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Guatemalan Farmers Are Too Poor to Protest

Tens of thousands of farmers showed up in Guatemala City yesterday to demonstrate against the construction of hydroelectric power plants and the high price of electricity—but they didn't have enough money to stay very long.
March 7, 2014, 3:45pm

Protesters from the rural town of San Luis, in Petén, Guatemala, hold a sign asking the Constitutional Court to prevent the expansion of hydroelectric development at a demonstration on March 7, 2014, in Guatemala City. Photos by the author

The thing about organizing and carrying out a massive rally attended by tens of thousands of protesters—most of them Guatemalan peasants and manual laborers—is that you need money. Money for buses. Money for breakfasts. Money for water. Then there's the money the protesters lost that day because they’re not selling tortillas, picking corn in the fields, or fixing potholes.

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Yesterday morning, a reported 20,000 people came together in Guatemala City, the country’s capital, to demonstrate against the construction of hydroelectric power plants. They came from villages just an hour or two outside the city and from much, much farther away—six hours one way from Quetzaltenango, or eight to ten hours one way from the distant reaches of the department of Petén. They came crammed into old American school buses, as many as 100 to a bus. Many of them were coming to the capital for the first time in their lives.

I heard about the protest early in the morning, when a friend who happens to be a damn good cabbie called me: “They're protesting,” he said. “A whole shit ton of people. It's about the hydroelectric plants.”

“Let’s go,” I said.

Los brazos de la Obelisco y Centra Norte ya arriban a la CC. Las cuatro marchas se reúnen. pic.twitter.com/s1vRA1tGQc

— Carlos Álvarez (@calvarez_pl) March 6, 2014

Farmers march through the streets of Guatemala City.

Hydroelectric power has been a serious political issue in Guatemala for decades. One of the first major projects was the infamous Chixoy Dam, built in the late 70s and early 80s, when the country was in the midst of a civil war and ruled by a right-wing dictatorship. Hundreds of indigenous Maya were killed during the resulting Río Negro massacre in 1982, after they sought to prevent their villages from being destroyed during the dam's construction. Ultimately, more than 3,500 people were forced from their homes by the project.

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In 2010, as the result of political pressure from the United States and years of campaigning by human rights activists, the Guatemalan government agreed to pay $154.5 million in reparations to the survivors, in addition to land grants and expanded social services. But the government has yet to make good on any of those promises, and earlier this year the US government suspended military aid to the Guatemalan army until president Otto Pérez Molina sings for his supper and starts paying what was pledged.

All this is to say hydroelectric power is fraught political territory—though the government has continued to build more power-producing dams. Last year the nation increased its hydroelectric capacity by 5 percent, and Guatemala now relies on hydro plants for a third of its electricity. More dams means that more rivers are diverted, more villages and relocated, and more engineering projects damage the environment. And there are more battles with the people who object to all of that.

One such battle is brewing in western Guatemala, where a dam is being built near the town of Santa Cruz Barillas. A community leader was killed there in 2012, and the town has hosted a number of protests that have resulted in clashes with the police and the military, including one in 2013 that resulted in the still unexplained death of a soldier.

This week, the national Human Rights ombudsman released a report identifying 57 “sources of conflict” that “generate ungovernability” in the nation, the office's director, Mario Minera, told the press. Of these sources of conflict, at least 17 are the direct result of hydroelectric projects, including one, the Xalalá project, that will wipe out an estimated 50 villages if it’s completed. With all of this on the line, I was expecting the Guatemala City protest to be pretty dramatic.

Buses line the streets of Guatemala City on the morning of the protest.

The morning was already hot when I began the long trek to the center of Guatemala City. Traffic was backed up, at a standstill in places, the result of 20,000 angry campesinos making their way to the three centers of governmental power—the Constitutional Court, the Congress, and the National Palace, where the president holds court.

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Our progress was slow, and we reached the Constitutional Court at noon. No one was there.

