Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu… here with the second episode in our new season of this podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to advance human rights around the world… Today, launching a social movement by accident – a Guatemalan activist tells us how he did it … And in the Coda, a Hong Kong organizer on why he loves to climb rocks.
Guatemala suffered decades of war in the 60s,70s, and 80s. The United States was sponsoring rightwing military forces throughout central America to eliminate left-leaning popular movements and their supporters. Torture, forced removals and mass killing left profound trauma in those who survived that era. But peace accords were signed in the mid 90s, opening the way for a period of recovery and a shift to democratic, peacetime politics. At least that was the hope. Barely 20 years after the peace accords were signed, a major corruption scandal came to light, revealed by a UN commission working in the country and signaling that the political system was deeply compromised. In response, tens of thousands of citizens came out to denounce the graft, chanting Renuncia Ya! – Resign now! The odd thing was, the protests – which were to turn into the Justicia Ya social movement, seemed to come out of nowhere – there had been no gradual build-up or signs of public anger. Someone who had more than a little to do with mobilizing those protests is Gabriel Wer. Now, he’s the director of the Instituto Vinte-Cinco A, or the 25 A Institute, a project that grew out of the movement, and aims to fuel demand for democracy, rights and justice. But seven years ago, when the corruption scandal broke, Gabriel had never been involved in any kind of political protest. Yet in a matter of days, he found himself co-leading a social movement that toppled the country’s vice president and then the president. So I wanted him to tell me the story of how that happened.
AA: Welcome Gabriel.
Gabriel Wer: Thank you.
AA: So you started your political activism in Guatemala when and why?
GW: It all started in 2015 with the emerging anti-corruption movement in Guatemala. I lived abroad for almost 10 years and I think that opened my eyes in so many ways, exposed me to many issues that I wasn’t really aware of, and also seeing how things worked over there in terms of, of people protesting and speaking up – I wasn’t used to that. I knew that people were mobilizing in Guatemala, especially indigenous communities, but in my immediate context, none of that was happening. So when I got back to Guatemala, there was a commission, a UN-backed commission, investigating corruption, high level corruption in government, and they were starting to share their early findings. And that’s when things exploded, when they held a news conference where they explained a case called La Linha, the line, uh, it was tax fraud basically. The vice president’s personal secretary was involved and the vice-president was involved. So we knew that the president was going to be involved too. So that sort of created the tipping point in people after many incidents. That was the one thing that people just said, OK, we’ve had enough.
AA: So what did you start out by doing?
GW: When La Linha happened, in April, 2015, and the UN commission explained the whole thing, I was just very angry. I said, I cannot believe that they’re doing this so shamelessly. So I went on Facebook, I wrote a post which I hadn’t done before, just saying, “this is happening. What can we do? We cannot be silent anymore.” And a friend of my mum, she read my post and she just sent me a message saying, there’s this group of people on a Facebook group calling a protest about this. I just added you as an organizer.” And I said, “what? what? wait!” <laugh>. And I didn’t get a chance to, to, to reply. Suddenly I got the notification that I was one of the organizers of this peaceful protest that was being called through Facebook for the next two or three days, And I went online and I saw the event on Facebook – there was this very long explanation about the case. And there was no pictures, nothing. And there were a lot of names, like 20 names, including mine. And so I wrote to her and said, thank you, I think this is something I can do, or I can help with. I’ve never been in a protest in my life but if I read this, I wouldn’t go. Can I, um, make it more appealing maybe, if I can? She said, “Go ahead, do whatever you want.” And I said, “I think we should have a week more time to, to organize it,” so she said, “Do whatever you want. I don’t care. Just do it, <laugh> but do something!”
AA: For someone who’d never organized a protest that must have been quite alarming.
GW: Yeah. And so, I said, OK. So I, drafted a, much, much succinct text to explain what was happening. And then I thought about – maybe we can use a hashtag. So I, I came up with a hashtag, #Renuncia Ya, which means “Resign Now!” And, I spoke to a friend, Rafael Mora who’s a graphic designer and said, “I’m doing this, would you mind preparing an image with the hashtag and make it look inviting for people to join?” And he did it very quickly. And I changed the date and, and then suddenly the event had a name and a face and a hashtag and everything else. And then, um, people just started to join. And, and about an hour later, one of the media outlets in Guatemala shared the information of citizens are calling for a protest. And from that point, it just took off. It was, it was just crazy. We were thinking that if we got 50 people protesting, that would be a success. But by the next morning, we had over 10,000 people replying to the event saying that they would attend. And…
AA: But you hadn’t even met the other people who had been on that list. You didn’t know them. You’d never talked with them!
