Voices of the Pueblo Maya: A new age in Guatemalan politics

Peace Brigades International: Guatemala Team Report
October, 1995

"Our cries, pain, and woe from the last several hundred years have begun to end, and now we can begin to listen to our own voices.''
-- Founding Declaration from Nukuj Akpop

It is impossible to claim that Guatemala is a democratic state when the indigenous majority is not represented in national politics. For centuries, the "Pueblo Maya'' has relied upon communitarian principles to guide its sophisticated organizational and power structures. From this base, the indigenous population has launched its resistance. As a result of the extreme repression it has faced, the Pueblo Maya has often been forced to conceal its politics from the outside world. In spite of the daunting obstacles, it has continued to apply its traditional governance structures and some indigenous groups and individuals have even taken steps to influence local politics.

These forays into the world of local politics have become more and more frequent, and in 1990 and 1993, indigenous candidates won in the majority of cities (Siglo Veintiuno, 24.9.95). Nevertheless, the indigenous majority has always had to rely upon political parties that have marginalized it existence, and has never had its own political party through which it could articulate its own unique perspective and special needs.

According to the Mayan democratic ideal, it is through respect of differences that unity is found. In the Pueblo Maya, majority rule has no significance and decisions are made on the basis of consensus. Generally, everyone in the community participates and leaders are selected on the basis of honour, personal integrity, and level of community service. When the community selects a leader, that person is obliged to accept. According to the Mayan cosmovision, to be a leader is one's destiny; more than a privilege, it is a responsibility.

A New Age

In 1992, the Pueblo Maya declared 500 years of marginalization enough, and began to openly organize. Many Mayan organizations were born with the expressed intent of publically embracing the Mayan culture and identity. Equally important, a key goal has been the prevention of human rights violations, as much for its own people as for the population at large. When negotiations between the guerrillas and the government began, Mayan organizations formed in order to participate in the dialogue, and grouped themselves into a unified front represented by the Coordination of Organizations of the Mayan Pueblo (COPMAGUA) in the Assembly of Civil Society (ASC).

For the Mayan people, the Accord about the Identity and Rights of the Indigenous People is the first time the government has officially recognized its identity, culture, and rights. After having struggled to unite all the Mayan sectors and to articulate a common vision expressed in the Accord, the Pueblo Maya is not about to take a passive role in its future political endeavours. Rather, it is looking to amplify the spaces it has already secured.

Given that the peace accords will likely be signed next year and that their implementation should soon follow, the candidates who win in the elections this year will have an important say in how the accords are implemented. If the traditional power structures remain, the integrity of the accords could be compromised, and the Pueblo Maya faces the distinct possibility that its needs will not be met. Several indigenous leaders have commented that abstentionism in the upcoming elections will only strengthen the traditional powers, and that these structures must change so that the Pueblo Maya has a voice in national politics. The Pueblo Maya is entering a new phase of resistance. Rather than just denouncing, it is taking an active and vocal role in the reconstruction of the society.

Testing the Political Waters

In the midst of these changes, the first Mayan political group with the expressed intent of participating in national politics was born: Nukuj Akpop. Announced on July 10th of this year, Nukuj Akpop means "Experiment in Governance,'' and its goal is to create a government that reflects the Mayan cosmovision. It was borne from a survey that asked of Mayan communities and organizations whether the time was ripe to initiate a new political entity, and the answer was yes. The goal of Nukuj Akpop is to explore how to combine the Mayan cosmovision with the political processes of the day. Nukuj Akpop surfaced simultaneously with the Democratic Front for a New Guatemala (FDNG) and has actively participated in the new party. Juan Leon, one of the representatives on the Council of Advisors of Nukuj Akpop, is also the vice-presidential candidate for the FDNG.

Nukuj Akpop shares a common vision between all sectors of the society that are looking for a democratic, multicultural and multilingual alternative. All in all, there are 107 organizations participating in Nukuj Akpop. Although not all Mayan people in Guatemala belong to the group, it represents a remarkably broad swath of the society. A large part of what the organization does is to encourage the Mayan population to participate in the elections. Its near-term goal is not to win the presidential slot, but to gain experience in the electoral process and to use this knowledge to promote "a new age'' in the politics of Guatemala in which the Mayan majority participate in a substantive way.

There are a number of serious roadblocks that will need to be removed before this new age can be realized. For example, the Register of Citizens is accused of discriminatory policies against indigenous women and elderly people when they try to register to vote. Further, the FDNG has publically denounced a series of threats and harassments against certain local candidates, as well as intimidations from the Self-Defense Patrols (PACS).

Key problems that Nukuj Akpop has identified in its platform include poverty, impunity, violations of human rights, lack of infrastructure, and militarization. Of these, the most important fights for the Pueblo Maya are to combat impunity and to promote indigenous rights. Juan Leon comments: "What's most important is to address how we are going to resolve these fundamental problems. Salaries need to be re-adjusted immediately while simultaneously controlling inflation. We are looking for a collective alternative to privatization borne through community action, using cooperatives or selling directly to foreign markets.''

Other Political Expressions of the Pueblo Maya

Nukuj Akpop is not the only Mayan political movement. Rigoberta Menchu's "get out the vote'' program has had widespread impact. Of the 3.7 million citizens registered to vote, 1.5 million are indigenous. The head of the Political Community Maya K'amal B'e, Marco Antonio de Paz, notes that "the descendants of the Mayans will determine who will be President next year and this is just the very start of our participation in the political processes (Siglo Veintiuno, 24.9.95).

Marco Antonio de Paz postulates that there are two types of Mayan organizations: ''there are the political/revolutionary groups, which include both ladinos and indigenous peoples, and the political/cultural groups, whose strategy is resistance, silence, and preparation for action in times of repression.'' K'amal B'e is comprised mostly of academics and professionals and promotes the participation of Mayans in politics, though it is not affiliated with any particular political party. Although Nukuj Akpop and K'amal B'e have different foci, there is mutual respect between the two.

The groups that are promoting indigenous participation in political processes are keeping an eye fixed on the future. Some anticipate that there could be an indigenous person in the presidential slot by the year 2012. Marco Antonio de Paz believes that "this year will greatly impact the Mayan cosmovision. A new era is beginning for the Mayan people, and one of the changes coming from this is a rise to power.'' Whatever the future holds, what's certain is that the Pueblo Maya is testing the political waters now for a deeper plunge in the future.

Founded in 1981, Peace Brigades International is a unique non-governmental organization exploring nonpartisan approaches to peacemaking and support for basic human rights. Currently, PBI carries out effective nonviolent intervention in a challenging variety of conflicts: Colombia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and several Native communities in North America. PBI is officially recognized by the UN.

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