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Political Crisis or Democratic Revolution?

How coffee has sparked a shift in partisan politics in Guatemala

by Jackie McVicar

Maritimers may be familiar with Leo Juracan. When in exile from Guatemala, he toured Canada with the assistance of 'Breaking the Silence'. In Guatemala's recent election, Juracan won a seat in congress. [Photo: J. McVicar]
Maritimers may be familiar with Leo Juracan. When in exile from Guatemala, he toured Canada with the assistance of 'Breaking the Silence'. In Guatemala's recent election, Juracan won a seat in congress. [Photo: J. McVicar]

Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia -- In early September, 2015, just days before Guatemalans were set to go to the polls, President and former military general Otto Perez Molina was stripped of his immunity, forced to step down and was indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and corruption. In April, 2015, the UN-mandated International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) uncovered a customs fraud ring involving dozens of public servants and high ranking politicians scamming tens of millions of potential tax dollars. Hundreds of thousands of people from the small Central American country spontaneously took to the streets calling for an end to impunity and corruption that plagues the country, which is rooted in militarism and violent capitalism. Eventually top officials began resigning. Subsequent charges against them gave Guatemalans hope that change was possible.

On September 6th, elections went ahead with 70% participation by eligible voters. Among those elected into congress were three members of a newly formed party, Convergence for Democratic Revolution. These three new congress members represent a small, but significant, shift in partisan politics. It is a 'leftist' party, involving students, labour unions, peasant farmers and women. 

One of the new members of congress is Sandra Moran, Guatemala’s first openly gay and feminist elected politician. Another is Leocadio Juracan, who grew up with his campesino family in a large plantation owned by the historically powerful Guatemalan oligarchy. Juracan became involved in the revolutionary movement as a young boy and was eventually named National Coordinator of the Highland’s Committee of Small Farmers (CCDA). It’s a powerful message to see Juracan and Moran take a seat in a congress where economic power is usually the driving factor of who gets to participate and win in partisan politics. The ability to mobilize citizens to vote for change made the difference for both.

Moran and Juracan have both spent time in Canada as a result of their work and activism. Maritimers are especially familiar with Juracan, who has been invited to the region by the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (BTS), a solidarity network that has been organizing and supporting Guatemalans struggling for social justice for over 25 years. In 2010, Juracan and his family were temporarily exiled in Canada after receiving death threats for their work in land reform and labour justice.  He made his temporary home in Canada with help of a cross-Canada solidarity network, including BTS. 

Taking advantage of his forced exile, Juracan engaged in a Canada-wide speaking tour to denounce the threats that he and other Guatemalans receive in light of their work for justice and socio-economic reform. He spoke of how the CCDA had been able to use coffee as a tool for educating small producers, not only about healthier ways to grow coffee, but to create spaces for farmers to talk about why the injustices they face exist.

Today, Juracan credits coffee for the political work that the CCDA has been able to do, that ultimately led to his election.

“When we go into a community to talk about organic fertilizer or how to combat coffee fungus, it also gives us an opportunity to talk about political issues and the historic situation the indigenous and peasant population has lived in this country," says Juracan. "Coffee has helped us create a grassroots and campesino movement as an alternative development model.”

Joey Pittoello is the Director of Coffee at Just Us! Coffee Roasters. Since 2002, Just Us! Has been importing CCDA coffee through a three-way relationship, in conjunction with Breaking the Silence. Pittoello sees Juracan’s election as part of the larger ideal of fair trade principles.

“The fact that the money Just Us! has paid –and ultimately our customers have paid—has gone towards supporting the CCDA is profound to us here at Just Us!. If Just Us! has played some small part in this change within Guatemala…then we are ecstatic. Ultimately this is why we do the work we do,” he says.  

Janelle Frail, a former Tatamagouche Centre - Breaking the Silence intern, worked directly with the CCDA in 2007-2008. She remembers Juracan’s leadership within the organization. “I remember him as a strong, warm person who works tirelessly for his community. I'm not surprised at all that he is now a congressman. He's a natural leader with the ability to motivate and organize those around him.” 

Frail sees the role that coffee has played in Guatemala and Canada towards informing and educating people to work for social change.

“They pay better wages than the multi-national corporations and support the producers with trainings that encourage healthier ways of growing the coffee plants," says Frail. "To add to that, the CCDA uses the extra money they make to better the communities in general and to politically push for agrarian reform at the national level.”

Her experience helped her see how the environmental activism she was involved with before leaving the Maritimes for Guatemala was bigger than the natural environment. “It encompasses the whole world including humans. I came to ask myself- if human rights are not being met how can environmental rights be considered? Social justice means many things.”

With the wobbly, mainstream, fair trade movement, it’s easy to miss the reason the movement was prompted in the first place. Though the CCDA once had Fair Trade Certification under Transfair, the Small Producer’s Symbol has emerged as an alternative to the often costly and onerous certification process. 

“Small-producer based fair trade is the authentic, grassroots fair trade that started it all back in the eighties and is proof that that grassroots style of authentic fair trade still exists,” says Pittoello.  “This is a fair trade standard and philosophy that is owned by the small producers themselves and that is truly profound. That is where we wanted or should have wanted fair trade to go from the beginning."

The original idea of fair trade was to give people on the ground, the farmers themselves, better control of their product and producer education. Corporations hoping to capitalize and charge more for their beans has been an unintended side-effect. Pittoello says that the original ethos of fair trade is still drives the Small Producer Symbol today. “Direct relationships with trading partners, democratic organizations, respect for local and indigenous communities, and commitment to environmental and social justice,” says Pittoello. 

For Juracan, coffee is a tool for working with small producers towards social transformation. “We are not living in poverty because we want to be, because we don’t work or we don’t have initiative or because we aren’t intelligent. (We’re at) the bottom of a model that is based on exploitation, marginalization, of taking away territory. This model still exists today with hydro electric dams, palm and sugar plantations, mining and even coffee.” 

Coffee opens a door to conversation, but topics often turn to resource extraction and its impacts on communities and autonomy over territory. Access to land, which was at the heart of Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict but never resolved, is also discussed and debated, and plans for action are being developed. To date, 77 plantations have been acquired by once landless Guatemalan peasants with the help of the CCDA, which advocates and helps Maya families negotiate with often corrupt government agencies to get the land. “Small producers and campesinos have seen another model. They can trust that it works. It’s an alternative model. A model more aligned with human rights, a model more closely related to local community investment,” says Juracan.

As Canadians debate their upcoming elections with cups of coffee in local cafes and around dining room tables, it’s easy to see how almost everything is political. CCDA coffee isn’t just helping farmers get more money for a great product, it’s concretely challenging a system based on capitalism and exploitation that hasn’t worked for 500 years. Perhaps Juracan’s motivation to work to change even the most corrupt political system will inspire comparatively apathetic Canadians to do the same. 

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