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On June 9th, Guatemala was paralyzed by a nationwide strike organized by a diverse coalition of groups to protest recent evictions of indigenous families from disputed land, as well as a regressive tax proposal and the newly-signed Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The protesters surrounded government buildings and blocked roads in 20 of the 22 departments of the country. The strike ended only eight hours after if had begun when President Berger offered to meet with the protesters and agreed to address the agrarian issue within ninety days.
Sixty days have passed since then, and the President has yet to satisfactorily fulfill the ambitious promises made in the strike agreement. The government made it clear that in such a limited period of time, it was unreasonable to expect sweeping change, but did assure the Guatemalan people that the groundwork would be laid for a positive solution to the agrarian issue. President Berger also promised, although not in writing, to halt the violent land evictions, although such a promise is not technically within his power, as the evictions fall into the jurisdiction of the judicial system.
The President recently made a concrete attempt to address the basic issue of property distribution and access to land when, on August 10th, the Guatemalan government announced the launch on August of a new Agrarian Attention Plan. This plan, which was developed jointly by the government and the Agrarian Platform, one of the groups that helped organize the June 9th strike, will establish a credit program for campesinos. According to Álvaro Aguilar, the director Ministry of Agriculture, Farming, and Food Production (MAGA), the program will provide interest-free loans of 1,000 quetzales (approximately US$127) for the leasing of land, as well as subsidies of 1,300 and 700 quetzales (approximately US$165 and US$89 respectively) to buy seeds, tools, and fertilizer to cultivate the property. At least 15,000 rural families are expected to benefit from these loans.
It is significant that the government has finally unveiled an agrarian loan plan, especially one developed with the input of campesino voices. Daniel Pascual, director of the Committee of Campesino Unity (CUC), declared his belief that the initiative is a positive first step towards a resolution of the problem of inequitable land distribution. However, while striving to help 15,000 families is important, the Agrarian Attention Plan represents merely a drop in the bucket. There are 5.5 million small producers in Guatemala, over eighty percent of whom live below the poverty line. More must be done to help the remaining rural families in Guatemala who are struggling and also need expanded access to land. The Agrarian Attention Plan is possibly an important step forward, but it remains to be seen how and when it will be implemented, and how many families it will actually benefit.
On the related issue of land evictions, some progress has also been made. Although Berger’s verbal promise that he would halt evictions held little power given that evictions fall within the jurisdiction of the court system, it is noteworthy that the frequency of evictions dramatically decreased after the strike. However, the government has been under extreme pressure from large plantation owners to continue with evictions, and on August 7th, police evicted 113 families from a plantation in Escuintla. While the eviction in Escuintla was peaceful, unlike the ones that sparked the June 9th strike, it marked the first large-scale eviction of the ninety-day period.
Judge Cristina Cáceres explained that the company that claimed title to the plantation had verified their ownership of the land with the court, making the eviction legal in her eyes. The campesinos, however, argued that the lands were the property of the State, but that influential individuals had used their pull in the government to deny land access to poor families. They said that they will look for another plantation to occupy because they need a place to live, and no government, not even the current one, has been concerned with giving them land.
In the agreement that ended the June 9th strike, President Berger promised to promote concrete measures to deal with the agrarian conflict, including opening a special office on agrarian affairs and asking Congress to review the laws on land occupation. Sixty days later, a permanent national office on agrarian affairs still does not appear to exist and Congress has not released a new statement on land occupation policy.
Despite the new Agrarian Attention Plan, Guatemalan people remain unconvinced that this administration is sincerely committed to long-term agrarian reform. In order to win the confidence of his people, President Berger must follow through on his promises in the coming months, not only by funding and implementing the new Agrarian Attention Plan, but also by addressing the issues of evictions and land distribution more aggressively and on a larger scale. The stakes are high. Without long-term agrarian reform, rural poverty will continue to rise, contributing to the overall instability of Guatemala.
REBECCA BRIGHAM is a senior at Wesleyan University and an intern at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org