By Louisa Reynolds
Two indigenous women are seeking to make history by reaching the two top jobs in politics: Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú, presidential candidate of the left-leaning Frente Amplio coalition and lawyer Laura Reyes, vicepresidential candidate for the Compromise, Renovation and Order party, known as CREO.
Menchú is one of the most famous faces in Guatemalan politics and this is her second attempt to run for the office. But Reyes is a newcomer, running on ticket with Eduardo Suger, a mathematician of Swiss-Guatemalan origin and founder of the private Galileo University.
Reyes, a Mayan Kaqchikel woman from the municipality of Tecpán, in the department of Chimaltenango, two hours from Guatemala City, describes herself as a resiliant woman who had to fight against the odds to have a career.
“I had nine brothers and sisters, two of whom died at an early age,” she said. “My family was very poor even though my parents were so hard working. My mother sold corn tortillas and atol [a think drink made from rice flour] and my father was a builder. But they always told me: ´If you study your life will be different from ours.´ I started to work as a teacher but one day I told my father: “´I’m going to Guatemala City because I want to get a university degree no matter what it takes.´”
Reyes enrolled in the state-funded University of San Carlos to study law but was forced to quit her studies during her fifth semester due to financial hardship when she lost her part-time job. On three occasions Reyes had been offered a place on a computer studies program for students with special needs (she was born missing the lower part of her right arm) at the private Francisco Marroquín University.
When she found herself unemployed she decided to rethink the offer. Eduardo Suger, founder of the university, agreed to give her a placement on the condition that she would stay on after the course and work with him.
Reyes completed the course, worked as a secretary for the university´s information technology department and gradually worked her way up the ladder until she was promoted to the position of director of the same computer studies program where she had been a student a few years earlier.
Meanwhile, Reyes completed her law degree as well as many postgraduate courses on indigenous customary law, labor issues and constitutional law.
She continued to work with Suger when he left the university to found the Galileo University. “Why did Dr Suger choose me as vice presidential candidate? Because
I’ve been loyal to him,” said Reyes.
When Suger announced that he would run in tandem with Reyes – a Mayan Kaqchikel woman with special needs – he said that more needed to be done in order to include indigenous Guatemalans – who account for 38.4 percent of the country’s population of 14 million, according to World Bank figures – in the political sphere. He also criticized the Álvaro Colom administration, which came to power in 2007, promising to build “a government with a Mayan face” but who only appointed one Mayan cabinet member: Minister of Culture Jerónimo Lancerio.
Suger’s CREO party – a new moderate right wing organization in fourth place in the latest polls – has promised it will do things differently. However, whereas most parties’ propaganda – both TV adverts and posters – usually include the presidential and vicepresidential candidates together, Suger appears alone or with Roberto González, who is running for mayor of Guatemala City.
“There is a contradiction between discourse and reality. An indigenous woman is allowed to participate but then she is made invisible”, says Ana Silvia Monzón, coordinator of the gender studies programme of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, or FLACSO.
No cohesion in indigenous movement Under Guatemala’s institutionally weak political system, parties rarely survive two administrations and are regarded by ladinos – non-indigenous Guatemalans – and Mayans alike as mere vehicles to get to office.
Unlike other countries with large indigenous populations – such as Bolivia and Ecuador – Guatemala has no parties founded by Mayan leaders and based on indigenous identity, with the exception of Menchú’s tiny Winaq party, one of the three political organizations running under the Frente Amplio coalition.
For this reason, indigenous candidates at a local and national level, are spread accross the political spectrum. Speakers at a public debate on indigenous participation in politics, hosted by the Central American Institute of Political Studies on July 11, brought together Mayan candidates from four of the nine political parties running for office. Speakers came from parties with different ideological leanings, including the far-right Patriot Party, currently leading the polls with 40.1 per cent of the votes.
Many members of the audience asked Carlos Batzín, a Congressional candidate for the Patriot Party, why he joined a party whose presidential candidate, retired army general Otto Pérez Molina, took part in the genocidal “scorched earth” policies, under which 10,000 Ixil Mayans were massacred during the early 1980s in the department of Quiché. Pérez Molina also advocates neoliberal economic policies with an emphasis on the relentless exploitation of the country’s energetic resources, despite the fact that indigenous communities have repeatedly rejected such projects due to their detrimental impact on the environment. Batzín defended his choice, arguing that he “sought to belong a space where decisions are taken, a winning party”, as only by betting on the winning horse in the race could Mayans exert any influence.
He added that Pérez Molina, was one of the army generals who signed the 1996 Peace Accords that brought an end to Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war.
However, Otilia Lux, who is seeking re-election in congress with the Frente Amplio, replied that Batzín’s hopes were naive: “I swear that Batzín will never be unable to change anything. In all the commissions in Congress members of the [Patriot Party] and other parties did nothing but protect the interests of those who financed their campaigns and my indigenous brothers had no other choice except shut up and tow the party line.”