Taking It to Guatemala’s Streets

Guatemalans take to the streets to protest the attempted rightwing coup.

Room 20, Hotel Spring, 8th Avenue, Guatemala City. It’s 3:30 a.m. Four hours’ sleep. That’s all my racing mind will allow. It’s not every day I wake up a block and a half from what was, late last night, a possible slow-burn coup, in an ancient land that built pyramids and towering temples when raw sewage still ran in London’s streets.

As I went to bed last night, the fantastically loud music that drove me from the thousands packing Guatemala City’s vast Parque Central thudded into my room, four blocks away. The music is now gone, and, as of 56 minutes ago, AP is reporting that progressive President-elect Bernardo Arévalo was finally sworn in – after midnight. That’s more than eight hours after Arévalo was to take office, and hours after huge tv screens erected in the Parque Central showed bedlam and chaos racking Guatemala’s Congress as it debated whether to give final certification to Arévalo’s resounding victory in last year’s election.

Deputies were shouting, chanting, interrupting and laying siege to the presiding officer, who bore an unsettling resemblance to Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s 15-year U.S.-supported butcher. And the whole scene was broadcast in real-time to the thousands of Arévalo supporters gathered in the Parque.

Arévalo’s taking office was never certain until it happened. Two days ago, Gerardo Jiménez, Mexico and Central American representative for the global Catholic charity Caritas, and longtime observer of Guatemalan politics, told me there would be no coup. The ruling class didn’t need it, he said. It had successfully stripped Arévalo’s Semilla (seed) Party of official party status over alleged ballot irregularities, leaving the relatively new minority party crippled. And under Guatemala’s unusual constitution, even if Arévalo took office, he would be hobbled for two years with the incumbent and powerful Public Minister María Porras, who could bring corruption charges against Semilla Party officials and block charges against Arévalo opponents – a recipe for two years of inaction and disorder. Porras has long been accused of cohabitation with coup plotters.

And until yesterday afternoon it looked like the inauguration would take place as planned, followed by an Arévalo speech from a balcony of the National Palace that faces the vast Parque Central, where microphones and a podium were all in place and ready to go, just as they were when Allende took office in Chile in 1970, and countless other times in Latin America’s convulsive history.

Daylong celebrations brought thousands to the Parque and packed the long, pedestrian Sexta (sixth) Avenida. Heavy percussion and electric dancing from Guatemala’s Afro-Caribbean Garifuna people enthralled revelers, and there was marimba everywhere. Everything seemed fine, even idyllic.

But as the day wore on and the inauguration hour came and went with no inauguration, tensions mounted. Word spread that coup plotting was underway in a building not two blocks from my hotel. I made my way there. 

Hundreds of protesters assembled at all four corners of the building, which takes up an entire city block. They demanded entrance to the building, but lines of armed police, 4 to 5 deep and arms locked, blocked passage. The standoff lasted hours, with protesters intermittently pushing right up to the police lines, almost rubbing up against them.

And a half-block behind the police barrier, an ominous phalanx of police in full riot gear guarded the building entrance, should the outer perimeter be breached by protesters. 

At one corner protesters had an old Volkswagen station wagon, replete with a small metal ladder welded to the back of the car and a small homemade speaker’s platform welded to the top, and speaker after speaker denounced the coup plotters inside, accusing them of, among other things, consigning Guatemala’s children to lives of want, deprivation and hunger. At one point a microphoned woman on the street, below the vehicular stage and only a few feet from the police barricade denounced the police as cowards. Even that brought no reaction from the stoic police.

After hours of the standoff, I left for badly-needed food. I walked through streets lined with hundreds of police, maybe a thousand or more. They were gathered on almost every corner in knots and groups numbering up to 50 or more. I had never seen so many cops. 

When I emerged from my meal the mood had shifted. The police were visibly more relaxed. Word on the street was the inauguration would go forward – or would likely go forward – but final congressional approval had not yet come through. I returned to the site of the earlier standoff, but the protesters were all gone. A cop told me they had all gone to the Parque Central. An hour earlier I wouldn’t have asked a cop anything.

I made my way to the vast Parque Central plaza, which rivals Mexico City’s Zocalo, another site of Latin American political upheaval, and in the Parque, the atmosphere was again festive, with music and dancing, and thousands of Arévalo supporters. An older couple danced cheek to cheek, with irrepressible smiles. They looked all at once on their first date and fifty years married. And the huge tv screens had shifted from scenes of congressional chaos to a reflection of the Parque’s own throngs and revelry.

A speaker announced there was a pause in congressional deliberations that would likely last some time, perhaps till morning, so I left for some badly needed rest. 

On the way back to my hotel I passed the site of the earlier police-protester standoff, and there I found five young people, male and female, brandishing a big banner with photos of longtime coup plotters. As menacing SUVs with darkened windows left Coup Central and slowly made their way through the throng of police and past the five protesters, the five yelled and screamed at the cars. “Cowards!” they yelled. “Asesinos!” Assassins! “Asesinos del pueblo!” Assassins of the people! “Golpistas!” Coupmongers!

The biggest of the SUVs revved its engines and momentarily made a run at the five brave souls, but police moved in just enough to deter the vehicle.

The bravery of the five reminded me of the women of Guatemala’s Sepur Zarco war crimes trial, which I covered in 2016, not one mile from the young people’s courageous standoff. In that trial, indigenous women clothed in indigenous dress from head to toe, only their eyes showing, hiding their identity, in fear but defiant decades after they were mass-raped and pressed into sex slavery by Guatemalan soldiers.

Back at the police barricade, the unbridled and radical courage of the five young people was contagious. I got swept up, and casting aside any remnants of neutral observer, I flipped off the biggest SUV as it passed not three feet from me. Decades of witness to Latin American ruling class brutality spilled over. You only live once.

As I write, dawn is breaking in Guatemala City, and horns are honking. I don’t know whether it’s regular Monday morning traffic in this city of five million, or whether it’s in celebration of what yesterday’s signs and banners called a “Democratic Spring” and a “Democratic Spring 70 Years in the Making”. But I aim to find out.

Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at thedeftpen@gmail.com.