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Yolanda Colom: Author, activist, ex-guerrillera

Interview by Patricia Macías and Richard Brown

Yolanda Colom y Mario Payeras. Foto cortesía de Ediciones del Pensativo

Yolanda Colom y Mario Payeras. Foto cortesía de Ediciones del Pensativo

Yolanda Colom was born in Guatemala City in 1952. She is an educator, author, and exguerrillera of the Guatemalan Army of the Poor (EGP). She lived more than 20 years in secrecy or exile during the armed conflict. She currently works with Ediciones del Pensativo, and edits and compiles the written works of her deceased partner Mario Payeras, who was also a leader in the EGP.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

EM: How is Guatemala’s social situation different today than it was when you decided to join the armed resistance in the 70s?

In terms of social and economic context, I think the system continues as it was, the structural causes that generate our socio-economic issues are as they were, but more severe, deeper, and so the problems are graver. The structural causes of hunger, of malnutrition, of illiteracy, of growing unemployment, of hunger wages… And the expression of the harm is greater, because it’s not just physical or material, it’s also psychological, emotional, and moral. These phenomena are stronger and we see it in migration, which for me is expulsion. The country vomits its own people, it expels them. And internal migration… it strikes me that over the last few years I see more and more q’eqchie’s all over the city. Before, no… los q’echie’s used to migrate to the outskirts of their territories, but now they’re in the capital. And why is that? Brutal displacements and expulsions.

You also see it in the profusion of people walking the streets, washing cars, shining shoes, selling whatever trinkets, begging or just sitting in the park. For me these are indicators… also like public transport, the same buses in the 60s are still running! When I was a kid the buses gave tickets, one person for one seat, and there were inspectors. The buses even left one stop and went to another, they didn’t vary their route. But now everything’s regressed… Public transport in the city and outside the city is an indicator of the quality of life of a city. Your quality of life isn’t just how you live inside your house and how much you make, but access to services, quality of safe or unsafe streets, clean or dirty, park benches in green public spaces, bathrooms…

All these problems have been getting worse, quantitatively and qualitatively, from the point of view of quality of life and people’s life prospects, from kids to adults. When I was growing up, there was a middle class in this country, another indicator of the socioeconomic, ideological and political polarization of the country. A country where the tiny belt of middle class people is shrinking. It’s not even a pyramid anymore. We have a huge majority young and adolescent population, and this is exactly the demographic that needs to be supported with education, health, transport, services. But the productive band of society is small because the pyramid is too inverted and the middle class is nonexistent. And with a minimum wage that doesn’t even cover basic food requirements… We’re one of the most expensive countries relative to wages.

And the guns. Today you can buy whatever gun you want, there are stores even in small towns and rural department capitals. And where did they come from? Before they didn’t exist! I remember in the revolutionary movement to resupply there were two or three stores, hardware stores! And they had hunting rifles, shotguns, or .22s. And I remember, the EGP cleaned those out. The other way was to take them from the army or police, that was it. And after the Peace Accords the gun stores spread like a fungus through the country… And who own these businesses? Military people, narcos. And they blame the little people, the gang members.

It’s a generalized social deterioration, of dehumanization, let’s say, of impoverishment. We run barbed wire around our houses and our neighborhoods, we can walk down fewer and fewer streets. All for security. Is this quality of life? Even the poor neighborhoods are barred up, because even tortilla makers get robbed and extorted.

‘The economic power, the financial power, the military power, the political power. Where is the power of the control of the means of production? Like land. Where is it? Who owns it? Who’s managed it? How does the party system work here?’

