In early March Guatemala began the process of ratifying the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) despite mass protests by popular movements throughout the country. Repression by military and police security forces resulted in the death of at least one protestor and many injuries. Although the Guatemalan Congress ratified CAFTA on March 10 by a vote of 126-12, movement leaders have announced that resistance will continue until CAFTA is subjected to a national referendum. President Berger sanctioned the trade deal on March 15.
A Gallup poll conducted in Guatemala from March 14-23 found that, when asked the question “Do you think the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) will help or hurt the country?” 65% of those polled responded that CAFTA would HURT the country.
During the days leading up to the CAFTA ratification, the Indigenous, Peasant, Union and Popular Movement (MICSP) organized an ongoing demonstration of thousands in Guatemala City and throughout the country to protest the agreement that included blocking entrances to the Congress, forcing it to delay the CAFTA vote. The protests also included cultural events, and the delivery of more than 25,000 signatures rejecting the trade agreement to the Guatemalan Congress.
The Guatemalan government called out the army and police and employed tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to disperse the large mobilizations. On March 14, grassroots organizations called a national strike to demand a nationwide referendum on CAFTA. Additional protests against CAFTA on March 15 in Colotenango, Huehuetenango resulted in the assassination of Juan Lopez Velasquez, a teacher and member of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC), by State security forces.
U.S. Considers Renewed Military Aid as Army Repression Grows
On March 24, on the heels of the widespread violence and repression of protestors by State security forces, and amid ongoing protests, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Guatemala to formally announce the disbursement of previously frozen military aid to Guatemala: “I’ve been impressed by the reforms that have been undertaken here in the armed forces,” he stated. In reference to the newfound cooperation around security and economic opportunity, Rumsfeld was effusive. “This is a magic moment,” he declared.
Although full U.S. military aid has not yet been renewed, Rumsfeld’s visit indicates the Bush administration’s desire to do so. Meanwhile, civil society groups have expressed growing concerns about the deplorable human rights situation in the country, the ongoing crisis of impunity and organized crime networks, and the role of the Guatemalan army in internal defense. The 1996 Peace Accords limit the role of the Guatemalan military to external defense.
Just days after Rumsfeld’s visit, Guatemalan Defense Minister Carlos Aldana, in an interview with the Guatemalan daily El Periodico remarked, “…the armed forces need to become more involved in internal security.” In response to the question “Can the United States support armies in their new role that is more focused on internal security rather than defense?” Aldana opines, “I believe this is the spirit of Rumsfeld’s visit to Guatemala.”
The Guatemalan government’s response to the massive opposition to CAFTA has been to criminalize protest, utilizing the army and police forces to disperse crowds and intimidate social movement and human rights groups. Almost one month after the ratification of CAFTA, despite scare tactics, empty calls by the government for dialogue, and threats of more violence, social movement groups remain in the streets. Their protests center on CAFTA, the demand for a full investigation into the killing of Juan López Velasquez, and a call for the interior minister and the director of the National Civilian Police to be fired. A statement placed in the Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre by more than 50 organizations from North America, Japan, and Austria, demanded an end to the violence and the criminalization of protest.
Press releases issued by the MICSP highlight that the recent repression of CAFTA demonstrators is “reminiscent of the country’s recent history. To continue with such action will place the Berger administration on par with the military dictators of the past that sowed pain and mourning.”
“Today Guatemala doesn’t suffer from a military dictatorship, but rather from a dictatorship of business interests,” MICSP asserts.
Guatemalan social movements strongly oppose CAFTA and see it as a new form of colonialism. They criticize a negotiation process that left out indigenous peoples, the poor, women’s groups, and others, and say that they were never consulted on their concerns about the agreement. Protestors assert that CAFTA will limit Guatemala ’s sovereignty and the nation’s ability to protect its own people. Measures such as the dispute settlement process, which effectively allows a company to sue the government for the imposition of any law that affects its profits, threaten the public interest by superceding protective laws deemed by special courts to be “more burdensome than necessary.”
Groups opposing CAFTA cite the experience of NAFTA and conclude that in their country, where 60% of the population survives through agriculture, small farmers will be decimated, genetically modified food will wipe out local biodiversity, local medicinal knowledge will be patented and restricted by U.S. pharmaceutical companies, and life-saving generic medicines will be illegal for years, among many other negative impacts.
The direct contradiction between public health and CAFTA recently came to the fore when the Guatemalan Congress passed a law to protect generic medicines. Immediately, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala John Hamilton warned in an op-ed in the Guatemalan Daily Siglo XXII in January: “There’s no doubt that Guatemala acted out of its concern to protect the public health… This could mean, however, that CAFTA does not pass or even come to a vote in the United States .” With no reticence whatsoever about dictating domestic policy, he further noted: “We hope that President Berger acts to rectify this error this month.” The Guatemalan Congress, under immense pressure from the U.S. embassy, did indeed overturn its own law in March.
In Guatemala , the Indigenous, Peasant, Union and Popular Movement wants a seat at the table on trade and economic policies to propose sustainable development strategies that benefit the majority of Guatemalans. MICSP says there are three parts to a new process: 1) Reject CAFTA, 2) Institutionalize a process through which different sectors of civil society can comment on trade, and 3) Create a commission with participation from the Guatemala Congress and the MICSP to analyze the real impacts of CAFTA, theme by theme, and for all sectors of the population, using impact assessments.
This process, MICSP says, leads to discussion and the development of alternatives that contribute to social justice and sustainable development. Above all it takes into consideration the most vulnerable members of the population, not just the elite.
Massive protests will continue in Guatemala and legal action is underway to challenge the constitutionality of the agreement. Guatemalans are not alone in their opposition to CAFTA. There are movements opposed to CAFTA all over Central America and in the United States. Although Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have passed the agreement, CAFTA is still a very contentious issue in the United States, where it faces a ratification vote in the near future.
The Bush administration has thrown its weight behind passage of the agreement, but Congress is still several votes shy of approval. For the safety and security of workers in the United States and the survival of millions of rural and indigenous Guatemalans, CAFTA should be blocked.