A historic demonstration
April 25 was a historic day for Guatemala.
Tens of thousands of indignant citizens
took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration
to demand the resignation of President Pérez Molina
and Vice President Roxana Baldetti,* calling them thieves.
This unprecedented outpouring followed the latest discovery
of their scandalous corruption.
While there were also demonstrations in the interior of the country,
we offer here some first impressions of the multitudinous one in the capital.
One thing that particularly stood out in the massive demonstration
in Guatemala City on Saturday, April 25, was its torrent of creativity. It was a movement with definite characteristics of a 21st-century protest: decentralized, organized through the social media and promoted by urban citizens.
Without intending to synthesize all the characteristics and expressions of this demonstration, I want to offer a first reading that will hopefully contribute to fresh thinking about politics and social transformation in today’s Guatemala. With that in mind, here are some brief reflections.
A sea of placardsThe demonstration broke with many traditions, in the sense that many of the artistic expressions—the placards, street theater, slogans and the like—were born of individual experience. Virtually no one took to the streets representing an organization, with a canned speech or a fixed position. Rather, there was a convergence of experiences. The old political, economic and social categories were set aside for the moment, with the divisions replaced by a “sense of union,” as one young man was heard to say. There was also a refusal to continue putting up with “the norm,” enduring and suffering a State and a political organization that, while claiming
to represent the citizenry, isolates it, steals from it, then steals from it and isolates it even more.
While the demonstration was rooted in criticism of the corruption and theft of the population’s tax contributions, there’s also something more profound in all this: beyond the theft of money is a theft of our collective capacity to decide. What the demonstration that Saturday showed is anger at the political class as a whole, and particularly at the political parties that, without exception, have set about monopolizing their own particular project with everyone’s legitimization via the vote.
The enormous number of placards, chants, slogans and singing of the national anthem were a way to participate freely in a critique of how demotivating elections involving the current power groups actually are. The singing and the banners were the direct democratic participation of a social conglomerate that’s tired of the violence, the embezzlement and the apathy.
The devil’s piñata The demonstration brought together different expressions of Christianity in a single wealth of experiences. Religion may be seen as a “problematic” issue in daily life, but in the demonstration it was at the center of the social expression. Among the images we saw that day was a lady, possibly a grandmother, holding a placard that said “The demons who govern us are tied up and thrown into the bottom of the sea in Jesus’ name.” It was unusual to see Jesus’ name identified with people’s indignation and the population’s demands, not to mention seeing those governing us defined as demons. There was a convergence in these religious sentiments, with other groups carrying piñatas, including one of a devil, like the ones traditionally burned on December 7 in Guatemala.
It could be said that to some degree April 25 was a December 7. Around five in the afternoon, a group of youths hung the devil by its neck at the National Palace. Immediately thousands gathered round, applauding euphorically.
What inspired this huge spontaneous convergence, this unorganized critique
of the devil, in both the mature woman and the young people? The devil has traditionally been associated with greed, lies, death, oppression, violence… all the destructive forces that are a threat to human beings. In the demonstration, the devil was both thrown “to the bottom of the sea” and hung.
For any Guatemala City resident, surrounded every day by newspaper reports of deaths and trapped by a fear of going out into the street with its environment of constant violence, getting rid of the devil—of violence and fear—is life affirming.
The Jesus of Central ParkIn a Christian religious culture, Jesus represents the affirmation of life after death. During the demonstration we saw a young man dressed as Jesus, with a marker-pen beard and blood, carrying a cross. He sparked a lot of interest, with people approaching him to get a better look. Some spoke to him, and a few even proposed places where he could be seen better.
A group of students from the University of San Carlos proposed that he go to the flagpole in the middle of the packed plaza. Once there four young men held the cross so it wouldn’t fall while he climbed up on it. One young woman carrying a banner recalling the State’s repression during the armed conflict decided to place it at Jesus’ feet. All this was unplanned, unfolding through improvisation. Many were impressed: Jesus crucified at a pole bearing Guatemala’s flag with a banner at his feet denouncing the State’s historical repression.
That street theater evoking Jesus as a personification of the suffering of Guatemala’s people triggered empathy with those who suffer in the city: those
who learn of the death of their husband or sons and daughters in the urban transport system; those going hungry in the gullies while adjacent shopping mall food courts overflow with food; those who feel the solitude of struggling to stay alive and hang on to hope in the face of the cynicism of a culture of corruption, money and selfish individualism.
That afternoon’s Jesus of Central Park was a reminder of the pain and suffering of so many people all over Guatemala. A formal democracy that can’t feel others’ pain is constructing a system of death and indifference.
From neither the left nor the right “We’re not from the left or the right, we’re from below and we’re going for those on top!” someone had written on a placard.
A large part of those demonstrating on April 25 were young. They came from feminist collectives, from the gay and lesbian movement, from HIJOS, from the universities—San Carlos, Landívar, Mariano Gálvez… Most were urban youth, some born during the eighties and more during the nineties, a time in which the Soviet State was collapsing and peace accords were being signed in Central America. It was the time Francis Fukuyama famously called “the end of history” in 1990.
Saying “we’re not from the left or the right” fits precisely with the life experience of millions of youth in both Guatemala and the rest of the world. Their refusal to identify with that definition, that division, seems to be a common point of our generation.
It could be read in different ways, but whatever else it may mean, it has one central feature all identify with: these youths are fed up with being defined by adults, by political parties, by those who consider themselves authorities with the right to define others. They’re also tired of the fact that the vote doesn’t represent their particularity, their longings and dreams.
Depoliticization isn’t just a “youth anomaly,” as those who judge without first seeking to understand may think. It’s also a critique of a rigid way of understanding politics.
In that sense, what was expressed on Saturday April 25 was the creation of a new vocabulary, of possible new horizons for understanding politics.
The second half of that placard: “We’re from below and we’re going for those on top” is another way of putting one’s own experience and reflection before pre-defined categories. It’s a critique of the power of those who only rule, a way of positioning oneself in a new historical moment.
Perhaps the best expression of the genuineness of a human act is the poetry
it shelters and contains. The April 25 demonstration was laden with poetry that expressed lots of content, diverse and contradictory to be sure but born of a legitimate weariness. Each placard, each round of banging on pots and pans, the feeling with which the national anthem was sung, the slogans, even the traditional “The people united will never be defeated,” were legitimate heartfelt expressions.
A collective response A democracy that only uses people to endorse mafioso groups and personal enrichment is clearly an oppressive system. It’s time to rethink democracy from the wealth of experiences each of us has. It’s time to construct a democracy in which we’re not objects used by parties, but daily subjects of social decision-making, with wellbeing for all. It’s the very moment to push the limit with the force of utopia and indignation.
How can we build a Guatemala in which we can all live, not only survive? That’s a question that can only be answered collectively.
Sergio Palencia is a sociologist.