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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 261 | Abril 2003

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Guatemala

Protesting for Life: A Bold, Persistent Teachers’ Strike

Salvadoran health workers are fighting for health care. People in Honduras are demanding water. The Guatemalan teachers’ strike for education was bold and persistent and may be the start of something big. Is something new happening in Central America?

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

A teachers’ strike in Guatemala lasting nearly eight weeks, from January 20 to March 11, marked the beginning of 2003, Alfonso Portillo’s last year in office. Although the teachers fell far short of obtaining all their goals, they did achieve some of them. Most important, they focused the whole country’s attention on the education issue, vital to sustainable development. Meanwhile, in El Salvador, in a struggle that began in September 2002 and is still going on, doctors in the public health system put the question of health care on the table, another vital issue to sustainable development. And in Honduras, the Permanent Grassroots Assembly has been waging a battle against the privatization of public services, especially against a proposed new law to regulate water and sanitation services. This struggle to defend water as a public resource accessible to the majority began in El Progreso in October 2002 and won its first important victory in March 2003 when the proposed bill was withdrawn from Congress, after alliances were formed with grassroots movements in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and Aguán. Access to water and, with it, to sanitation and preventive health care is another crucial issue for sustainable development.

Something’s happening
in Central America

The confluence of these three grassroots social movements in three Central American countries is nothing less than stunning. For many years, indeed decades, the largest traditional social movements—urban worker and student unions, rural movements of small farmers and day laborers—have been politicized and even absorbed by revolutionary political fronts, then effectively stifled, victims of state repression and new “flexible” work environments.

Furthermore, while women’s liberation, pacifism, sexual liberation and ethnic and environmental causes have had a certain qualitative impact on our societies, they have yet to spark any sizable social movements. Elections have been losing their appeal to the point that many potential voters opt to abstain, even in Costa Rica. For all these reasons, the resurgence, size and staying power of these movements for education, health care and water, which have been able to attract the participation of other social sectors, especially among the middle classes and the poor, requires serious analysis. The following discussion will focus on the teachers’ strike in Guatemala.

First stage: The strike
and a show of force

The first stage in the teachers’ strike, from January 20-24, kicked off when the departmental branch leaders of the National Teachers’ Association voted to declare that their members would not begin classes on January 20. President Portillo and the education minister officially opened the school year that day, but 75% of the country’s 80,000 public primary school teachers joined the strike. Their demands centered on a 100% wage increase, an education budget increased from US$422 million to $779 million, improvements in the curriculum, materials, buildings and in-service training, and a guarantee that teaching posts would not be assigned based on political allegiances.

The first large demonstration was held on January 22. An estimated 15,000-30,000 teachers participated, marching through the historic center of Guatemala City, blocking traffic. The teachers sought unsuccessfully to meet with the President and the congressional leadership. They danced to the rhythm of salsa in the Plaza de la Constitución and the square in front of Congress, thus setting a tone that would define their peaceful protest. The next day, they spoke with the ministers of education and labor, but no agreements were reached. The opposition legislators presented a proposal in Congress to shift funds from the Defense Department or the Presidential General Staff to Education, but the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) broke quorum, thus blocking a vote. On January 24, speaking on a national media hookup, the education minister offered the teachers a raise of only $12, warning that the funds would come out of other education programs: textbooks, subsidies to NGOs involved in public education (such as Fe y Alegría), the literacy program and operating costs. He called on teachers to return to their classes and threatened to begin proceedings to fire those who didn’t.

Some of the placards in the teachers’ “Great March for Dignity” revealed the depth of their disdain for the government and the ruling party. One read “FRG: Guatemalan Ratcatchers’ Front.” Another sign alluded to the FRG’s symbol, a hand: “Treacherous hand, your hour has come.” Another expressed disgust over the quick promise of compensation to former Civil Self-Defense Patrol members made shortly after they began to demonstrate several months ago: “Instead of paying people who carried out massacres, put money into education.” Anti-militarism was also visible in other slogans: “Schools yes, barracks no!” Some signs recalled slogans of thirty years ago: “There are even more of us now,” “Teachers united will never be defeated” and “Long live combative, committed teachers!” And one of the long-time teachers’ union leaders said, “If you want better citizens, have a revolution in the classrooms.”

