The time is ripe for a change

03.10.2022, International cooperation

Latin America has had enough of the inequality, injustice and corruption of right-wing governments that ignore the real needs of their people, writes Guatemalan journalist Mariela Castañón.

The time is ripe for a change
Curfew after protests against a nickel mining project, in October 2021. Police search a man at a checkpoint in El Estor in the northern coastal province of Izabal, Guatemala.
© AP Photo/Moises Castillo

Over recent years, left-wing governments have won elections in countries like Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras, Chile and Colombia. This reflects people’s unmistakable demand that priority be given to social policy.

There is obvious and palpable disenchantment with right-wing governments, which not only have left nothing behind for their people, but instead have plundered the public coffers to enrich themselves. Although each country has its own reasons for electing a new government, the problems plaguing us are similar. They are poverty, extreme poverty and inequality.

The corona pandemic has further compounded the problems with which we in Latin America have been grappling for decades. The collapse of health and education systems, unemployment, lack of decent housing, and food shortages – all of this makes it clear why left-wing governments are now expected to bring about change.

With uncanny regularity, the political right courts the privileged and corrupt elites, who do nothing to help the poorest in the society, but are more committed to amassing wealth for themselves and safeguarding their own interests and those of their closest cronies.

The challenge now is to bring about changes that are worthy of the name, and to ensure that the words of left-wing government representatives are followed by deeds that benefit the people – rather than by populism, demagoguery and authoritarianism, as we too have experienced it.

Nicaragua is an example of those countries under authoritarian rule where criticism is met with brutal suppression. The Nicaragua of today is no longer a shining example of identification with the Left that it once was. There are now countless people sitting in jail in Nicaragua for having rebelled against the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo; others have been forced into exile. There is simply no limit to the oppression and violence being faced by our Central American brothers and sisters. It fills us with pain to see them suffering in this way. Many other countries have also taken a similar path.

Between misgivings and hope

It is hard to predict what the Latin American Left in general is capable of, for despite the striving for change, politics remains vulnerable to unexpected developments. It is up to us to keep an eye on our elected leaders and to act as committed and responsible citizens.

It is, of course, no simple matter being engaged as a citizen, social activist or journalist in countries where oppression and violence are daily fare and where our human rights and constitutional guarantees are flouted.

In my native country Guatemala, for example, a Central American country with over 17 million inhabitants, fear is our constant companion if we speak out against the corrupt rulers or stand up in defence of the living spaces and rights of indigenous communities.

In March 2022, we learned of “Mining Secrets”, a “Green Blood” project coordinated by the “Forbidden Stories” network in cooperation with 40 journalists from around the world, and which revealed environmental scandals surrounding mining companies. Journalists who reported on popular protests against a local mining company – a subsidiary of the Solway Group, which is domiciled in Switzerland and run by Russian and Estonian nationals – were harassed by the Guatemalan authorities and persons with close links to the company.

A hacker collective calling itself “Red McCaw”, after a native parrot species, passed hundreds of documents to “Forbidden Stories”. The documents obviously originated from the subsidiary of the Solway Group, and reveal the way journalists reporting on the mining company were documented, watched and even followed around by the company’s security services.

It turned out that the company had set aside a budget for drone surveillance of the local people and journalists.

This leaked information paints a picture of impunity and protection of offenders. The abuses committed against the press, the environment and the Guatemalan people have remained without consequence.

“Mining Secrets” further revealed scientific studies and “friendships bought” with “generous” donations by the company. Also coming to light were the strategies used by the mines to drive away and stigmatise families in order to get at the iron and nickel deposits under their houses.

Without a doubt, the environmental crisis and global warming are forcing us to change our lifestyles and put an end to industrial policies that are detrimental to the environment and to the lives of the people they place at risk. In Guatemala, however, it would seem that there is still no awareness of these dangers, and the governments continue to issue licences allowing unregulated mining to continue, which soon or later will take a very heavy toll.

The integrity and life of social activists, engaged citizens and journalists are in constant danger, as public denouncement, activism and truthful and up-to-date reporting uncover the methods being deployed by powerful corporations, which often enough are protected by the very State itself. The consequences are surveillance and threats, and not infrequently, these people pay for their commitment with their lives.

Real change

As children of the Third World, we have the strength to keep fighting for our causes, and will not abandon the hope that someday there will be governments in power that place people at the centre of their social policy.

The shift towards left wing governments reflects the urgency of the situation and the desire to overcome the inequality and injustice we have inherited from right-wing governments notorious for their ineffectiveness and corruption.

It is to be hoped that the left-wing governments will reverse the policies followed by their predecessors, failing which the stage will be set for yet another disappointment for millions of people in the continent.

Latin America needs capable leaders with transparent and legitimate strategies for transforming health, education, food, security and other systems, so that the change can be worthwhile.


© Mariela Castañón

The Guatemalan journalist Mariela Castañón is Professor of Deontology of Communication at the University Rafael Landívar. This summer she was in Switzerland participating in the exchange programme of "En Quête d'Ailleurs (EQDA)".