You are here


Seeds of Life: Guatemala Beyond Elections

As a new government takes office despite repeated attempts to undermine its ascent, Indigenous leaders reflect on the indefinite national strike in defense of democracy and the struggles that still lie ahead.

This is the introduction to a three-part series of interviews with social leaders. See Part I

On January 14, Bernardo Arévalo will be inaugurated as Guatemala’s next president. In the nearly five months since his upstart win against an establishment politician, maneuvers aimed at blocking his rise to power have repeatedly called the peaceful transfer of power into question. Last month, however, the Constitutional Court affirmed support for “the effective inauguration of all elected officials.” Now, days ahead of his swearing-in, Arévalo and his party Movimiento Semilla announced their administrative cabinet in a highly anticipated reveal.

In recent months, murmurs between Guatemalan academics, analysts, and reporters speculated as to why Arévalo and his party waited so long to confirm the incoming public officials. One reason, perhaps, was the difficulty of negotiating and nominating individuals for a transitionary government. Another likely reason was the prolonged offensive against Semilla waged by conservative political elites in what has been an extraordinarily hostile election cycle.

For those who came to defend the peaceful transition of state power, however, the cabinet reinforces the need to continue the struggle to strengthen Guatemala’s democracy. “We regret that the government-elect has not seized the historic opportunity to form an inclusive cabinet,” the Indigenous authorities known as the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán said in a statement, highlighting the “vital” need for “participation” of the Maya, Garífuna, and Xinka peoples. 

Established in 2017 on an anti-graft platform, Semilla emerged in fertile soil for a democratic spring. In August 2023, Arévalo and his center-left grassroots party took national and international audiences by surprise when they won the presidential election with 60 percent of the popular vote. But for members of what’s known in Guatemala as the Pacto de Corruptos (Pact of the Corrupt)—an increasingly dense and powerful shadow network of corrupt public officials—Semilla threatened the status quo.

Establishment forces swiftly ramped up a legal and political assault to scrap the results and strip Semilla of its legitimacy. There have been at least four serious attempts to overturn the elections, the most egregious being the sacking “thousands” of validated national ballots by the Ministerio Público (MP), the very institution in charge of criminal investigation and prosecution.

On October 2, 2023, Indigenous authorities known as the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán declared an indefinite national strike against the Pacto de Corruptos. In response to the onslaught of political persecution of Semilla affiliates, the 48 Cantones demanded the restoration of Guatemalan democracy and called upon the public to join them in demanding the resignation of three MP officials in charge of leading a slow-motion judicial coup, including Attorney General María Consuelo Porras.

When Indigenous authorities issued the call for a national strike, people did not occupy Guatemala’s national plaza, in the political heart of the nation’s capital, as has been the case in previous major mobilizations, like the massive 2015 anti-corruption protests. Instead, the nation took cues from Indigenous groups, whose political strategy had been to shut down a critical commercial highway that intersects their ancestral territories. As the country exploded in protest, thousands of residents took to the streets and set up bloqueos (blockades) in their own neighborhoods and along local highways. At its height, the decentralized #ParoNacionalIndefinido (#IndefiniteNationalStrike) reached more than one hundred blockades throughout the country.

The unforeseen mobilization brought a complete shutdown of commercial and individual mobility. Banners and signs hanging from bridges and other public spaces rejoiced in revolutionary slogans. Perhaps more importantly, the pause in the normal shipment of food and other goods was met with a proliferation of community kitchens that fed thousands of people nearly for free. Doctors volunteered their time to staff medical tents. For a moment, local and grassroots leadership had triumphed.

The fact that even Guatemala City—where the nation’s ladino population and conservative political elites are concentrated—joined the resistance testified to the power of Indigenous leadership and campesino consciousness. Ethnically mixed and working-class neighborhoods, such as La Bethania, a 20th-century social housing project turned settlement community now at the margins of urban development, were among the most dedicated of communities to local protest, proving that political resistance could bridge a longstanding urban-rural divide.

In November, after three weeks of a widespread shutdown, Indigenous authorities reconsidered the strategy for the indefinite national strike. While much of the country returned to work, Indigenous authorities, in collaboration with the 48 Cantones, expanded a united, peaceful protest camp pitched outside of the MP. The MP is the linchpin of the Pacto de Corruptos’ strategy of lawfare against not only Semilla, but any group or individual obstructing their interests. As such, Indigenous authorities were quick to clarify that their call to action was not necessarily an endorsement of Semilla per se, but rather in defense of Semilla’s right to take power. In other words, the national indefinite strike was in defense of democracy, a nonpartisan demand for a functional state.

