Activists in Conversation: How COVID-19 Is Impacting Guatemala’s Indigenous Communities

Across the world, COVID-19 is ravaging low-income communities unprepared to take on a global pandemic and its economic effects. This crisis is compounded by authoritarian governments who are both refusing to lead with the public’s interest in mind and capitalizing on this global pandemic to assert and strengthen their power.

To learn more about how COVID-19 is affecting indigenous communities in Guatemala, journalist David Toro of Prensa Comunitaria—a community press publication supported by AJWS—interviewed Rigoberto Juárez Mateo, a leader of the Maya Q’anjob’al indigenous governing body and of AJWS partner organization Autoridades Ancestrales.

David Toro: In the face of the crisis caused by COVID-19, how do you analyze the situation the country [Guatamala] is experiencing?

Rigoberto Juarez: First, faced with this situation, a reality in the country is revealed: There is a deficiency, or rather non-existence, of a health and care plan for people. This has clearly shown us that health has been increasingly privatized.

The state of Guatemala does not have the capacity to detect cases. Test centers are only available in the capital, and even there they are improvised to attend to people, which means that just two public hospitals are providing basic care to people in the city. The rest of the people have to go to private medical centers that have proliferated in the city and in the municipalities.

The State does not have the capacity to care for people and the private centers will not do so either, as people will be obliged to pay [and most cannot afford to]. Hopefully, if the central government realizes this is the situation, they will give priority to public health, providing health centers and medical outposts with the necessary supplies.

COVID-19, as we have said on several occasions in the statements of the Plurinational Government, is a virus that, like other viruses, has lived alongside people throughout history. But when the health situation is precarious, these microorganisms attack the population.

This virus has come to uncover the change that we humans have exacted on mother nature. There is a drastic change. Viruses have taken on a stronger character; medications are no longer able to control them.

Photo by Nelton Rivera

The media have penetrated the urban and rural population, both corporate and social networks, feeding us viral garbage. Because of that, people are not inquiring about what medicines, products or plants can be useful for their protection. The media has been so strong that it’s stifled our creativity, and now we have to depend on chemical medicines to heal ourselves.

In our opinion we must return to ancient wisdom and ancient practices. In nature, we many not find the cure, but we can find balance in the microorganisms, and that is what health is all about.

In the economic sphere, consumption is what has proliferated most in our towns in recent years. What is advertised on radio and television is what we eat, we are not connecting with nature. There are many shortages of corn and beans because we have depended more on the consumer economy. We now buy everything in the “supermarket;” it has made us lazy and it is no longer like before, when people had corn, herbs and beans planted in their homes.

Now everyone screams at the heavens because there is no corn, and this uncovers another reality: there are groups of entrepreneurs who have settled in to live off the poverty of the people, hoard goods and control the markets … People cannot go out to work or do anything, but the large companies are loaded with products, so we are also being affected by the big corporations.

It is also of note that there is no public policy to attend to local agriculture, there is no production of corn and beans. What is consumed in some of the border regions, for example, is the corn that comes from Mexico: We depend on other countries because the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock is neglecting the population.

The country’s macro and micro economies depend first on remittances that come from the United States, followed by tourism, and only then by our national industry. This will affect everyone, because remittances have begun to decrease, and as has tourism due to the travel restrictions.

We are facing a greater risk than the coronavirus: the virus can be controlled, but what comes next is the fall of the economy, which will usher in an increase in poverty and cause many people to fall into extreme poverty.

DT: Do you believe that the most dangerous thing is not the virus itself, rather the deficiencies of the State of Guatemala in attending to its population?

RJ: Definitely. For example, in these days of curfew when people cannot go out to work, what does that mean for a family that depends on what they earn every day? That makes the entire family more vulnerable, not just the older members. If people stop working two or three weeks, who is going to feed them?

Those in charge have been privatizing the State of Guatemala for the last 20 or 25 years, and now what we have is a weak State. If it were a strong State, it would have the capacity to face these situations. It is a challenge for those who are in public office to be able to generate policies that seek to nationalize services.

For example, if the electric power service were not so deficient, if it was more accessible to the people, there would be no problem that it be privatized. But now more than ever we know that electric power is a State asset that must be of service to the population.

DT: What message do you have for the population in the face of this difficult situation that we are all experiencing?

RJ: We must return to communicating with mother nature in our environment, harmonize our coexistence with her. Only in this way will we understand that we, as human beings, desperately need that there be plants, animals, vegetables…only in this way will we reach balance.

We must rid ourselves of the attitude that everyone has to go to the supermarket; we must return to the land and work it. Because then, whatever happens, we will have resources in our homes. We need to generate the ability to balance our energies with the energies of the microorganisms that are in the environment.

We must think about the family economy—we have insisted on this for years. We must return to our ancestral way of life and return autonomy to Indigenous Peoples to face any situation that arises.

We are subject to State authorities that do not even comprehend the magnitude of the problem. They are focused on their businesses and not on the wellbeing of the people.

This interview originally appeared in Spanish in Prensa Comunitaria earlier this month.