GW: No I didn’t know, just my mom’s friend. And then the number of organizers just started reducing <laugh> as the people were replying to the event saying that they were going. So at one point we were just like 12 left as organizers. And then a woman wrote to me and says, oh, listen, I, I know your mom as well, uh, you don’t know me, but I know her from her childhood. And I’m one of the organizers and I saw your name. I said, yeah, yes! So in that conversation, we agreed that the best thing was for us to meet in person. So she, invited us over to her house. And eight of us came to that, So that’s where I met the others, and that’s how RenunciaYa! started basically. And next Saturday, we had almost 30,000 people on the main square in Guatemala City. And it was a very peaceful protest, was a very exciting moment, uh, a very scary moment too, because we didn’t know what was going to happen.
We decided a few things when we met in person. The first one is we weren’t going to speak to the media because we didn’t want to expose ourselves. And we didn’t want to personalize it -say, this is the protest from Gabriel, and Alvaro [Montenegro] and Lucia [Mendizabal], and Glenda [Lopez], no, this is, this is a citizen protest. We will draft a text for the media and for everyone to have, why we’re doing this, who we are, that it’s a peaceful protest, what are we demanding. And then we also decided that if people wanted to come to Guatemala city, it would be best for them to organize a protest in their own towns so that we would help them and give them all the materials and the visuals so that they can create Facebook events themselves and so that worked really well. So simultaneously there were other protests happening across the country, and it just took off from there. It was just crazy how quickly things exploded. And I was suddenly in the middle of all of this learning how to organize protests, learning how to deal with journalists, learning how to deal with political opposition from other political parties that thought that we were a political party organizing this. Um, so yeah, that’s how things just started for me.
AA: And I’m curious about whether, at that point, you suddenly had people who were experienced organizers and, uh, sort of strategists kind of appearing out of the woodwork and coming and helping you or joining you, and maybe, you know, whether you viewed that as helpful or not helpful?
GW: Well, we were a very tight group. We ended up being seven people, from the RenunciaYa! period, which was about a month. We organized two protests, the one in April and one in May, which was attended by more than 60,000 people in the main square in Guatemala, but also in the country, but also something that we motivated people that were living in other countries to organize protests in the Guatemalan embassy in their country. And that worked really well, too. So we were very tight group and no one had a real experience in this. but we sort of trusted each other a lot, even though we just met. And we were really honest about why we were doing this. And it was really interesting because there were like the young members of the group and the older members of the group, and because they’ve experienced the war in a more direct way in Guatemala, they were really scared that something was going to happen to us. And the younger members were like, “No, we can do this! We should just carry on with what we’re doing. Look at what everyone else is saying!” And we also started meeting with certain people that approached us, for example, university students from the public university that have been organizing for many months, for, educational reform, they wanted to join too, and they were just, “Who are you?” <laugh> So we had those sort of very quick conversations, not even meetings, conversations, and people just started – it was a very diverse and decentralized movement. You know, even though we felt like we were at the center of it, because people were looking at us for, ‘what are you doing? When’s the next protest?’ we made the effort to make sure that if someone else wanted to call a protest next Saturday, because we didn’t, that we should support it rather than say, no, we are the ones who say when the next protest’s gonna be. So we created calendars and people started organizing bicycle protests and prayers in the mornings and everything that anyone organized that was aimed at sort of, um, uh, demanding the vice president to resign, and then the president to resign, we just joined. Yeah.
AA: So you had, out of nowhere, a social movement, basically, all organized around one demand.
GW: Yeah. I mean, the one demand – first, it was the vice president, but she resigned two weeks after the first protest. Uh, and then we knew we had to go after the president because he had to know for sure what was happening. But then, in the following protest, we started looking at what people were saying on the streets and when they joined with their signs and they were asking for electoral reform or justice system reform, and, yeah, we had a general election in the coming months so people were asking for the elections to be delayed until everything got sorted. We started looking at that and said, it’s not just one demand. There’s a lot of voices demanding things that are linked, in a way. But the main focus for us was the president resigning.
AA: And what was the reaction? I imagine that the state was not just standing by and watching you double your demonstrations every couple of weeks. What kind of force were you met with?
GW: It was strange because they didn’t do much, actually. They were very silent about what was happening and we didn’t have experience so we, we thought that was the norm. Nowadays, with how things have gone really bad in Guatemala, there’s basically no civic space left. So I think we were in a way lucky that the government then didn’t see that responding in an aggressive way or in a, an oppressive way was the way forward. That was something that just sort of played in our favor. And the other thing is that the protests were ongoing. They lasted for a couple of months. And that ended up – there was a big strike and two or three days later, the president finally resigned.