Indigenous-Led Politics from Below

International coverage of Guatemala over the last six months has focused primarily on the administrative actions and reactions by corrupt state officials, efforts by Semilla to resist the assault, and reactions and involvement of the international community, primarily that of the Organization of American States (OAS). While these are some of the indisputably critical elements of this political moment, there are various forms of social and political struggle that precede—and will outlive—any single political moment or party.

The same Indigenous coalitions, movements, and authorities that are on the frontlines of the indefinite national strike are also at the forefront of movements for transitional justice, territorial defense, and migrant rights. Their struggles precede the latest electoral tumult not only by decades but by generations. For more than five centuries, the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala have struggled against conquest, genocide, theft, racism, and repression. State corruption is simply the most recent iteration in this long battle for self-determination.

In a series of three interviews, we discuss these themes with organizations that NISGUA has partnered with for decades, each involved in the indefinite national strike in their own way: the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), the International Mayan League, and the Xinka Parliament. 

The Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) is organized by Maya Indigenous survivors of state-sponsored genocide and massacres during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. They conduct exhumations of relatives who were disappeared and massacred, and defend survivors’ rights to testimony and historical memory. The AJR was a plaintiff in the 2013 trial that found former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide. It is currently a plaintiff in ongoing trials against former dictator General Fernando Romeo Lucas García on charges of genocide and against four former high-ranking military officers on a variety of war crimes.

The International Mayan League (IML) is a women- and youth-led organization at the forefront of political, cultural, social, and spiritual preservation among Maya migrant communities. Organized by Maya peoples forcibly displaced during Guatemala's internal armed conflict, IML participated in negotiations of the Guatemalan peace accords. The organization has since created the first language interpretation program for Maya migrants in the mid-Atlantic United States, built strategic alliances with Indigenous peoples in North America, started education programs to raise awareness about the reasons why Indigenous peoples are forced to migrate, and more. 

The Xinka Parliament is the assembly of ancestral authorities of the Xinka people. It is responsible for preserving the cultural, spiritual, territorial, and social integrity of the Xinka people. This has led to its active leadership in territorial defense struggles, most notably the successful temporary suspension of the Escobal mine, owned by a transnational silver mining corporation, through peaceful community resistance, domestic legal action, and international lobbying. In 2024, the Xinka people enter a community consultation process about the mine in accordance with the right to free, prior, and informed consent. The Xinka Parliament is a convening organization of the indefinite national strike.

Each interview offers insight and perspective from Indigenous leadership on the political moment leading up to President Arévalo’s inauguration, but also on how the challenges and mobilizations during this election cycle fit into the broader historical and political context of Indigenous struggles in Guatemala.

We conducted these conversations in the second month of the now more than three-month-long national strike. But our interviewees’ reflections take on renewed significance in light of Arévalo’s cabinet appointments. Although reactions are still unfolding, across the board Semilla supporters have conveyed disappointment with a cabinet that lacks the revolutionary potential the party once promoted. The 14 ministers—seven men and seven women—range from technocrats to previously appointed officials with ties to the private sector, corruption allegations, and state repression. While some observers excuse the deceptive appointments as a consequence of the limits of a transitionary government, others rightly highlight the lack of Indigenous representation—an affront to the 100 days (and counting) of dignified resistance led by Indigenous authorities. According to the 48 Cantones, this oversight is noted “especially in the ministries of Economy, Education, Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources, Communications, and Energy and Mines, since they are ministries of utmost importance for the development of our communities.”

Together, the interviews in this series affirm that the indefinite national strike is the blooming of seeds planted by ancestors decades ago, as well as the confirmation that springtime is on the horizon. The coming spring can be facilitated by governments, but it exists beyond them, too. Indigenous peoples have preserved, planted, and tended seeds of life for 500 years, under both favorable and adverse governments. With Arévalo’s cabinet appointments suggesting a deferral of revolutionary change for the next four years, a longstanding teaching from Indigenous leaders comes to the fore: structural change and justice lie outside of electoral politics. As Indigenous-led resistance persists on the eve of a historic presidential inauguration, whatever the next months and years bring for Guatemala, the seeds of the present are full of promise for the future.