FEDERICO GOMEZ is a representative of the Chuc people, one of the 22 indigenous cultures in Guatemala. He has been visiting Australia for the secretariat of the campaign 500 Years of Black, Indigenous and Popular Struggle. He was interviewed for Green Left Weekly by ROBERTO JORQUERA and SEETAL DODD.
Why was the 500 years committee formed?
The campaign is being organised to counter the official celebrations commemorating 500 years since the so-called discovery of the Americas by the Spaniards. These "celebrations" of the coming together of two cultures is mainly being organised by Spain but also includes sections of the Catholic Church, the Spanish royal family and the Dominican Republic, where some 3000 families have been displaced so that a monument can be built.
We are pointing out the situation in Central America, where the violations of basic human rights continue. Repression, torture, discrimination, hunger and lack of land, health and education still shadow the majority of the people in the continent.
They want to celebrate the discovery of two cultures and the development of the people in the Americas. But what sort of development are they speaking of? The past 500 years have been a time of genocide, ethnocide and ecocide on their part. For example, the Guatemalan government and the military have executed 100,000, have "disappeared" 50,000, have left 300,000 women widows, 500,000 children orphans, 250,000 refugees and have destroyed and burnt down 440 communities.
In the economy, there is a similar pattern of discrimination. In Guatemala, 70% of the land is owned by 2% of the population. We have extreme
poverty throughout Latin America. In Guatemala, the average wage for a worker is 3 cetales, which is equivalent to $US0.70, per day. A medical consultation costs 40 cetales and a pound of meat costs 10 cetales. The infant mortality rate is 30%.
In our struggle to overcome such injustices, the government retaliates with bullets. From March to June, some 1500 workers demonstrated outside the Presidential Palace for wage rises. The government responded brutally, causing a number of deaths and injuries to the peaceful protesters.
These problems which I have outlined for Guatemala are the problems for the whole of Latin America.
What sort of support do you have among different governments and social movements?
The majority of Guatemalan people, some 70%, are Maya people, who do not have any representatives in the government, even though the constitution guarantees such representation.
The struggle which we are unfolding aims to expand such basic freedoms and individual rights as the freedom to mobilise, associate and speak. But the government responds by assassinating our people.
It is the same sort of repressive policies which are being implemented throughout the region by the capitalist governments and in particular by imperialism. We hope this campaign will spark a movement of all the progressive forces. We need to unite, communicate and organise ourselves.
Who are the people involved in the campaign ?
The campaign is not just made up of indigenous people. It includes blacks, mestizos from the Caribbean, whites, Christians and people from a number of different parties.
We are trying to find ourselves, our identity, under enormous repression. We are also trying to build an alternative movement counterposed to the corrupt political parties which rule the majority of the continent.
What is the present situation with indigenous cultures and languages?
A comparison which I would make is one with the Australian Aborigines, who have also faced very similar problems of the destruction of their cultures and heritage and the attempt to assimilate them to a foreign way of life.
I do not want to generalise, for in some places the attacks on the indigenous have been worse. Within these cultures there exist many valuable ideas which can explain many things which Western ideas cannot. Though we are not allowed to express many of these ideas, we have not lost them.
What are the plans of the 500 years campaign after this year?
Our major actions will be around October 12. But we have a number of short, medium and longer term plans for the campaign. Our objective is that you understand and respect us, and also to build unity among the people, which will take time.
What is the present state of the negotiations between the resistance in Guatemala and the military and government?
The negotiations have now gone on for over two years. Throughout this period they have stagnated on the issue of human rights, because of the government's reluctance to make any concessions.
The government talks of a democratic solution. We still hold to the belief that democracy will not come from the government but from the people, who will decide their own destiny. The government
maintains that it will bring total peace to the country, but how will it, if it cannot understand, recognise and accept the enormous damage and suffering it has inflicted on its own people?
At present their are more than 250,000 refugees. The Serrano government maintains that they may return, but what conditions are placed on their return? At the same time as making this so-called good will gesture, the government continues to torture and murder the people.
While the government does not look at the fundamental problems of society, there will be no peace in Guatemala. Until the people rise up there will be no guarantee of peace.
In that dialogue, there is no-one representing the indigenous people of our land, and so we demand that they let us have a representative in those negotiations. For as long as the indigenous people are not taken into account, there will be no peace in Guatemala.