Second stage: Protests grow
in response to deaf ears

Many more protests were held in the second stage of the struggle, from January 25-30. On Wednesday, January 29, an even bigger march wound through the capital’s historic center, with estimates of up to 55,000 people. The entrances to Congress were completely blocked, closing off the building to most of the legislators and the minister of the economy. Some legislators met with a commission of teachers, then urged the executive branch to reach an agreement with the teachers and asked the Catholic Church to mediate in the conflict. The Education and Labor Ministries began preparing letters to fire some of the teachers.

Teachers sought to reassure parents anxious about the delay in the start of the school year caused by the strike, their main means of exerting pressure on the government. Meanwhile, the government continued to threaten firings, trusting in the safety net provided by the large number of unemployed teachers in the country.

The crucial points at issue in the conflict were already clear: the education budget’s size and the quality of the educational process and product. The daily newspaper La Hora recalled that Guatemala’s education policies are a far cry from those designed in the region many decades ago by Costa Rica and Panama, which have resulted in high education budgets both in absolute amounts and as a percentage of the GDP. Prensa Libre published the UNESCO statistics for Central America: Costa Rica assigns 5.5% of its GDP to education; Panama, 5.1%; Nicaragua, 3.9%; Honduras—which has recently increased its investment—3.6%; and in last place, El Salvador and Guatemala with 2.5% of their GDP. Guatemala’s education budget had in fact been increasing each year, especially since the peace accords were signed, an increase that amounted to 27.26% from 2001 to 2002. But in 2003, the budget was slashed by 8.48%, in part because funds for food aid in the schools were transferred to the Agriculture Ministry.

The quality of education was a crucial point in the debate. Some analysts do not believe that teachers are truly interested in improving the quality of education; they criticize the high absentee rate among rural teachers and the overall lack of participation by teachers in the coalition that has been formulating education reform proposals. María del Carmen Aceña, director of CIEN, a social research center in the Francisco Marroquín University, maintained that any education budget increase should be related to productivity. And while she acknowledged our limited social spending on education, she pointed out that Guatemala also has the lowest tax rates in the region. Floridalma Meza of the Great Campaign for Education insisted that any salary increase would have to take into account “quality, training and geographic areas served,” and that an increase in the education budget should serve to “increase the coverage, equity and relevance” of education. Other commentators have argued that increasing teachers’ salaries would only lead to spiraling and financially unsustainable social spending.

Within a few days, President Portillo and Vice President Reyes ratified the offer of a monthly $12 bonus and promised to extend it to all 300,000 state workers. The president of the business association CACIF described the two authorities as “irresponsible” for threatening to do it by decree, and as “populist demagogues seeking electoral advantage.” The President’s promise would cost the Treasury some $45 million.

Third stage: Talks begin

In the third stage of the conflict, from January 31 to February 6, the government set up a high-level commission including the ministers of education and labor and the deputy finance minister. The labor minister, designated spokesperson for the negotiations, turned out to be one of the commission’s most intransigent members. The teachers suspended their marches while the talks were underway, but the government did not suspend the preliminary steps it was taking to fire teachers and kept up a TV campaign that distorted the strike’s objectives.

The country’s financial authorities struck down the bonus promised by the President, claiming that a $12 a month bonus for all state workers was not financially viable since it would increase the fiscal deficit and thus violate the standby agreement with the IMF. The president of Congress, retired general Efraín Ríos Montt, used the same argument to describe the President’s decision as “irresponsible,” despite the fact that both are from the same governing party.

