Obviously, this is a big challenge.” After the assembly, Moran was asked to run as congresswomen in the September 6 elections.
“At first I said no. But I was encouraged by my friends and family, sister organizations, women I worked with. After consulting with them, I came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea, with their support.” Moran joined the Convergence for Democratic Revolution (CDR), a newly formed political party that brought together feminists, students, farmers and indigenous peoples. “As feminists, we have to identify what we need in a new constitution. It’s the same for others.”
The fraud scandal made it possible for Moran and others to talk about change. Tens of thousands marched throughout the country and hashtags like #ResignNow emerged. Public pressure mounted against elected officials and in May the Vice-President stepped down. “These elections were very contradictory. Everyone wanted them to be stopped to first clean house and then go ahead under other conditions.”
Moran seriously questioned what to do. “People asked us to step down as candidates because we were legitimizing illegitimate elections. I thought maybe that was best. But I didn’t know how. I had already signed agreements with the people I work with, committing to what I would do in congress if elected. And that was hard for me. Because those agreements are a commitment. They weren’t a lie or a part of a political campaign.”
At the end of August a national general strike was called and students, teachers, doctors, farmers and women shut down the country. The former Vice-President was arrested for conspiracy, customs fraud and bribery. A week later, President Otto Perez Molina, a former military general, lost his immunity, was arrested and indicted on the same charges.
The energy in the streets turned to the elections. Moran remembers the calls to abstain and the constantly shifting political landscape. “Nothing was turning out the way that all the analysts said.” In the end, 70% of eligible voters came out on September 6. Moran and two other members of the CDR were elected.
“Here I am. I was elected. People are happy. There is a lot of expectation and hope and of course this gives me a huge challenge.” Moran will look for opportunities to make alliances and work on issues with other left-leaning members of congress. “I am not alone. We share ideals, we have been part of the same social movements.”
Twenty women will be sworn in on January 14 2016, 13% of the total elected representatives. Moran is the only one from the left. “This is the first time in history that a feminist has been elected but also the first time in history that a lesbian has been elected. This is historic. Feminists and people from the LGBT community feel for the first time that they have a representative.”
Building a progressive political movement has not been easy since the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords. “It’s hard. People don’t necessarily see the left as an option and so they don’t vote for the left. The ideological work of the military and the right has been very strong. Anti-communism still exists here.” Guatemala’s cold-war era conflict saw over 250,000 people killed and disappeared. “Even in these elections, members of the military and Guatemala’s counterinsurgency were elected as congressmen,” says Moran.
Some of these people were Moran’s ideological opponents in the 1980s and 1990s who used violence to silence her and others. Now, there is a new strategy. The reluctant politician sees her election as an opportunity to break down some of the barriers created by the militarized neoliberal model entrenched in Guatemalan economics and society. “In terms of feminist identity, we know that congress is a completely hierarchical and patriarchal space and it’s going to be very hard. How am I going to be in there and how am I going to present the proposals, having a different focus, a distinct voice. It’s a great opportunity but it’s a great challenge.”
In the midst of violence of the 1980’s, Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel wrote, “They can cut all the flowers, but spring will always return.” For Moran, that time has come.