The Art of Protest: Mario Valdez

The day after Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales ordered armored vehicles donated by the US to surround the offices of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Mario Valdez got to work in Guatemala City’s Constitution Square.

By Richard Brown – Editor / EntreMundos

Valdez went to the square because, he said, “Taking to the streets is taking public space, giving it meaning again, since they’ve made us believe that it’s not for us. Art and protest allow us to transform spaces to prove that we can transform reality as well.”

He needed just two and a half hours to create an unforgettable image of how he believes power operates in Guatemala.

Untitled work by Mario Valdez. See more of his work on Instagram at mariov_art.

He said, “I wanted the military to be extremely prominent in the center because Jimmy Morales obviously had the support of the military in his last address. To me it’s a message of terror. Very intense, very violent.”

Morales had dozens of military and law enforcement leaders behind him when he held a press conference in which he announced that he would not renew CICIG’s mandate and would seek to force CICIG to turn over its investigations to local prosecutors “immediately.”

President Jimmy Morales at his press conference, August 31, 2018. Courtesy of Telesur.

CICIG and Guatemala’s Attorney General María Consuelo Porras had requested that Congress strip Morales of his presidential immunity so that he can be tried for campaign finance violations. (Guatemala’s last elected president, Otto Pérez Molina, was forced out of office after a CICIG-assisted investigation proved he was involved in a massive corruption ring along with his vice president, much of his cabinet, and many of his allies. Four months of massive demonstrations forced Congress to withdraw his immunity and he has been incarcerated since.)

Images have circulated online comparing Morales’ press conference with an appearance made by Ríos Montt in 1982 after he seized power in a coup d’état. Montt was convicted in 2013 of ordering acts of genocide during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict. He was the first leader in history to be convicted of such a crime by a court of his own nation.

Ríos Montt (left of microphone) after taking power by coup d’état, 1982.

Behind the military, in his painting and in life, said Valdez, “Damn right CACIF is there. The fascist executives, there they are… alone, calm. They don’t show their faces much.” CACIF, the Executive Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, and Industrial Associations, comprises the country’s most powerful business interests made up of families widely considered an oligarchic elite.

Valdez said that he started making political art after working with Q’eqchi’ Maya communities. “What first hit me was the violent evictions. There’s so much territory in Alta Verapaz and still the local government has a strong interest in evicting people who are obviously in a situation of revolting poverty, and who then don’t even have a piece of land. The companies are the ones behind that process.”

Untitled work by Mario Valdez.

Valdez also depicts the Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity in the work. He cited their role in supporting the power structure that has made Guatemala one of the most unequal countries in the world, in which half of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. Valdez believes that religious leaders allow political leaders like Jimmy Morales to use anti-abortion or anti-gay marriage campaigns to cloak themselves in righteousness as they support policies that oppress and impoverish the country’s majority.

Untitled work by Mario Valdez.

“The churches don’t speak out,” he said. “Jesus delivered a message of love and revolution and inclusiveness… I think his message was totally coopted and twisted and used to manipulate people. It totally lost its essence of love.”

Valdez mentioned that during Guatemala’s armed conflict, many Catholic priests preached liberation theology, a doctrine that emphasizes aid to society’s poorest and most marginalized. They helped poor communities organize economic cooperatives and petition for access to land, education, and better working conditions. But hundreds of priests and catechists were murdered for these efforts because they ran up against the interests of the elite, and because Catholic Church leaders often spoke out against liberation theology. Most evangelical churches of the era, supported by US churches and dictators like Ríos Montt, also opposed efforts to change the country’s power structure.

Valdez further depicts how he believes Guatemala’s churches, military, and oligarchs have shaped the country’s history into a ball and chain that Guatemalan society drags behind it today as it struggles to progress. “We bear a historical burden, but we don’t even see it. We ignore it… It weighs a ton, but we don’t manage to recognize it.”

Valdez fuses past and present in his work to identify the causes and the agents of injustice, discrimination, and inequality as he sees them. He is inspired by the art of Ramirez Amaya, aka Tecolote, who was forced into exile during the armed conflict. Amaya expressed ideas in “the most intense way possible,” Valdez said.

Mural by Ramirez Amaya, 1973.

Just like Amaya, Valdez makes his art because he believes in the people of Guatemala. He said:

“I believe that the Guatemalan people have the ability to change the government. We need more participation. You’ve got to participate, and you’ve got to create spaces where we can organize ourselves as citizens, and I think demonstrations do that. [They allow us] to recognize each other, to talk, to create consensus. And so in this process, we transform reality when we as a collective find each other and create paths to where we want to go.”