Secondary schools joined the strike on February 6, increasing the number of striking teachers to 85,000 and the number of closed schools to 21,785. With that, an initial seven-point agreement was reached. The strike would end on February 10; the government would suspend disciplinary measures; the $12 bonus would be established; talks would continue on the collective bargaining agreement; the government would explain the budget, especially the education budget; rank and file teachers would respond to these points by February 10; and the Bishops’ Conference would be invited to participate in the process as a mediator or facilitator. But while the Ministry of Education described the agreement as a “definitive achievement,” the rank-and-file teachers immediately dismissed it.

Fourth stage: Bold,
innovative forms of protest

During the fourth stage, from February 7-17, the conflict intensified in ways virtually unprecedented in this country. Not since 1944, when the teachers’ union was an important actor in the Democratic October Revolution, have such bold actions been seen in Guatemala. And although the union has always been at the forefront of social movements, such audacity was not seen in the teachers’ strikes of 1976, 1985 or 1989.

The day after the agreement was signed, the teachers protested it by occupying the Education Ministry for ten hours. When they left, they drafted a statement in front of the Treasury Department testifying that everything in the building had been left in perfect order. That same day, February 7, they began setting up roadblocks at the borders and strategic points on the highways. The scale of participation can be gleaned from the fact that there were large-scale activities in 15 of the country’s 22 departments.

Julio Solano, coordinator of the teachers’ General Assembly, declared on February 7 that the teachers had rejected the bonus because “cutting the Ministry of Education’s programs is contrary to our demands.” He said the union saw “a lack of political will” to negotiate on the executive branch’s part, and stressed that the teachers were not striking only over salary. “We’re not fighting over economic issues,” he explained, “but to increase the education budget so the ministry can provide quality education and strengthen the programs. A salary policy in accord with the country’s needs will then be established on that basis.” At that point, the teachers reduced their salary demands from a 100% to a 60% raise. A few days later, one group of teachers occupied the Ministry of Labor while another big crowd of teachers sat down in the square next to the Ministry of Finance, obstructing all activity. They were accompanied day and night by songs from what was known during the period of struggle starting in the seventies as the Latin American New Song Movement
The government and the teachers’ union asked Archbishop of Guatemala Rodolfo Quezada Toruño to mediate. The Permanent Commission of the Bishops’ Conference encouraged him to accept, reminding him of his mission as president of the National Reconciliation Commission: if he had intervened to help resolve the internal armed conflict, why not try to do it now, in a conflict of a smaller scope? The Archbishop agreed to serve as a witness of honor for both sides but not to mediate between them, and he accepted this role as a member of the Ecumenical Alliance. The pastor Vitalino Similox also agreed to serve as a witness.

The two men asked the parties to specify the main points they sought to achieve in continuing the talks. The teachers emphasized an increase in the education budget, the restructuring of the education reform and the suspension of sanctions, while the Archbishop reported that the government did not list its key points. The teachers cleared out of the Ministry of Labor and the square in front of the Ministry of Finance as a show of good will.

Fifth stage: Talks with witnesses

The fifth stage, from February 18-21, offered a brief glimmer of hope. Archbishop Quezada, the new spokesperson for the negotiations, talked of “much sincerity” and a “lack of tension in the negotiations.” He thought the conflict could be resolved by Sunday, February 23.

The teachers’ representatives presented their three points and asked that the education budget be increased through transfers from the total budget, just as had been done for the Defense Department and the Presidential General Staff in 2002. The government then presented its three key points for the talks: decentralization of education, the improvement of education and salary increases. It agreed to continue talks while the protests continued, but warned that striking teachers would not be paid. The teachers bristled at this kind of state “permission” to protest. By this time, they were aware of enormous support for their cause all around the country. Every day teachers came into the capital from the departments, making it possible to rotate the demonstrators and maintain a continuous public presence.

On February 20, labor court judge Jorge Galdámez declared the teachers’ strike illegal and gave the striking teachers five days to return to work or be fired. The teachers’ leaders maintained that their cause was just. When opposition legislators proposed taking the funds for Education from Defense and the President’s Office, Ríos Montt changed tack and began to advocate a tax hike to pay for higher salaries for teachers and other state workers, presumably hoping to create a backlash with the ever-unpopular idea of tax increases.

