A PC(USA) partner in Guatemala shows its support for new possibilities following the election of a reform-minded president

CEDEPCA’s webinar attracts a crowd of 90 who care deeply about Central America’s most populous nation

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Hector Pineda via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — In the midst of ongoing demonstrations of support for Guatemala’s recently elected leader, the former college professor Bernardo Arévalo, CEDEPCA, World Mission’s partner in Central America’s most populous country, held an informative webinar Thursday to discuss the support being offered to the demonstrators, who are under the leadership of indigenous Guatemalans.

Bernardo Arévalo is Guatemala’s president-elect. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Arévalo, whose father is a former Guatemalan president, was elected in August and is scheduled to be sworn in January 2024. But the anti-corruption activist’s ascent to office is facing opposition among powerful Guatemalans who are not in favor of his proposed reforms, which include addressing the root causes that have led thousands of Guatemalans to migrate. “This is a historical moment in which expressions of social discontent only constitute the surface of a larger structural problem,” CEDEPCA, the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America, said in a statement. “Indeed, it is a time to set a precedent that denounces and hinders the pact of the corrupt in the halls of government.”

The Rev. Betsey Moe

The Rev. Betsey Moe, the mission co-worker assigned to CEDEPCA who shares facilitation of its Intercultural Encounters Program, welcomed the 90 or so people who joined the webinar. Many had traveled previously to Guatemala and have a heart for the country, and that was on display in the Zoom comments throughout the webinar.

“Your being here is a big deal to us,” Moe said, lighting a candle and urging participants to light one too. “It shows Guatemala is not alone.”

Webinar hosts set the stage by showing journalist Nick Schifrin’s  nine-minute PBS NewsHour interview with the president-elect, which was broadcast earlier this month. “The future is not a repetition of history,” Arévalo told Schifrin. “We see time and again that societies that have had this type of problematic pasts and singular problems actually found their way out of them, and we believe this is the moment for Guatemalan society and that it’s our duty as a government to try to foster this change of relations in order to break the vicious circle that that has chained our country into poverty and corruption.”

Nancy Carrera

Nancy Carrera, CEDEPCA’s Intercultural Encounters Program coordinator, displayed photos depicting the peaceful protests that began on Oct. 2. “People long for justice and change,” Carrera said.

Judith Castañeda, CEDEPCA’s general coordinator, said several CEDEPCA employees worked at polling places in August and helped certify the election results. “By 8 o’clock [the evening of the election] we were celebrating the victory,” she said, but the election was soon threatened when election records were seized. “It’s been 18 days of demonstrations and roadblocks all over the country,” Castañeda said. Indigenous Authorities from throughout the country, including 48 Cantones in the Guatemalan highlands, are “leading the protest,” she said. “People are taking to the streets to save what’s left of our democracy.” Read more about the national strike here.

Oct. 20 is the day Guatemalans celebrate the 1944 October revolution, which eventually led to Juan José Arévalo, who like his son was an academic, becoming president. “We hope this year will be our new democratic spring,” Castañeda said. “People are concerned, but mainly hopeful because of what’s been happening for the past few days. We pray the future will bring peace, justice and a new era for all of us in Guatemala. Thank you for your friendship and your prayers for the people of Guatemala.”

Susana Noriega, CEDEPCA’s accountant who also pastors a church in Guatemala City, said she got a call recently from church leaders who told her, “We need to do something.” Demonstrators had left everything in their communities to come and protest in the capital city. “We can’t stay indifferent. We have to do something,” they told Noriega. Church members convinced the church board to provide food for the demonstrators, some of whom had traveled from San Marcos, about 300 kilometers or about 186 miles, to lead protests in Guatemala City.

“It brings hope that we can have a different Guatemala,” Noriega said. “The youth are so fed up, so tired of corruption, and I am looking for a better future for my children.”

Pamela Líquez

“Everything is so uncertain,” said Pamela Líquez, CEDEPCA’s women’s coordinator. “But in the midst of all of this, I am hopeful because I believe this keeps us moving forward.”

Líquez displayed photos of an indigenous woman who’s helping to lead the protests. “She is tired, but she has felt the strength of the accompaniment of people,” Líquez said. As protestors make their way through villages, residents often shoot off fireworks to indicate their support. “I think that’s the hope that we’re holding onto,” Líquez said.

Women from different Mayan groups are part of the leadership of this movement, according to Carolina González, coordinator for CEDEPCA’s Biblical and Pastoral Institute. “They have left everything to sleep in the streets, in the rain or in the sunshine,” González said. “It shows how strong we can become when justice moves us to do something.”

During a question-and-answer session, CEDEPCA representatives said that travel plans for U.S. churches and mid councils who had scheduled upcoming trips to Guatemala are currently up in the air. “We are trying to prepare for Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,” Carrera said. The main concerns are for the safety of the travelers, staff members “and the organizations who will be accompanying and receiving us,” Carrera said, adding the schedule is completely booked for the first quarter of 2024.

Judith Castañeda

While “no one really likes the roadblocks,” those enforcing them allow ambulances and trucks with food through, Castañeda said.

“All of us have experienced the inconvenience,” said Esvin Sirín, who is Moe’s counterpart at CEDEPCA and who provided English-language interpretation on Thursday for some of his colleagues. “But it’s the first time the government has sat down with indigenous leaders to listen to their demands.”

Moe wrote a prayer for the occasion that included these words: “We pray for the safety of all, that change may come out of community, laughter and dancing, rather than out of violence or coercion. We remember the song of Mary, in which she proclaimed that you had, in the act of coming to us in Christ, ‘brought down rulers from their thrones and lifted up the humble.’ We sing that same song, praying that the hearts and minds of the powerful may be softened, that your love and compassion that emanates from the faithful may transform this broken system and bring healing and abundant life for all. Gracious God, hear our prayer!”

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