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“Our present and our future depend on the right to defend human rights”
Paolo Moiola
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Interview with Claudia Samayoa, coordinator of UDEFEGUA, organization that protects human rights defenders in Guatemala

Twenty years have passed since the civil war officially ended in December 1996. However, peace in Guatemala continues being just an illusion. Violence, poverty and injustice are part of daily life. The population of the country is 16.5 million of which 45 percent are indigenous peoples (Maya, Xinka and Garífuna). According to official data obtained from the National Statistics Institute (INE), 59.3 percent of the population live in poverty; four-out-of-five indigenous are poor, the majority of which live in rural areas.

In such a complicated context, to demand respect for human rights is a difficult task and often a very dangerous one. One piece of data serves to get a better understanding: there were 223 aggressions against human rights defenders reported in Guatemala between January and November 2016; 14 of whom were murdered. These were people who defended the environment, the right to truth and justice, the right to the land, and the right to work.

The UDEFEGUA (Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala) is an organization that has been in operation in this Central American country since 2000 in order to protect and assist human rights defenders. Paolo Moiola, Latinamerica Press collaborator, talked with Claudia Samayoa, the founder and coordinator of UDEFEGUA, who in November 2016 was awarded for her work by the Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge Eduardo De León Duque.

Tell us who you are.
I am Guatemalan. I am privileged to have three children and a lifelong partner who has been beside me in my existence that is totally dedicated to human rights. I have a degree in Philosophy, but my country has forced me since the 80’s to undertake the fight for rights; the right to truth and justice, education, indigenous rights.

After closing 36 years of a bloody civil war, the road to peace looked bright for Guatemala. But on the contrary, 20 years later and after the signing of the Peace Agreements, the country looks to be at peace only as a formality. Why is that?
After the peace was signed, we naively believed we were free at last. But instead, between 1998 and 2000, the time when I was the director of the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, the control of the country was transferred to the hands of what I call the military mafia. This is an organization made up of members of military counterinsurgency and men that are involved in organized crime (drug trafficking, contraband, human trafficking). Once they took power they waged a fight against all of those who worked to achieve peace and to assert rights; mainly the young people and women.

How did they react faced with this abuse of power?
We, along with various entities, decided to do something different: not to leave stranded all of those people who fight for rights. That is how UDEFEGUA got its start; with a sole objective: everyone — regardless of their ideology, regardless of whether young or old, or indigenous or not indigenous — has a right to work for the defense of human rights, because it is not necessary to be a lawyer or to belong to an organization to do it.

What is the role of UDEFEGUA in favor of those who fight to defend human rights?
We stand alongside them. We look after them and their investigations so that they can perform their work safely. We take on information work and produce bulletins (El Acompañante) with analysis, graphs and statistics. We have followed over 5,200 cases in Guatemala. We not only do our work here, but also in many other countries, from Mexico to Panama.

Your organization works to protect human rights defenders, but violence is also present inside the home. It is estimated that eight out of ten women in the country are victims of physical, psychological, sexual and patrimonial violence perpetrated by their husbands or partners.
True, there is much violence. Sexual violence has reached levels never seen before. Almost 1,000 cases of sexual violence were reported in just two months. This means that in reality the number is much, much higher. Throughout the region we are living a war waged on the bodies of women, proof of which is the murder of [Honduran environmentalist and indigenous leader] Berta Cáceres.

In September 2015, massive protests forced President Otto Pérez Molina, elected in 2012, to renounce the presidency for his involvement in a major corruption scandal. Two months later, Jimmy Morales, a comedian and evangelist, was elected president by a large majority. What happened?
He had no real chance, but then, starting in June 2015, evangelical pastors began to ask the population to vote for him because Morales was the answer. They were immediately joined by members of the military and former paramilitaries [belonging to the Civilian Self-Defense Patrols (PAC) formed in 1981 and formally dissolved in 1996].  Morales did not bring any proposals, but he won with a large participation of the population.

His slogan in the election campaign was: “Neither corrupt, nor a crook.” Who is President Jimmy Morales?
He has a machista mentality; he is a racist and authoritarian. For Jimmy Morales, the indigenous peoples are just Guatemaltecans, plain and simple, and he does not understand why they should be treated differently.  He is pushing for old nationalistic views: “We are all Guatemala,” he says. But his Guatemala is the Guatemala that only speaks Spanish and does not acknowledge the different ways of doing politics. His ideas are very machista: women cannot get into politics until they have asked permission from their husbands. These are positions that are too conservative and are related to his membership in a fundamentalist Evangelical church of US origin.

Nearly half of the population of Guatemala is indigenous. Their condition is still precarious.
In the last few years the indigenous population has gotten poorer. The misery in indigenous communities has risen by 12 percent. There is chronic malnutrition in the country: one in two children is malnourished, and the percentage increases among indigenous children. These are official figures. Everything is manipulated in Guatemala, but not even the government can hide the truth in this case. Unfortunately, we have not achieved what we dreamt for in the 80’s, but there has been a significant mobilization of the indigenous peoples.

Do you mean that despite the difficulties, there has been some positive change?
When I worked at the Menchú Foundation, the emphasis was placed on bilingual education. At present that has been overcome. Nowadays the indigenous peoples fight as a community and no longer as individuals. They fight for their rights, including the right to development and the right to consultation. They have also started to extend bridges to the non-indigenous population. This is a way to reduce the racism barriers and those originated during the armed conflict. This is a way to reach reconciliation.

Evangelical Churches have also continued growing in Guatemala at the expense of the Catholic Church. How do you see the situation?
The evangelicals now make up 35 percent of the population. In terms of the Catholic Church, it is divided into two trends, just as it is taking place in many other countries. One is the popular church, which fights for the environment and against organized crime. This is a church that makes the right wing fume, which accuses it of promoting war, and of being Marxist and Communist. This church has regained strength with the arrival of Pope Francis. Then, we have the traditional church that does not provide support for the poor, and says that it wants to maintain an independent posture; is represented by the Nunciature, for instance. As a catholic person, I hope that sooner or later the message of Pope Francis reaches the entire church structure. We now have bishops who are very committed to today’s reality. Msgr. Alvaro Ramazzini and Msgr. Julio Cabrera are those who are the most representative figures, but they are no longer alone.

Decades keep going by but it would seem that Guatemala always has the same problems and in the end any solution is doomed to failure. Is there too much pessimism in this view of things?
In my opinion, our present and our future depend on the right to defend human rights. In the last few years I have maintained alive the vision held by many people. If we succeed in freeing ourselves of the intolerant forces, Guatemala will change, and not only it, but also the entire region. Together we hold great power and this is my hope for the future. —Latinamerica Press.


Claudia Samayoa / Paolo Moiola
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