Guatemala’s White Flags: COVID Community Response

They say that viruses don’t discriminate, but as COVID-19 sweeps across the world it has become ever more clear that this is not the case. Populations who have faced historical discrimination and marginalisation are far more vulnerable to both the health, social and economic impacts of the global pandemic.

Guatemala is one such country, where the virus has exposed the harsh realities of social and economic inequalities. The ultra-conservative, military aligned government, imposed a quarantine on March 22nd, ordered for the closure of all non-essential businesses, declared a ban on public gatherings and imposed a police and military enforced curfew. As of May 14th this curfew was extended to almost a complete lockdown as people are prohibited from leaving their houses except to go to the local shop. Nevertheless, in a country where 79% of the workforce rely on the informal economy to make a living and only 20% of people have access to social welfare of any description, means that 80% of people have been left without their means to make a living and feed their families or government support.

Voluntary initiatives have been set up across the country to provide basic food and other essential supports for whole communities who have effectively been abandoned by the state. One such initiative is the ‘White Flag’ campaign, where families who have run out of food can ask for help by flying a white flag outside their homes. Neighbours and community organisations have responded in force to this cry for help, despite their own stretched resources and the repression they have experienced from the government who have objected to such initiatives but without providing any alternative supports to desperate people.

The Latin America Solidarity Centre Ireland and the Galway Feminist Collective are requesting your support to fund these life-saving acts of solidarity in Guatemala with a small donation that will be administered by the grassroots indigenous rights organisation, the People’s Council of K’iche (CPK).

Guatemala Solidarity Network (GSN) is supporting the Latin America Solidarity Centre Ireland, the Galway Feminist Collective, and the People’s Council of K’iche (CPK) in this initiative.

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Grassroots organisations respond to the COVID-19 crisis

More than 60% of Guatemala’s 16 million inhabitants live in conditions of poverty, this is exacerbated in indigenous territories, where the peoples have been historically excluded by the racist state of Guatemala. In the Quiché department more than 75% of the population lives in conditions of poverty and extreme poverty. One out of every two children suffers from malnutrition.

The white flags, a symbol of hunger in Guatemala, have been flying since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis. They have become a last resort of families struggling to survive, who use the flag as an urgent request for help and food during the government imposed lockdown. The most impoverished families began to fly white flags from their homes in rural regions that have been. As the State imposed quarantine and curfew has prolonged, more and more white flags appear each day: the final hope of thousands and thousands of families unable to work or leave their houses and who might, otherwise, starve. Instead of responding to this demand, the government is criminalizing the families and those helping them, who are not only faced with the lack of food and water, but are also living under military repression and harassment from state security forces for daring to highlight the hunger that families are experiencing. The government wants to silence them through fear. Under the current restrictions to work and movement the use of flags is becoming a widespread practice, alerting neighbours to emergency situations: Red flags are used for older adults who need medicine or food and the black flag hung out for alerting situations of violence against women.

The expression of reciprocity among the humblest, but also most caring people did not take long. A number of caring initiatives have begun with people of little means, given what they can to support their neighbours in crisis. These expressions of solidarity have turned into a powerful movement across the different rural regions territories of the country, with various communities, families, youth with initiatives, responding to the white flags and the emergency in the face of government inaction.

In the department of Quiche, the white flags are everywhere and people have responded to their call in equal measure. Youth brigades and community councils have been organizing to collect food and respond to the most urgent needs.

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The K’iche People’s Council for the Defense of Life, Mother Nature, Land and Territory (CPK) was founded in 2007 to confront the impacts of the Free Trade Agreement between Central America and the United States. The CPK is made up of communities who have organized to defend our collective rights as indigenous peoples, our territories, our right of self-determination and our right to preserve our way of life which is deeply connected to mother earth and our right to water. We also campaign to end violence against women. Our organisation is based on democratic participation processes through community assemblies. We campaign against extractivism and transnational corporations for the dispossession and plunder of land and resources and the territorial destruction they cause.

The CPK has joined the ‘White Flag’ community resistance in a number of ways including solidarity actions, communications, reporting and demanding for justice, particularly because the K’iche territory has been historically excluded and communities are at greater risk .

“We recognize that confronting the pandemic and dealing with quarantine is a challenge for all humanity, but confronting the pandemic through violence and by denying the most vulnerable access to their livelihoods, electricity, water, food, and housing, is profoundly racist and exclusionary and that is what is happening to the majority of the population of the K’iche’ territory.”

For this reason, one of the most urgent campaigns is the “Together against COVID19” initiative, which is collecting food, money and medicine. A collection centre has been opened and communication efforts to demand justice and denounce violence against women, children, elderly women as well as military violence against more vulnerable communities, have been expanded. This is how the CPK are  directly supporting communities most affected in the current crisis.

Aura Lolita Chávez Ixcaquic, May 2020

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Categories: Environment, Gender, Guatemala, Human Rights, Indigenous peoples, Justice, Lobbying, Poverty, Solidarity in Action, Solidarity in Action/Guatemala

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