Monday, April 4, 2011

poco a poco (little by little)

I figure I should write an entry with details on stuff that I’m actually doing, not just random anecdotes. Most people probably have no idea how I spend my days.

Which is ok, I think, because most of my days are spent in an office. I do a lot of document writing (in Spanish) and I have internet. I don’t live in a cave or have to hunt my own food. Life as a Municipal Development volunteer in Guatemala seems pretty western-standard normal, at least it does now that I’m accustomed anyway.

Anyway, I’ve recently spent a good deal of my time in the office working on a series of workshops, five presentations that I’ll give to community leaders over the course of the next few months. Basically, my counterpart and I want to help train the community groups that act as the cornerstones of the democratic system here in Guatemala. Any community group, once registered, is supposed to have a direct voice in a council system that is shaped like a pyramid, broad at the bottom with tens of thousands of community groups throughout rural Guatemala, each of which having the (theoretical) input in the decisions of the roughly 333 municipality councils in Guatemala at the subsequent level (each representing what roughly amounts to a county or borough in the States)

Each county or borough council has a voice in the succeeding level (what we’d think of as a state), which then has a voice in the regional council, and finally there is a national council over which the Guatemalan President presides. The idea in this system is that even the lowliest campesino can be directly involved in the democracy of his country.

Of course, there are lots of problems. First of all, many Guatemalans are woefully undereducated, which is a large part of the reason why we’re doing these workshops. We want to provide local leaders with some pointers on the associated legal background of their community groups (which are known as COCODES), helping them to identify their organizational strengths and weaknesses, assisting in the prioritization of needs and finally, helping to elaborate a project profile. The hope is that we can empower these groups in their drive to improve their communities.

Ok, so I just described one problem, the education bit, and then I got carried away talking about mission and failed to elaborate on the other problems to which I alluded. Here’s a big one – the existing power structure. Oppression in Perpetuity, or Why Would I Really Want To Make Life Difficult For Myself?

Case in point – during our first presentation to about 50 rural community leaders last Tuesday, where we talked about the lawswhich sanction community involvement and transparency, my counterpart decided to gloss over the established legal provision which dictates that municipal treasuries should be able to respond to individual citizen requests for accountability and/or financial records. Later on I asked him why, and he told me that one particular community leader would have gotten animated and started causing trouble, this guy whose personality apparently feels like having an inextricable rock in your shoe.

I tried to tell my counterpart that yeah democracy is messy and annoying, that when everyone knows their rights and can speak up for themselves that change can happen without fear of reprisal, and maybe if That One Guy started causing trouble, then maybe there wouldn’t be so much corruption (Guatemalans love to bemoan the corruption here)

So thatwas my counterpart, perpetuating the status quo, ostensibly involved in an effort to spread awareness and transparency but intentionally leaving out important details. Oh well.

At the same time, I readily admit that it’d be a tough decision. Furthermore, this is his community and not mine, so….. I can’t really tell him how to behave. Lastly, physical violence as a reprisal for sticking one’s neck out is not uncommon here.

What stays with me is a conversation I had after the fact, when I recounted the meeting to a friend and he assured me that most people probably already know their rights but fear for their safety. My friend told me that if you draw enough attention to yourself and make the existing power structure feel threatened, someone might take steps to have you silenced.

Which is pretty intimidating.

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