What the Students Want
University students in Guatemala, determined to advance their cause using non-violence and smart tactics, effectively use the social network media via Facebook, You Tube, UStream, blogs, and internet radio to communicate to their communities and to broad, international audiences. Their voices project clarity in their campaign – “La reforma es darte voz a vos” (“the reform is to give you voice”)- and solicit the participation of everyone to join in their struggle calling for better, relevant institutions of learning, aiming their criticisms toward government-controlled neoliberal policies.
Approximately 150 students from the only public national university, Universidad de San Carlos (USAC), have courageously planted themselves inside the president’s office for 12 days and counting. While some students have been arrested others are threatened with expulsion. USAC students want the university to honor the agreement signed by a committee of students and university members in 2010 that stipulates the explicit cooperation of all entities in planning and execution of the reform. Estuardo Galvéz, the university president who took office after the agreement was signed by the previous president, reneged on the agreement. The university has responded harshly against any cooperative efforts to resolve the students’ demands, and refused repeatedly the invitation to dialogue.
Who Participates in the University of San Carlos Reform?
At the center of the student protest is a document, ACUERDO DE LA SOLUCION DE LA PROBLEMATICA DE LA UNIVERSIDAD DE SAN CARLOS DE GUATEMALA, signed on September 29, 2010 by representatives of the Consejo Superior Universitario (university officials), Colectivo de Estudiantes Por la Autonomía (student representatives), and Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala (Human Rights official). The agreement includes a six-step plan that includes the formation of a broadly representational group, the Multisectoial Commission, and specific democratic ways by which the commission will develop the reform plan. The students demanded the agreement after 54 days of protest, which stands as one of the students’ historic victories but not forgotten by the current university officials that have quickly intervened using intimidation and legal tactics against the students. Reportedly, about a week ago two students were taken into police custody to the correctional detention (Las Gaviotas), charged as criminals without due process. According to one report, one of the students has been released. The university president’s office continues to ignore students’ demands and the actions against them are repressive and unfair, especially since the protesting students have jeopardized their own future for the entire university.
Education as a Universal Right
What the students want is aligned with their rights as students at USAC, a public university, and as citizens of Guatemala. Their consistent clamor for a quality education that is “democratic, integral, and inclusive” is within their claim that education is a right, not a privilege. In the context of citizenship, education is a universal right, as proclaimed in Guatemala’s constitution as well as in declarations of the United Nations, the Acuerdo sobre identidad y derechos de los pueblos indigenas, and the Convenio number 169 of the Organización Internacional del Trabajo (OIT). Despite the multiple cases of human rights abuses throughout history that has tragically befallen on the people of Guatemala, the citizens embrace the democratic process and self-determination and rally around the ideals that their actions will result in real change. Even as a nation with over 20 different linguistic groups and diverse cultures, coupled with enormous economic challenges, Guatemalans are steadfast in upholding their rights and promoting inclusion and non-discriminatory practices in governance, at the university level in this case.
Guatemala’s constitution, Constitución Política de la República de Guatemala defines the Universidad de San Carlos as an autonomous entity with vanguard qualities, the only national public institution of higher education (Article 82) and the governance of the university will include representation at all levels (Article 83).
The Acuerdo sobre identidad y derechos de los pueblos indígenas, was the fifth of twelve peace treaties promulgated by the Guatemalan government in 1997 after the 36-year armed conflict that left 200,000 people dead and destroyed thousands of families and their properties. The overall content of the treaty is specific to eradicating discriminatory practices against the indigenous population, especially women. However, the protection of rights also includes the linguistic right of the people to learn to speak, read, and write their non-Spanish language in all public institutions of learning. The inclusion provision is paramount in the treaty’s statements of recognition and acceptance of the pueblos’ identities, cultures, and languages. About half of Guatemala’s population belongs to an indigenous community.
The United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, outlines the major rights to their culture, languages, and dignity thereof, but specifically states in Articles 15 and 19 respectively that educational programs reflect the diverse cultures and languages and that decision making related to content and curriculum be inclusive of the representation of the indigenous groups.
The Convenio or Convention number 169 of the International Labor Organization, an off-shoot of the United Nations, passed in 1991 a revision of the 1957 declaration of the rights of pueblos indígenas y tribales that included in Part six, Articles 26 – 31, the rights of the people to have a direct input into the educational programs in public education and that they are judicially represented in all matters of education.
The Role of Social Media
The international community recognizes the powerful impact of the social media on activism, particularly in defense of human rights and inclusion of voice. The student movement in Guatemala has effectively harnessed the technological resources of social media to communicate clearly, consistently, and timely to educate their own communities and abroad. Major steps were taken to insure organization and cohesiveness, among these were the following:
- A campaign slogan was adopted as well as supportive information disseminated that focused on the message: “La reforma es darte voz a vos” and key identifiable information was promoted: the students call for equal representation to participate in the reform that reflects their identity, thus, casting out notions of western influence in the reform efforts, and even though the student body spoke as one voice, individual expressions were respected, for example, the group Movimiento de estudiantes universitarios mayas.
- Key information was centralized in a blog: Reforma Universitaria (http://reformausac.blogspot.com/2013/02/el-consejo-de-pueblos-kiches-se.html?spref=fb created a space for essential information updated on a daily basis.
- Additional blog: Comunidades de Población en Resistencia (CPR-Urbano (http://cpr-urbana.blogspot.com/2013/02/analisis-de-la-estrategia-de-una.html?spref=fb)
- Additional blog: Prensa comunitaria (http://comunitariapress.blogspot.com/2013/01/esperamos-justicia-por-genocidio.html)
- Additional blog: Revelartv (http://revelartv.blogspot.com) providing coverage of unfolding events on a daily basis.
- Face Book entries gave space for other expressions: Centro de Medios Independientes, Rebeca Bocafloja, Marcha por la defense de la Carrera de magisterio, Mujeres Ixiles, Biblioteca magisterial.
- You Tube: Providing interviews of students and community members engaged in the protest; one video captured a dramatic presentation of the Normalistas in both Maya and Spanish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=j0jb4wKihL
- UStream provided coverage of events real-time – the march that launched the protest on February 6th was entirely covered using UStream.
- Radio: Internet radio (http://radiou.usac.edu.gt) provides up-to-date news and informative interviews (so far on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11 AM).
Nearly half of Guatemala’s population is under 18 years old (Guatemala National Institute of Statistics) and about one fifth of the young population is between 15 and 29 years of age. The university students’ demands are poised to be the most important for the future of their country. While it may be easy to dismiss their cause as a local problem, the fact remains that our world is shrinking in pursuit of relevance; we are all connected and in that sense we have a certain amount of responsibility.