Without hiding his disappointment, Archbishop Quezada reported that the talks had come to an end. “It is doubtful that an agreement can be reached that will satisfy both sides,” he said. While he asked people to pray for a solution to the conflict, the teachers threatened to take even more drastic measures.

Sixth stage: Actions
all over the country

The sixth stage, from February 22-27, was the climax of the conflict and began with an announcement from the authorities: they would not pay February’s salaries to 50,000 of the 80,000 striking public school teachers, and would proceed to fire 15,000 of them.

In response, teachers occupied the customs offices on the border in San Marcos and Huehuetenango in the west, Chiquimula and Jutiapa in the east, Puerto Barrios and Santo Tomás de Castilla in the north and Puerto Quetzal in the south. They set up roadblocks on the highway from Flores to Tikal in the Petén, the Atlantic Highway in Río Hondo, the Pan-American Highway and other important crossroads. Teachers also occupied the oil facilities in Rubelsanto in the north. Another Great March for Dignity began in San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán in Huehuetenango: 8,000 teachers walked 300 kilometers to the capital over the course of five days, evoking the Miners’ March in 1975. People began to talk of the possibility of decreeing a state of emergency and the government sent out soldiers to support the police in cordoning off public buildings.

On February 25, in their boldest action, teachers occupied the Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. The sit-in was totally nonviolent and had a festive tone, as teachers danced with tourists. The President threatened to break off talks. He could not “allow damage to be done to the country’s economy and to sensitive points” such as the border posts. The union leaders replied that they would use article 45 of the Constitution, which states that “the people are entitled to resist to protect and defend the rights and guarantees established in the Constitution.” They argued that they were acting in defense of the “basic inalienable” teachers’ rights cited in article 78 of the Constitution, referring to the state’s obligation to promote “teachers’ economic, social and cultural improvement.” “We’re not on strike, we’re acting in a peaceful way in a kind of field work,” they said.

Rumors circulated that the teachers would have been unable to wage such a long strike without financial support from outside. Former Chamber of Industry presidents were accused of giving food to the teachers who occupied public buildings and advising the movement on its image, urging them to avoid any violence and teaching them creative new tactics.

Analysts and journalists frequently recalled the government’s rapid response in promising compensation to former Civil Self-Defense Patrol members after they demonstrated and erected roadblocks in the second half of 2002. On February 26, the finance minister met with the legislative bench of the leftist New Nation Alliance (ANN). He was questioned by ANN representative Nineth Montenegro, who is experienced in interpreting the government’s presentation of the budget. The minister had to respond to a comparison made by broad sectors of society: why was the government being so stingy with the teachers when it hadn’t been with the former patrol members? The minister argued that the two cases were not comparable because the patrol members “defended the country.”
On February 27, the teachers abandoned the airport and Puerto Quetzal facilities and the Great March for Dignity reached the capital. The 10,000 people who had made the five-day march were joined by many more, with some 30,000 reaching the Plaza de la Constitución. There were a variety of slogans: “Pay or no pay, not one step back!” “Today is not a party, but a day for struggle and protest,” “There’s not just one of us, and not just 100. Miserly minister, count us carefully.” The teachers then withdrew to their encampment in the Belén Institute, in the center of the capital.

Seventh stage:
The fruits of solidarity

The teachers had been asking for a $360 million increase in the education budget, but cut this first to $235 million and then to $195 million. At the same time, they began to discuss wage increases in absolute numbers rather than percentages: from $25-$40 a month. Several individuals and institutions offered proposals to resolve the crisis. Businessperson Rodolfo (Fito) Páiz, a possible presidential candidate, proposed a short-term solution in line with the one proposed by the opposition legislators: transferring $105 million to the education budget. For the longer term, he proposed a 1% increase in the sales tax to establish an education fund managed by civil society. The Great Campaign for Education proposed redistributing the state budget so that the education budget would amount to 3.13% of the GDP by 2005, with part of the increase going to in-service teacher training and a salary hike.

