AJWS in Action: Updates from Our Partners, June 4

Across the world, AJWS grantee-partners continue to meet the most desperate needs of their communities: food, protective equipment, life-saving information and more. But simultaneously, they are collaborating with each other, protesting government corruption and marching forward to build a better world. Below, read two such stories from grantee-partners in Guatemala. AJWS will continue to stand by all of our grantees in 19 countries during this global crisis—and we will update you on their life-saving work right here.

Guatemala’s government responded to the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly and severely—instating a strict lockdown policy, limiting the working hours of grocery stores and markets, and suspending public transportation. While intended to stop the spread of the virus, these measures have exacerbated existing problems that all Guatemalans face—like income inequality, a weak healthcare system and widespread government corruption—while also revealing the dire cost of a national shutdown on the country’s most vulnerable people.

Across the country, a stark, new symbol of Guatemalans’ collective struggle has emerged: People are waving flags from their windows and out in the streets. Families who cannot afford food wave white flags; those who cannot access medicine wave red flags; black, yellow or blue represent a woman, child or elderly person at risk of violence.

Underscoring the class divides in Guatemala, unemployment and loss of income due to the pandemic have been staggering. The government’s response? To reintroduce a bill in Congress that would loosen employers’ obligations to their employees and decimate workers’ rights, forcing more people into poverty.

In many cases, Guatemala’s government has added salt to these wounds, disparaging rather than supporting workers during this devastating time. In Guatemala City, for example, medical staff at a temporary field hospital published an open letter denouncing poor working conditions, including insufficient personal protective equipment and, astonishingly, months of unpaid salaries. Guatemala’s Vice Minister of Hospitals responded by accusing hospital staff of “ill intent,” saying their claims were “completely false” and that any equipment shortage was due to “excessive use by some of the staff.”

This month, AJWS grantee-partner Otra Guatemala Ya (OGY) declared that enough was enough. True to their name (in English: Another Guatemala Now), OGY was founded to mobilize marginalized populations to take on government corruption—and the mounting corruption sparked by COVID-19 has been high even for Guatemala, which has been marked by decades of government corruption. On May 14, OGY held a (socially distanced) demonstration in partnership with other civil society organizations outside Guatemala’s Congress building to protest three major problems: the proposed bill infringing on the labor rights of part-time workers; shortages of clean water in Guatemala City; and the dangerous dearth of funding and equipment in the country’s hospitals. OGY’s protestors all wore protective equipment and marched at a safe distance from each other to ensure that they would responsibly advance their cause without spreading the virus.

OGY’s protest language—included in flyers distributed by the demonstrators—was jarring, cutting to the heart of Guatemalan government corruption, making clear the government’s responsibility in spreading illness and spiking death: “They killed me because the food aid never came… it wasn’t the coronavirus, it was the State! I was a doctor or a nurse, and I never had a mask or protective equipment… it wasn’t the coronavirus, it was the State!”

Following the protest, Congress suspended the bill indefinitely. Although they didn’t attribute their reversal directly to OGY’s protest, we know that, time and time again in Guatemala and across the world, it is grassroots movement building like this that shapes laws and changes lives. OGY’s response to the government’s corruption and unwillingness to care for its people is a powerful example of AJWS’s Civil and Political Rights strategy in Guatemala, which aims to increase the capacity of social movements to influence local and national discourse and bolster democratic accountability as well as support legal advocacy by specific movement-based organizations. OGY is marching forward, fighting for the same causes they always have—but with so many lives at risk due to COVID-19 and the government’s corrupt and self-serving response, the stakes are higher now than ever.

AJWS Grantees Present Stark Realities of the COVID-19 Toll in Guatemala
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many types of human rights abuses that already existed in Guatemala—issues that AJWS grantee-partners have been fighting against for years. Before the pandemic, many of these organizations had worked together to create collaborative strategies to tackle these problems. Now, with the virus still threatening lives across the country, their leadership is more important than ever.

In late May, four AJWS grantee-partners in Guatemala were invited to present on their COVID-19 response at an online meeting of the Forum of International NGOs in Guatemala (FONGI). The forum brought together an impressive assembly of 28 international civil society organizations—as well as ambassadors and diplomats from embassies across Guatemala—in order to discuss human rights issues.

Members of these four AJWS grantee-partners—Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA), Unidad de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), Prensa Comunitaria and Consejo Nacional de Desplazados de Guatemala (CONDEG)—spoke about their work to combat and document the dramatic rise in grave human rights abuses they are witnessing as Guatemala responds to COVID-19, and the rights of vulnerable people are further imperiled in the name of pandemic response.

For example, UDEFEGUA, which fights for the protection of human rights defenders, described a shocking rise of people being kicked off their land illegally, as well as illegal and arbitrary arrests, an uptick in hate speech, raids and even murders of human rights defenders. Since January, UDEFEGUA has documented 157 of these aggressions. In recent months, UDEFEGUA has documented a pattern of defamatory attacks against journalists and attempts to silence them, a campaign led by the President to stigmatize NGOs, and a dismantling of protections for human rights defenders. As they said, “In the context of COVID-19, only with the full guarantee of human rights for all will we be able to move forward. Without this condition met… grave democratic problems will make this crisis worse.”

The prominent role AJWS grantee-partners played in this FONGI session illustrates how these organizations remain on the frontlines of the ongoing struggle for human rights in Guatemala—a role that has only increased as the pandemic trudges on. Supporting grantees to build movements around key issues is at the foundation of AJWS’s grantmaking strategy; this online convening of human rights-defending leaders shows that our grantee-partners refuse to cease their critical work no matter the challenges they face.

All information is accurate as of June 4, 2020.