AA: You must have been, yeah, shocked by the speed of the events, the fact that you actually won your demands, both the most senior political officers in the land resigning. How did you understand what you had done? I mean, were you euphoric? Were you confused? What, what, what was in your mind?
GW: I think a little bit of everything. We didn’t have much time to reflect, but we did, I mean, after the second big protest, there was tension within the group because the older members didn’t want to carry on. And the young members – we did want to carry on. And that’s where we experienced the first very tense discussions about what the way forward should be. And we finally decided to break up and, the four younger members, we said we need to carry on. I can remember very vividly sitting in a living room with the other three, and just saying, I know this is what we have to do. I, I just felt it. And I saw everything so clear that this was the way forward. And that’s how JusticiaYa! was born, actually.
AA: So carrying on meant forming, what, a new organization or formulating a new set of demands?
GW: RenunciaYa! ended because we weren’t in agreement because we wanted to demand the president to resign and they didn’t want, because they said that was really dangerous to, to demand such a thing, and that it wasn’t going to happen, it was impossible for a sitting president to resign because of a corruption scandal. And we said, in our inexperience, we said, yes, we have to. And that’s why we created JusticiaYa in a way to, to move forward with everything and continue to call on people to take the streets, and-
AA: Why did you change the name? Why was that necessary? Was it because the others had left and you needed to start again?
GW: Yeah, that was one of the biggest issues. they said, “if you carry on as RenunciaYa and something happens, or you do something, it puts us in danger. So one of the conditions was, okay, if you want to carry on, you do it, but you do it on your own terms on under your own name.” So that’s how we created JusticiaYa, which means “Justice now!” And we thought it was a good change because we already started to see on the streets that the demands weren’t just about a resignation. It was much deeper than that. So, it was about justice at the end of the day. It was just four of us. And a fifth member joined a couple of weeks after that. So, there were five of us for a long time just organizing within this crazy context where everything was going on, and we had the general election coming up so that there were campaigns going on and there were political parties campaigning, and there were protests happening everywhere.
AA: And did you think that you ought to, in any way, formalize your own structures? I mean, five individuals who are just very bonded with each other sounds inadequate to the task, given that you were dealing with now tens of thousands of people on a regular basis.
GW: Yeah. We created a Facebook event, a Twitter account, an Instagram account. So we started sort of trying to get a platform ready. And we started to reach out to other groups, organizations, movements. We agreed on a few basic rules. One of them is that we would be open to speak to anyone who wanted to talk to us, regardless of ideology or political position or anything. The other one was that we wouldn’t do anything by ourselves. If we were going to call an action or a protest or something, we would try to do it with other organizations and movements, not just by ourselves. And the third one was, what if the things we were demanding were actually getting us closer to the precipice. <laugh>, you know, that sense of, are we pushing to the right direction? And, that’s when we decided that we also needed to sort of immerse ourselves in learning about our political history, about how did we get here as a country and what should we do to avoid being here again in the next 2, 3, 4, 10 years. So we started sort of like a learning process from within the organization and I think that sort of created the space for us to, to start thinking about other things Because the president resigned in August, well, early September. So after that, it’s okay, now what? And so, that’s when we started having the discussions about our organization – are we organizing the right way? Is this what you’re supposed to do, because we didn’t know. In Guatemala because of the war there’s a generation gap of people, of this culture of organizing around unions, around student movements, academia, uh, churches that got killed or disappeared. So at least in urban settings, in the city, we didn’t have any sort of culture –
AA: Elders, elders to teach you
GW: Yeah. how to organize. So we were learning as we went along and we knew that there were people that had this experience so we started looking for them. We also started to look into indigenous organizations and movements because they’ve been organizing and mobilizing for decades and decades and decades. And we knew that there was an opportunity there also to learn how to, to do it in a place like Guatemala. So yeah, that was part of the learning curve of just trying to organize in a good way. And we had to deal with our day jobs in the middle of all that. So it was really crazy, I mean, for me, it’s a blur <laugh>, in some aspects, in other aspects, I feel like I’ve never learned so much and lived so much, like I did between 2015 and 2016, which was like the core of the experience of the movement, although the start of the end was late 2017. That was when things just started going bad.
AA: What was the end? In what way did they go bad?
GW: That the UN Commission was going after high-level politicians, but also they started to go after bankers. They started to go after corporations and businessmen or TV moguls that were involved in corruption. And they sort of started to join forces and they drafted a strategy just to, to prepare a backlash to stop the Commission. They managed to kick the Commission out of Guatemala, but not only that, they started this strategy of vengeance, I would say, against anyone who was involved in the anti-corruption movement – that includes judges, that includes journalists, activists, civil society, students – anyone who was involved. And they’ve been sort of implementing that strategy since, I would say, early 2018, up till now.