On February 28, the Third Appellate Court upheld the lower court’s decision that the teachers’ strike was illegal. In contrast, the Human Rights Ombudsperson concluded after observing the events that it was legitimate: “There is no violence or aggression; the movement is just and legitimate and is taking place at a time of peace.”
On March 3, Catholic schools suspended classes and organized an activity in the Belén Institute in solidarity with the striking teachers, culminating with a Mass. They brought the teachers a large supply of food they had collected. The Bishop of Jalapa, Julio Cabrera, and the social pastoral departments of the diocese of San Marcos and Alta Verapaz published messages in solidarity with the teachers that analyzed the situation of education in the country. The Rafael Landívar University published a similar analysis in a paid newspaper ad.

Final agreement:
The art of the possible

On March 10, the fiftieth day of the strike, the government and teachers finally reached an agreement. Archbishop Quezada Toruño publicly read the nine-point text two days later. Teachers would return to work that same day, March 12. With respect to the increase in the education budget, a commission was set up to manage increased scholarships, school supplies and transport subsidies, which would be paid for by transferring $90 million originally slated for state building projects and other expenses. The teachers would participate in drafting the proposed education budget for 2004, and some 51,500 primary school teachers would get raises, depending on their place in the pay scale. The issue of February’s unpaid wages was left in the hands of the courts, and a bipartite commission of teachers and authorities was created to study the cases of the 8,000 teachers who had already been fired. The two sides agreed that the lost school time would be replaced over the course of the year. They also agreed that the National Teachers’ Association would participate in the Education Reform. On the 12th, the teachers opened the school year with a big party in the Plaza de la Constitución.

Surprising lack of repression

The lack of repression during the long teachers’ strike was surprising. Grassroots mobilizations without people killed, injured, imprisoned or disappeared have not been seen in Guatemala since the 1970s, even before the 1978 massacre of peasant farmers in Panzós that took place shortly before President Lucas’ inauguration.

Moisés Fuentes, secretary of the National Teachers’ Association, charged that his brother was murdered during the strike, but the fact that this crime did not become an issue in the strike suggests that it may have been unconnected. Four teachers died in accidents during the strike, with no one attributing the deaths to repression.

There was clearly pressure, and even threats by former patrol members. But there was none of the brutality we are accustomed to seeing in state repression. To apply pressure, the government waged a biased propaganda campaign against the strike, fired 8,000 teachers and threatened to fire more, withheld wages for a month and set up military cordons. The teachers also exerted pressure: the strike itself, the occupation of buildings, the border closings, the roadblocks. The police acted with unusual calm. In this respect, the teachers’ strike was like the protest for water in Honduras, but unlike the health care workers’ strike in El Salvador.

Important social backing

The strike enjoyed considerable public support, although no surveys have been done to measure it. The support of the Catholic schools—which seldom involve themselves in public demonstrations—is one important sign of it. On only one occasion did parents demonstrate against the strike, in one neighborhood in the capital. The teachers who marched from Ixtahuacán to the capital were impressed by the solidarity they found in the towns they passed through.

A number of analysts argued that this mobilization “was born alone, took place alone and died alone,” as one of them wrote. It hardly seems objective, however, to say that the movement “died.” While the teachers did not achieve all their original goals, they achieved several important ones, not only regarding salary but also their participation in preparing the budget and the education reform. In 1985 and 1989, the teachers had to return to work without winning anything. This time they brought the government to the negotiating table and kept it there, although the government tried to end things quickly and send the teachers back to the classrooms empty-handed.

Most important, the strike focused the nation’s attention on the vital issue of education, even at moments in which the teachers seemed more concerned with their own salaries. Few can criticize the teachers for that concern, knowing of the anguishing decisions forced on them by their pitifully low salaries.