Somehow, 20,000 people had disappeared. A cop told us they had moved on just a few minutes before to the nearby National Palace. We drove over through the sluggish traffic, and 20 minutes later we were walking around the Central Park. Trash blew across the pavement under the giant Guatemalan flag snapping in the wind. There were clusters of slightly lost looking Guatemalans wearing cowboy hats and carrying day bags that marked them as being from the countryside.

“Are you here for the protest?” I asked.

“Yeah, of course,” they replied.

“What happened?” I said, perplexed. Where was everyone?

“We protested, but now it's time to go home,” they said.

It was 12:30 PM. For some reason, 20,000 people had traveled as many as ten hours crammed into a tin can with nothing to do but smell each others' pits—just to go home at the middle of the workday.

Not everyone was gone. Several thousand were still milling around in tightly knit groups in front of the National Palace, as if waiting for something.

“Why are you here protesting?” I asked.

One woman told me it was because of the hydroelectric plants and explained why. She had traveled with her baby from Quetzaltenango, almost as far west as you can go in Guatemala. Even though western Guatemala is full of hydroelectric projects, the price of electricity is too high, she said. The average family makes around $60 a month doing manual labor, sometimes less, sometimes more. The woman said she pays around $26 a month for electricity—43 percent of her family's monthly earnings. She doesn't have a refrigerator or a clothes dryer. Her family tries not to use the lights. Because of the expense, she's stopped using her blender, a veritable necessity in a country that puts salsa on everything.

A group of Guatemalan women who complained to me that the price of electricity was so high that they couldn't use their blenders.

Another woman, from a department near Guatemala City, told me she pays around $17 a month for electricity, but that her sister in the capital only pays $6. Others in a group from Peten, in the far north of Guatemala, echoed the woman's words. In their part of the country, water has been diverted to various engineering projects and no longer flows through rivers they depend on.

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The real crux of the problem in Guatemala is that although electricity for the capital and neighboring regions is produced and managed through a publicly owned utility and prices are relatively stable, in Guatemala's outer departments the electricity is controlled by private companies—the same companies that are responsible for the expansion of hydroelectric power.

The consequence of this, according to the protestors, is that they lose their land and access to water for the construction of power plants but then find themselves paying premiums to line the pockets of investors. What they want is for the government to nationalize the hydroelectric plants and fix the price of electricity—a radical, extreme proposal.

Los dirigentes campesinos anuncian el final de la marcha. pic.twitter.com/KTEW4cK1oa

— Carlos Álvarez (@calvarez_pl) March 6, 2014

But no matter the solutions they advocate, the protesters’ grievance is very simple. They’re poor—the poorest of the poor—and they can't even use their goddamn food processors because the authorities refuse to properly regulate the price of electricity. If there has ever been anything worth protesting, it's this. Camp in the streets. Throw rocks. Get all Ukrainian on the government's ass.

But that's not what happened. The streets of Guatemala City filled to the brim for three hours, and then everyone disappeared. While I was talking to the group from Quetzaltenango, they all abruptly stood up and started running to the bus.

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None of the 20,000 protesters could afford to stay the night in the city, or to buy food in the city, or the lost wages from missing another day of work. And it was a long bus ride back home.

The protesters pile onto buses in order to make it home before dark.

As I watched the group from Quetzaltenango running away, I finally realized why there was so much traffic. All of downtown Guatemala City's narrow, two-lane streets were choked with buses. Hundreds of buses. As my friend put it, “a whole mountain of buses.”

Every single one of those protesters had paid to rent those buses to come to the capital. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations: Renting a bus for a day in Guatemala costs around $210. If you figure that each of the protesters makes an average of $60 a month, then they each paid at least 3.5 percent of their monthly income to come to Guatemala City and protest for the right to have water in their rivers to wash their clothes with and electricity to power their food processors.

Do they think the government will listen to them? “If they don't change it, we'll just come back next month,” one man in a cowboy hat said before gathering his friends for the bus.

I hope they’ll be able to afford it.