Interview with mayor-elect Luis Grijalva
By Richard Brown and Patricia Macías – November 2015
Luis Grijalva, the unexpected victor by a wide margin of the 2015 race for mayor of Xela, met with EntreMundos in a restaurant in Zone 7 in October. He arrived without bodyguards, and answered our questions openly, except, for strategic reasons, those that had to do with specific plans to fight corruption and crime. Below is part of the edited interview. See the videos and read the complete interview at www.revista.entremundos.org.
You’ve said that your participation in social struggles has given you a clear idea of the reality of the country. What struggles were you referring to?
Since the late 70s and early 80s, as a university student in the engineering department at the Universidad de San Carlos, we witnessed a lot of social problems, like all the inequality that exists in our country, and also that there weren’t opportunities for everyone. One had to participate in helping communities in some way, so I volunteered some as a student. Later, seeing the problems faced by the youth, I also worked with a lot of youth groups. The most recent was to start to build the movement for transparency in Guatemala as cofounder of the Citizen Platform for Transparency, because we saw that it was necessary to work for and demand accountability.
What memories have most stayed with you from your days as a student activist?
I remember when some of the university professors were shot down, murdered. I remember accompanying funerals. From there came this desire to change things in the country. Even so, every day things got harder, and next thing you know you start to live differently. You get married, you have kids, a family, and, well, later, when you’ve already met all those responsibilities, that desire to do something great for the country comes back again.
How did you win the election with such a small budget?
Our spending totaled around 50,000 quetzales [about $6,450]. How we won is very simple: the campaign. I went all over the city, telling everybody that this Luis Grijalva they know is now a politician and wants to be mayor, and has a record over all these years.
You’ve said that the pre-election polls were manipulated. How do you know that?
Basically from the results. It’s not possible that 20 days or 15 days before the election they put me in eighth place with 3.8% and 15 days later we appear with 33%. There were different polls, each one from the different political parties. Friends who were also fighting to win the election would always tell me, “Look, you’re in first place” or “You’re in second according to the polling we have.” But they were polls that weren’t published. We showed in the end that the definitive poll is election day.
You’ve said that you want the people of Xela to accompany you over the next four years. How do you want us to do that?
We have to transform Quetzaltenango, but the mayor can’t do that alone. All of our citizens are going to take part. And that’s something wonderful because we’ve had many, many meetings and everyone has this goal of participating. We’ll be an administration that we’ll want people to remember for two things: One, for transparency. And two, for public participation. This is how democracy really works. Democracy isn’t just voting every four years, but rather public participation.
(Sometimes) the calls to meet will be over social media, but the meetings have to be in person, meetings that we’ll have by sector, by neighborhood, by community, but also through groups like professional associations, chambers of commerce, universities, local development councils, a lot of ways. This is going to be hard work, because you have to make time to meet with everyone.
Will you collaborate with popular movements, like #Vos, for example?
I’ve been involved in popular movements since the moment I first looked for change. Now, collaborate with a specific group X, no. Because we don’t want these groups to become politicized. We, as the party we are, as new authorities, we’re simply going to ask, and we’ve been asking the public, “Audit us, please! Count what we spend!” How much and everything else, because that’s democratic action.
Why do you think the city authorities didn’t turn over the financial and administrative report that they’d promised you?
There are two things in play: One is that they could be trying to hide something, and the other is that they simply don’t have organized information to give. So it may be a combination of the two.
What’s your impression of the city’s financial situation?
It’s terrible! We’re totally underfunded and apart from that we have huge debts. This is the financial situation: this is a city that is not sustainable, in which really it appears that there’s some kind of subsidy, but that subsidy doesn’t exist. The debts pile up and the underfunding gets worse and worse.
One of the big problems is not knowing exactly how much money comes in nor where it’s coming from, because there’s one single account. The other is that not knowing exactly how much is coming in and not knowing where to raise rates or taxes means we’re never going to have any money. And with everything we need to fix considering all the city’s issues, we need funds. That’s why what we have to do is change how we collect revenue, and above all how we keep real records of what comes in.
Have you thought of raising taxes or the price of electricity, for example, to shore up the city’s finances?
It’s pretty complicated. I personally don’t want to raise any rate, any tax. On the other hand, the city government can’t subsidize every service, because two or three or four years later, there won’t be a single cent to invest, and we won’t solve any of our problems. That’s why we’re talking about an issue of justice. Everyone paying for the service they’re using. That is simply justice.
What are the lessons that we should learn from the social mobilization of the last months?
I think the lesson learned is that yes, united we can, so to speak, fight for our rights. We can achieve a lot. We can make changes. If we move forward selfishly, we’re not going to effect any change because real changes will benefit everyone, and that’s why I think that the demonstrations will in some form continue next year. Because, what is it that people want? Structural changes. Today, the president and the vice president are in jail, plus some other officials, and more are soon to fall. Still, structural change hasn’t happened yet in Guatemala, and I think the protests will continue until those structural changes really happen.
What books from Guatemala would you recommend to everyone?
El Señor Presidente (Mr. President), by Miguel Ángel Asturias; Guatemala: Nunca Más (Guatemala: Never Again); and La Mansión del Pájaro Serpiente (The Mansion of the Serpent Bird), by Virgilio Rodríguez Mac.