Political advantage

More than a few people tried to take political advantage of the conflict. The governing FRG displayed little interest in the strike at the start, having already courted the former patrol members who it sees as sure votes. But in the end the party had to negotiate with the teachers, albeit in secret, perhaps because it feared the schools’ influence on the votes cast by thousands of families.

The opposition parties saw things more clearly and tried from the start to propose solutions to the conflict, although most of these were short term. Only Rodolfo Páiz, former minister of finance under the Christian Democrats whose proposed fiscal reform was blocked by a business strike in 1988, had the courage to propose a tax increase. He is right: a government without revenue cannot manage responsible social spending.

The media was initially favorable to the teachers’ cause, but as their methods became bolder, the fear of disorder grew and editorials against the strike began to appear in Siglo XXI and Prensa Libre. Only El Periódico and La Hora kept up their support. The peasant farmers’ movement tried to mobilize alongside the teachers but didn’t succeed. A good number of intellectuals, a few universities and many dioceses tried to help the teachers and the state reflect on the education problems.

The teachers did not refuse to talk to anyone. They seem to have maintained their movement’s independence, even when groups with other interests financed some of their activities. In El Salvador, the health care workers had considerable support from the FMLN, although it seems that San Salvador’s popular mayor, Héctor Silva, may have to stop thinking about his promising presidential candidacy since his offer to mediate in the conflict displeased the FMLN leadership. In Honduras, people made multiple alliances that did not corrupt the movement.

New wine in new social bottles?

The teachers’ movement in Guatemala has traditional roots. It accepts the current state’s legitimacy and thus might be described, in Manuel Castells’ terms, as having a legitimating social identity. And yet it has proven to be a social movement capable of reform and rejuvenation. It shares many of the characteristics typical of union movements whose relevance and future are now in question in the age of globalization. Its leaders still use a language that reveals the Marxist origins of their analyses, when they deny, for example, that they are “economistic” even while emphasizing salary demands. Its crowds still sing along to the old protest songs, although they also dance salsa. And its leaders were willing to discuss the basic issues in education, even those, like decentralization, that might put their very roles into question. They asked church leaders to mediate and opened their alliances within civil society to independent intellectuals, religious-based education movements and rural peasant movements. Their identity, therefore, can also be described as one of resistance and reform, not only of legitimation. They are moving in new directions that may lead society to new results.

Is democracy wearing any clothes?

This is a time in history when the world’s only global superpower and its allies did not listen the huge global movement to prevent the war, but this global movement insists on being heard. If civil society is not listened to and given the opportunity to question or correct electoral results—perhaps through referendums, or establishing councils that represent all sectors of society and complement the elected governments—contemporary democracies are likely to be seen as merely formal, allergic to participation and oblivious to the will of the people, who are increasingly well informed. They will be seen as naked, without sense or reason, just like the vain emperor who paraded about in his imaginary robes.

In Guatemala, the teachers’ movement was listened to, at least to some extent, in an election year. In Honduras, although it wasn’t an election year, the government there listened to the movement against the privatization of water. In El Salvador, despite being an election year, the government did not listen to the health workers’ movement. Whether governments listen to these nationwide social movements or refuse to do so is having and will continue to have important consequences.

Will it be possible?

Would it be too optimistic to think that this is the start of a new phase in Central America, one in which the region’s social movements can thrive by addressing issues crucial to people’s lives? Education, health care and water are issues that have proven mobilizing capacity. The fight against corruption also mobilized people in Nicaragua in 2002, although this is no longer the case. Can people be mobilized around other needs as well? What about the need to reduce vulnerability to natural disasters, to defend consumers’ rights, to defend the environment, to ensure equity in international trade, to ensure peace, to combat gender violence in the home and in the institutions still dominated by the patriarchy, to really comply with the poverty reduction mandate governments have assumed? Could it be that in Central America, after so many huge and bitter disappointments, we will once again begin to believe that another world is possible?

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