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GUATEMALA
“Obtaining political power alone allows you change things”
Paolo Moiola
5/6/2011
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Interview with Msgr. Álvaro Ramazzini, bishop of San Marcos

Guatemala´s 36-year armed conflict ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords, but violence continues. The country´s murder rate is one of the highest in the region, but the fuel for this is persistent inequality. Guatemala´s wealth remains in the hands of a few. Multinational companies are devastating the lands while the poor see no benefit, large-scale agriculture for export crops binds desperate workers, particularly the indigenous, to the land. Many people try to migrate to the United States, facing kidnappings, violence, extortion, or if they make it, deportation.

Latinamerica Press collaborator Paolo Moiola spoke with Msgr. Álvaro Ramazzini, bishop of the western San Marcos department that borders Mexico, about the roots of the violence and Guatemala´s socioeconomic situation ahead of September´s presidential election.

How would you describe Guatemala´s violence?
I´d say that it is a very violent society. We have a very high murder rate: 16 people are killed a day. It´s a different situation than we experienced during the [armed] conflict. The violence is tied to drug trafficking, which grips the northern part of the country. The violence is also tied to gangs, which we call “maras”. Many young people join gangs because they come from broken homes. They have no experience being loved and they have a very deep hate toward society, a very poor society. Proof of this poverty is the emigration phenomenon. Thousands of Guatemalans are trying to reach the United States through Mexico with all the risks that come with that.

The issue of violence aside, Guatemala is a very polarized society, and is based on an economic model that has been unable to solve economic inequality, with the wealth in the hands of a few. It´s a society that hasn´t had the courage to promote land reform in a deep and integral way, a society with a shameful child malnutrition rate: 49 of every 100 children between the ages of 1 and 5 years suffer from chronic malnutrition. Among indigenous communities, this rate is as high as 59 percent. UNICEF has shown that if there is no adequate nutrition during that period in life, it causes permanent brain damage. As a result, these children have a very dark future.

What about the situation facing women?
The number of femicides has increased, but we must also talk about domestic violence. The violence women suffer within their own families at the hands of their husbands is extremely high. It´s a kind of violence that not only they suffer but also their children. We have found an incredible number of abuses committed against women. So we have a women´s pastoral run by women. Additionally, in many cases, women are financially dependent on their husbands: they receive what the men give them. If there is a problem, the husband gives her nothing and the woman is completely abandoned.

You have spoken about the migration issue. What are the risks facing the emigrants when they leave the country?
In 2010, there were more than 10,000 Guatemalans kidnapped when they tried to cross into Mexico [according to the governmental National Human Rights Commission]. There are gangs who seek ransom of US$5,000, $10,000. That´s to say nothing of the raped women. One figure: last year in Tamaulipas, Mexico, 72 emigrants were killed, and 14 of them were from Guatemala and three were from my diocese.

And then there´s the problem of deportation. In 2010 alone, 135,000 Guatemalans were deported from the United States and Mexico. Economically, this is devastating considering the remittances sent from abroad are the second-largest income for Guatemala. There are around 1 million Guatemalans in the United States. Imagine what would happen if they were all repatriated.

Guatemala´s presidents all seem the same. Even the last two, Óscar Berger (2004-2008) and current President Álvaro Colom, whose term ends in January 2012, have not done much different. Is that true?
Their governments have followed a liberal policy which means privileges for foreign investment, favoring the presence of transnational companies. Take the Canadian gold miner Goldcorp, one of the world´s largest, and that operates here in San Marcos. They pay just 1 percent as a royalty. Meanwhile, an ounce of gold, in just three years, has gone to $1,500 currently. They keep giving 1 percent, using all the water they want with the risk of pollution. As a whole, the benefits for Guatemala are non-existent, and today they´re still signing oil drilling contracts.

Nevertheless, apart from the issue of the multinationals, all of the government´s policies favor the concentration of wealth in a few hands. Recent studies say that 56 families in Guatemala hold all the wealth.

With this concentration of wealth, even the land is in the hands of a few. Has the problem of the large estates continued?
Absolutely. The large estates issue is present today, in 2011. There is also a system — I´ve seen it personally in my area — that is almost feudal for the workers, who have no right to social aid, vacation or retirement. They are not even the owners of a tiny piece of land on the estate where they live. They could be kicked off at any time and sent out into the street.

So, in Guatemala, the landholder system is still in place and now we have another facet to the story: a lot of land is being used to grow African palm for biofuels. It´s something unprecedented and unthinkable that in a country where the children don´t have enough food to eat, they´re using the land to grow palm oil for biofuels. Once again, it shows that we have governments that are too weak or incapable governments to confront the economic powers of the large landowners.
With a situation like this one, in my region, the campesinos are starting to grow poppies for heroin. They say it´s the only way they and their families can survive.

What can be done to get out of a situation that seems interminable?
Many of us in the Church´s social pastoral ask ourselves that. What can we do? What should we do? We´ve come to the conclusion that obtaining political power alone allows you change things. Of course, we don´t want to go back to the suffering that led to the armed conflict. We´ve suffered so much, so we don´t want to repeat that experience.

One thing that was interesting was a recent poll of young people. The question was, “Would you support a coup if there was one? Many of them responded “yes.”

That isn´t a surprise to me. Now our Congress is a disaster. We have a government that doesn´t listen to the demands of the population. For example, regarding mining, rural development… So many people don´t believe in political parties.

At this time we are debating how to best articulate social movements of different kinds. Believers, nonbelievers, the important thing is that the people have that desire for a different Guatemala, very different from what we have now. We want to make a public proposal to the candidates in September´s election, telling them how the Guatemala we want would look like, what profile we would like the president to have, etc. The main idea is to build a large social movement that will participate in not this, but the next election, because, I repeat: we are convinced that just getting the political power could change things.


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Msgr. Álvaro Ramazzini (Photo: Daniele Dalbon)
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