AA: There was a famous anti-corruption campaigner in Nigeria at one time, Nuhu Ribadu, who used to say, “When you fight corruption, it fights you back!”
GW: Yeah, definitely. And it’s fighting back with the state apparatus and with all the military and the forces that they have. And, yeah, so it’s been, it’s been really dangerous. I mean, Guatemala has become a really dangerous place for anyone who’s, um, yes, who’s critical with the regime and which is an impunity- based regime. I can remember very clearly. I was one of the more visible members of JusticiaYa because I was, I was in a place in my life where I was working for my stepdad. And he said, “go ahead, you do what you need to do. I’ll support you.” So he cut down my work hours and he said that I could go on, on news conferences and stuff like that, or, you know, or give interviews. I was the only one from the group when we started. And so I was sort of the first one to get harassed in social media, by government-funded accounts and profiles. And that started in late 2016 when the Commission and other groups were supporting the justice system reform as it went to Congress. There was a lot of tension because the government and the military were very much against the reform because that meant they were going to lose their grip on the justice system. And so they used very old tactics, you know, like calling us communists and saying that supporting the justice system reform was supporting the global agenda of the UN and the left and the, you know, LGBTQ rights movement and the women’s rights movements. And, and that, Guatemala was not that type of country. So they were very effective on that. And in the way they did it, they started targeting specific people, and I was one of those people. That has deteriorated a lot in the past couple of years when the Commission got shut down and they just took over all the public institutions. Guatemala became a very dangerous place for that sort of advocacy and activism and, and also for judges and, and, and attorneys and, and, journalists to do their jobs.
AA: what was the impact on Justicia Ya and, and, and how did you respond?
GW: We didn’t want to quit. We knew we, we couldn’t quit because, although the sort of, the dynamics of the, of the movement changed, the cause was still there. And so it was a very strange time because we felt like we lost our purpose in a way, but also our safety net as, as a movement, as citizens.
AA: So, so what were your options?
GW: Well, we were thinking about focusing on issues, like more in depth issues, that stem from inequalities, political inequalities, economic inequalities, social inequalities, and also sort of trying to aim at, a more local scale, just talking to people in neighborhoods, in communities, bringing information about what was going on politically in Guatemala and what that meant for them.
AA: So you knew that something had to change, that you weren’t any more as a group of, you know, comrades organizing these massive demonstrations, you were already trying to figure out what the new work looked like.
GW: Definitely. And, and we tried many things. We started exploring many, many options. We started doing these sort of short workshops, in different areas of not just Guatemala city, but in the country, so that really sort of started creating a sense of a wider network of people. And on the other hand, we, got a much direct sense of what people were thinking about, uh, rather than creating content and sharing it on, on social media, we were now getting to know or seeing people’s reactions when, when you told them about these things and the questions that they were having. We knew that we were navigating a new type of wave and, and therefore we needed to rethink the way we were doing it. And we also started thinking in a more sort of system approach to things. And we started talking a lot about ecosystems and how we were part of an ecosystem. We were not the system, we were not the organization that was doing everything. A lot of people in different organizations were doing all types of things. What should our role be in, in that?
AA: So where did you land then? What was your decision about how to transform this amorphous and huge social movement, this moment of political action into something more long term, more solid?
GW: In JusticiaYa, we were very interested in trying and exploring many organizational structures, because we had the complete freedom to do it. We weren’t a formal organization. We didn’t have donors or, we didn’t have anything like that. So we were really free to do anything we wanted. It was fun. It was confusing at some points, but I think we learned a lot from that experience. At one point we were even thinking about should we become a political party? Because we learned from other experiences in other countries that that was sort of the natural move after such a, a big social movement, uh, in Chile, in Spain, uh, in Mexico. We ended up deciding not to do it because we knew that there was a lot of work that still needed to be done on our front.
AA: And so what did you settle on?
GW: In 2018, we held a two-day gathering in JusticiaYa. We wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before, which is go someplace quiet and just talk about these issues and these questions and these challenges. And at the end of that, one of the many decisions was we needed to create another organization, an autonomous organization, that could sort of take care of those things that we, we knew needed a different type of approach than the one we had in JusticiaYa. So we didn’t want to break the nature of JusticiaYa in order to do those things.
AA: Then the question arose about who was going to do that so say something about that.
GW: Yeah. Well, we decided that we wanted to create an organization. We also decided that it was going to be a completely separate thing. And the third thing we voted was, who wants to join? Who wants to sort of, uh, help build this thing, and nine of us raised our hands. So, so nine people – we, we started meeting, and having sort of brainstorm sessions and just trying to get everything on paper and figuring everything out.
