Guatemala’s Indigenous population is systematically excluded from society through racism, discrimination, and criminalization, rights organizations argue, which is why communities are rising up to demand a new Constitution to enshrine Indigenous rights to land, cultural autonomy, and self-determination, local media reported Wednesday.
Guatemala: New President, Old Problems
“Guatemala is a failed state that excludes Mayan, Garifuna, and Xinca people from its possible benefits,” Indigenous activist Mario Itzep, coordinator of the National Indigenous Observatory and National Network of Mayan Youth Organizations, told Prensa Latina. “We want to rebuild our country, the state, and implement a model of more harmonious coexistence between peoples.”
On the World Day of Indigenous Peoples on Tuesday, a collective of Indigenous groups presented a proposal to the Guatemalan government demanding a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution to recognize Indigenous land rights and check the power of corporations looking to exploit local resources by refounding Guatemala as a “plurinational” state.
President Jimmy Morales, who held a dialogue session with Indigenous groups Tuesday together with the heads of the judicial and legislative branches Tuesday, said that he is open to considering ways to improve the situation of Indigenous peoples in the country, Prensa Libre reported.
Key demands of Indigenous groups include recognition of Indigenous rights to land and self-determination through political, cultural, and economic autonomy. This includes demands for the right to practice traditional Indigenous justice as parallel and “plural” legal systems, as well as recognition and respect for Indigenous worldviews and spirituality, to which the protection of the land and nature is central.
The proposal also calls for alternative development models, combined with measures to tackle systemic racism and oppression, to open opportunities for the genuine reduction of poverty and inequality suffered by Indigenous communities.
Guatemala’s current constitution was adopted in 1985 under the military dictatorship of General Mejía Victores, which came on the heels of one of the most brutal periods of the 36-year civil war during the dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt. The constitution was updated in 1993 in the final years before the signing of the 1996 peace accords that brought an end to the internal conflict. Ongoing discrimination in Guatemala compounds a legacy of brutal civil war-era violence, especially violence against Indigenous women.
The constitution is vague and thin in terms of fleshing out Indigenous rights, stating: “The State recognizes, respects, and promotes their forms of life, customs, traditions, forms of social organization, the use of the indigenous attire by men and women, [and their] languages and dialects.”
According to the 1995 Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, one of the documents that was part of the process of signing a peace deal in 1996, Guatemala is a “multi-ethnic, pluri-cultural, and multilingual” state. But Indigenous groups argue that the implications of such a founding statement have never been fulfilled, prompting calls for pluri-nationalism to be enshrined in the constitution.
Both Ecuador and Bolivia have defined themselves in their constitutions as plurinational states through constituent assemblies in recent years.
Guatemala’s Indigenous communities make up as much as 60 percent of the country’s population of 15 million, including people of Maya, Garifuna, and Xinca ethnicities.