The University of Potsdam is presenting the “Voltaire Prize for Tolerance, International Understanding and Respect for Differences” at its central graduation ceremony on June 21, 2018. The prize will be bestowed upon Dr. Gladys Tzul Tzul, who publicly denounced the genocide perpetrated under the recently deceased President Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala from 1982 to 1983. She still receives threats in her home country of Guatemala.
Dr. Gladys Tzul Tzul, who openly denounced the genocide in Guatemala from 1982 to 1983 under the presidency of the recently deceased Efraín Ríos Montt, has won the 2018 Voltaire Prize. She has been repeatedly threatened with persecution in her homeland of Guatemala.
The Guatemalan sociologist Dr. Gladys Tzul Tzul has received the 2018 “Voltaire Prize for Tolerance, International Understanding and Respect for Differences” of the University of Potsdam for her service to the indigenous population in Central America. Gladys Tzul Tzul specializes in indigenous systems of government, power relations and the struggle between local and state authorities in Guatemala. She received her doctorate in sociology from Benemérita Universidad de Puebla (BUAP) in Mexico. Tzul Tzul is the founder of Amaq, an institute that provides legal advice to indigenous peoples.
Dr. Tzul Tzul, you openly denounced the genocide in Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, under the presidency of the recently deceased Efraín Ríos Montt, and have been committed to the indigenous communities, the so-called “comunidades,” for years. What problems do you see with regard to the political and social situation of the indigenous peoples in your homeland?
Guatemala is a country in which the local communities have managed to maintain their own system of government. Despite the repression and genocide of the 1980s, women, men and children continue to work to preserve their water resources and their communities. From a historical perspective, the comunidades have contributed to preserving their own way of life. At the same time, however, they have also supported the democratization process in Guatemalan society since the war.
The problem now is the constant antagonism between the indigenous population and the Guatemalan state. The state denies the indigenous comunidades and does not recognize the existence of the communal areas with their own systems of government. Twenty years after the signing of the peace agreement, the majority of the comunidades picked themselves up again, looking for their dead. During this search, those affected met engineers from hydropower companies, who in turn were looking for locations to build new power plants. Which is to say that in those very places where the indigenous communities are trying to create life, the state and money are trying to force death. This conflict in Guatemala still remains unresolved; the government is still seeking to plunder and expropriate the resources of the communities.
In what ways have you supported the rights of the indigenous people in your homeland in recent years?
The indigenous communities have historically fought for their rights and I have tried to join their struggle. Accordingly, I have taken part in various legal proceedings to defend indigenous systems of government. I have been in courts and explained how community law functions with regard to the protection of nature and forms of social self-regulation.
In the current times of capital accumulation we are experiencing a restructuring of the republican legal apparatus, so that things are now considered crimes that in the past would not have been. Thus hundreds of indigenous community representatives are being criminally prosecuted. Several lawyers who are defending the indigenous authorities in the courts have asked me to appear as an expert in these cases. There I faced challenging research issues and criticism, both in the indigenous systems of government as well as in the state legal system. At the same time I have taken part in numerous community festivities, because the comunidades also take time for the beautiful, as well. These festivals are a reminder of the fact that, not so long ago, people were also celebrating like this.
What drives you personally?
I spent a lot of years at university reading about indigenous rebellions and struggles as well as about politics in Latin America. Thanks to my scholarships, I was able to research in the archives on the disputes between the community members and the community council during discussions on the abolishing of tribute payments or the freeing of their leaders. At the same time I also grew up in this context, experiencing demonstrations for water protection or meetings where the protection of community borders was decided. Both my scholarly work as well as my professional experience served to broaden my horizons.
And I will never forget the communal mass burial on October 5, 2012, when the comunidades rejected the violence of the Guatemalan state. Yes, it was like a book of the dead, in which those who fell in war appeared in the voices of those present. This image drives me; it pains me and it drives me.
In addition, during the discussion on constitutional reform, I saw how the indigenous representatives spoke to the state in a personal way, using the informal form of the word “you.” The dignified manner in which the indigenous authorities defended the comunidades that had elected them was almost identical to the conflicts towards the end of the nineteenth century. That impressed me from a scholarly point of view. I heard the indigenous mayor of Sololá say to the parliamentarians: “We don’t want any recognition, we have already been elected by our meetings. What we want is that our activity in our own governmental system not be classified as a crime.”
All of this is what motivates me to support the communal indigenous resistance, which has survived, despite the genocide, for 500 years. Also because it’s precisely this form of community that has given many of us the material foundation to educate ourselves and to professionalize.
You are threatened with persecution in your own country. How did this happen and what consequences does your commitment have for you personally?
This situation arose after the massacre of October 4, 2012, as we were fighting to be allowed to commemorate the victims. We were threatened, and for a long time I was afraid to speak openly again. Threats like that force us into silence, we can’t continue to lead our lives as before. You become less trusting, but we have to continue believing in life and in the struggle.
What future do you wish for the people in your homeland?
The comunidades have life projects. In the region Nebaj people are rebuilding their plots of land with more than twelve kinds of crops. The communities are continuing to plant organic corn that will feed multiple generations. There are comunidades with a universe of life that hopefully will not be destroyed, not just for the sake of the communities, but also for the world. My wish is that my research can contribute a little towards preserving this communal world.
Thank you for the interview!
The situation of the indigenous populations in South America
In each country in Latin America the situation of the indigenous population is different today. Whereas in Bolivia new possibilities have opened up for political, social and cultural participation, in many countries of Central America the situation for indigenous peoples is precarious. Hundreds of years of being deprived of their rights across the entire American continent has led the indigenous peoples in recent decades to new forms of border-spanning cooperation, such as communal self-government. In this way the people confront the impoverishment and the most diverse forms of discrimination. Also in Guatemala there is an indigenous involvement on a communal level, in the so-called “comunidades.” Many of these communities elect representatives, who function as their own mayors, independent of the state legal system. On the state level, however, the indigenous population is mostly barred from political participation. Thus, although the decades of genocide are past, still the discrimination continues to affect a large part of the indigenous population, despite the major efforts of scholars such as Gladys Tzul Tzul or writers like Rodrigo Ray Rosa.
Civil war in Guatemala
Some 150,000 to 250,000 people fell victim to the Guatemalan civil war from 1960 to 1996. Most of them were members of the indigenous population, particularly from the different ethnic groups of the Maya. They were murdered in deliberate massacres by the army and by right-wing paramilitary forces.
Massacre in October 2012On October 4, 2012, people from numerous communities of the Quiché, a Mayan population, protested in the Guatemalan district of Totonicapán against a planned constitutional amendment. The interior minister at the time, Mauricio López Bonilla ordered the dissolution of the peaceful protest. When soldiers fired upon the street blockade of around 6,000 protesters, eight people were killed and more than forty were wounded.