And we named it Venti-cinco A , which means 25 A, which is April 25th. That was the first protest that we sort of had in Guatemala in 2015 and we wanted to name it that way because it was sort of like a, a testament to that spirit, to, to what we lived and what we experienced and, and what happens when a lot of people come together to try to transform things in Guatemala.
AA: So I know this is a work in progress. You are still doing this, so the story’s not over, but if you, had to summarize whether it’s been possible to realize that vision, whether the institute has turned into what you hoped or is doing the work that you hoped, what would you say?
GW: I mean, the balance is positive. I think in many ways it has surpassed our expectations in what the potential is and what we can do and what we can think of, and we can imagine and dream of. And in some other ways, it, it has surprised us too. I mean, there’s been moments where that I’ve asked myself, what, what are we doing? Why are we doing this? But then, then something happens and, or we meet someone that sort of validates that this is the path that we need to walk.
AA: It’s quite a journey.
GW: It is. I feel like it’s been 20 years and it’s been only four or five! With the Institute plus JusticiaYa it’s been six years. So yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s been a very intense process and, but a very worthwhile journey too.
AA: Thank you, Gabriel
GW: Thank you for having me.
AA: Gabriel Wer is the director of the Instituto Vinte Cinco A in Guatemala, a role he took up after stepping out of the Justicia Ya! social movement. You can read a transcript of our conversation at strengthandsolidarity.org
AA: Our Coda this time, comes from Hong Kong and Johnson Yeung … You might recall my interview with him in Episode 5, about the challenges he and others faced trying to win international solidarity for the democracy movement… As usual, we asked him to tell us what inspires and sustains his human rights work and it turns out that for Johnson it’s climbing rocks.
Johnson Yeung: I started doing rock climbing in 2020 during the pandemic times. Hong Kong is very restrictive in terms of pandemic measures. Like families, groups of 4 people cannot gather together on the street. There’s restrictions of going into restaurants as well. Indoor gyms and sport venues were all closed. So the whole atmosphere is prisonlike. So being able to go into the nature, especially when you reach to the top -you look at you know the whole Hong Kong, it’s very beautiful.
JY: The sites that I love most are all located in mountains and country parts which is not far from the city because Hong Kong is a very small place – usually 20 or 30minutes by car you will reach to a country park, you have to find a natural rock wall that may be hidden deep in the jungles or forest. And then you bring some friends with you where a group of people walk for an hour. In this process you are escaping from the computers or indoor office. You are listening to the songs that are sung by the birds, and you are touching the wall, you are feeling fresh air. When you reach to the top, the whole scenery, the whole Hong Kong that I see it’s just magnificent. You are able to see very far away as opposed to the really messy, troublesome things that you face in the office.
JY: One thing that everyone would encounter is, you always fall. And you have to try so many times, you know, different gestures, adjusting your body positions, tipping your toe, trying to make your arm tenser in order to pass a rock that you couldn’t climb on or hold on. And it is a metaphor of our lives and you know, our work. Failure or disappointment is everyday life in human rights work. We always fall. But in rock climbing you can fall, but you just keep trying until you reach to the top. If you do rock climbing, then usually it is a two people exercise. One person is the climber and one is then the second person is the anchor who is holding on the rope, releasing the rope for the climber, while at the same time protecting the safety of the climber. So if the person below is careless, it could really kill the climber, so as a climber you have to really let go and put your life on someone else. It is a process of building trust. It is one way that makes you truly rely on the others and that is really good for bonding and friendship as well.
JY: Being able to climb all the way to the top itself is a very empowering act for me, particularly. We have to face very depressing moments, lots of bad news, but also scared for our own liberties as well. Being able to climb to the top gives you a space that belongs to you and the nature that you are in.
AA: Thank you to Johnson Yeung for that resonant metaphor of rock climbing as recovery, as collaboration, as a site of setbacks but also great pleasure.
AA: That wraps up episode 28 of Strength and Solidarity, thanks for listening. If you’re new to the podcast, please do visit the website and have a listen to the now 27 conversations with human rights leaders from all over the world talking about the problems they are trying to solve. And, by the way – I email a kind of postcard about each episode as it comes out, offering some context and, sometimes some bonus material. If you would like to be on the mailing list, drop us a line – the address is firstname.lastname@example.org… or you can just sign up on the podcast page of our website, strength and solidarity dot org. For now, though, from producer Peter Coccoma and me, Akwe Amosu – happy holidays to all who celebrate – we’ll be back in January.