So comparing today to when I ‘burnt my ships’ and threw myself into the void of the struggle, I’d say today the situation is graver and all kinds of values are degraded, at all social levels. The deterioration and dehumanization isn’t just caused by the capitalist system itself, but also on top of it comes the policy of vitriolic anti-communism, military dictatorship, and a counterinsurgency that has systematically degraded humanity. Not only in the innocent victims, repressed, abused, tortured… but also in the enforcers, in the cheap manual labor of the infantry, made brutish to do these things. The Community Self-Defense Patrolls (PACs) were also full of people turned brutish. It was so clear after the massacres and the scorched earth unleashed indigenous child prostitution, adult prostitution, when it hadn’t existed in the culture, when in indigenous territories prostitution was almost nonexistent. There wasn’t the prostitution there is now, and that’s another indicator of social degradation.

And now you see the official discourse paints as guerrillas, subversives, terrorists the communities that fight mining, the people who fight dams, the workers who ask for collective bargaining.

Just like when I was little, they call Communist or responsible for the ills of the country anyone who asks for their rights, the people from the middle down, those who demand, protest, denounce, criticize, those who don’t shy away from painful truth.

But this is a simplistic, black-and-white discourse, so that nobody notices who is really responsible for the way things are going. The economic power, the financial power, the military power, the political power. Where is the power of the control of the means of production? Like land. Where is it? Who owns it? Who’s managed it? How does the party system work here?

EM: What were social movements like back in that era?

YC: In the 60s and 70s social mobilization was huge. Especially the student movement, in universities and high schools, it was enormous. Men and women who fought beside workers in marginalized areas, beside other students, including beside the movement against Exmibal, which symbolized the mining sector in those days.

In the 60s the cooperatives and farmer unions of Catholic Action were strong. The Church did a lot of good reformist work promoting cooperatives and committees for improving schools, committees for improving water, for improving roads. There were also the academics’ strikes that made history in 73 and 78, very powerful and very clearheaded. Syndicalism, unions were not only encouraged by Communists, they were encouraged by a lot of democratic people and totally within the system, protected by the law and by developed countries. Unions that grew and grew.

And it was a syndicalism and a student movement and an academic movement not only for their own groups’ interests but in solidarity with the others. At times they went to the streets not even for their own issues, but against repression in general. It grew into a broad movement within the bounds of the law with a lot of class consciousness, national consciousness, for sovereignty, for the defense of their rights, for solidarity with other unions that fought for different issues. They were movements and acts that were quite heroic.

EM: How can today’s movements become stronger?

YC: The only way for those at the bottom, the resisters, those who want a better world is organization. There is no better way: self-organization. This is part of the school of consciousness… and the only way to form leadership that acts on its ideals, and the needs of the country. Experience, and action. This is simply practice. Only the practice of organization and struggle will form fighters, organizations, consciousness, leadership. But leaders aren’t the only part, the whole has to mature, too. 

All of the organizations that existed in this country, all of the struggles were conscious, combative. Now movements are emerging again, and they’re repressing them. How many unión leaders have been killed since the Peace Accords? How many rural leaders or community leaders are disappeared, incarcerated, or dead already?

EM: Do you see any rays of hope in social movements today?

YC: After the Peace Accords were signed, social movements started to emerge again, and the system remains the same, rising unemployment, education working poorly… so social organization is starting to emerge again little by little, though it’s different from before because before what really caught on was the struggle for the disappeared, the murdered. Then came the feminist movement, the indigenous movement, out of social and cultural demands, out of historical, territorial, and community demands, before the movement against the mines or dams. And today it’s fused with struggles for territory, for the environment, the struggle of women against violence, for equality, fair wages…

And it’s not through NGO culture… To me the only way for a social movement to grow is based in consciousness, based in organization, based in genuine leadership and based in clarity or the effort to refine goals, financed by nobody else but themselves, and moved by class or group interests.

The struggle or the organization that’s worthwhile is the one that rests in the mind, in hearts, in feet, in the effort and work of those involved, and that requires a lot of sacrifice, and requires struggle, and requires clarity and its own leadership, whether that means students, or workers, whatever. This is a vital need, and in countries like ours, students who make it to university, who manage to make it through high school, have a big responsibility, not just to fight for their rights, but for the civil rights of everyone. To look out for all of society, because here we’re privileged, we who have access to that level of education.