5 October 2006 Edition

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International Guatemala - Local communities organise to build a better life

Educating for Change

In the second of his reports from Guatemala, Sinn Féin's Director of European Affairs, EOIN Ó BROIN, looks at the language based social economy projects, which are giving hope to some of the country's poorest communities.

Guatemala is a poor country, wracked by conflict, inequality and natural disasters. Low levels of taxation coupled with the unwillingness of successive right wing governments to invest in public services has left the majority of the population with no social safety net.

As in so many other parts of the world, when abandoned by government, local communities across the country are organised and actively working to build a batter life for their families and neighbours.

While much of this work focuses on fundamental objectives such as acquiring land or work, and defending social or political rights, in a number of Guatemalas cities locals have turned to the social economy as a means of providing much needed capital for development.

At the centre of this economy is the Spanish language, or more specifically Spanish language schools, primarily aimed at language students from the USA. In Antigua, the historic capital of Guatemala, the entire economy is based on such schools, which provide a wide range of jobs for local people. A bustling, prosperous, beautiful picture-postcard town, Antigua stands in stark contrast to the grey, menacing and economically depressed neighbouring capital of Guatemala City.

Much of Antigua's economic development stems from the growth of the Spanish language schools sector, which has received active support from the municipal authorities. However the bulk of the language schools are privately owned.

Centre of social activism

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second city is located in the western highlands. It is the country's centre of progressive politics and social activism. Home to Guatemala's first directly elected indigenous mayor, it represents a more honest picture of the state of the country.

Here, the Spanish language economy is not only a driver for economic development, but provides much needed investment for a wide range of social and community projects. Students from the US and Europe not only contribute to the city's local economy, but through their school fees they also fund much needed education projects for local children in addition to working as volunteers in a host of other valuable projects.

On of the longest standing language projects is the Projecto Linguistics Quetzalteco. Formed over 20 years ago it hosts hundreds of students every year in the city, providing high quality teaching, and social investment.

In 1996, the year of the Guatemalan peace accords, the PLQ decided to open a second school in the mountains the aim of which was to provide students with a more direct experience of the reality of life for the majority of Guatemaltecos while assisting communities in one of the country's poorest regions.

In 1997 La Escuela de las Montanas was born, in the municipality of San Martin, adjacent to the communities of Nuevo san Jose and Fatima. With spaces for 12 students, the school provides intensive Spanish language classes combined with a unique opportunity for students to learn first hand about the life, history and aspirations of the local people. Students live at the school, eat with local families and attend meeting and activities organized in the evenings.

Largest employer

The school has become the areas largest employer, providing jobs and much needed income. A portion of student's school fees is invested in an education scholarship programme enabling local children to attend secondary school. In addition the school provides facilities for the local community including weekly Cultural Nights for teenagers and music classes at the weekends.

The neighbouring communities of Fatima and Nuevo San Jose were born out of long and difficult labour struggles in nearby coffee fincas. The residents were leaders of ad-hoc trade unions demanding minimum wages for workers. In return they suffered a sustained campaign of harassment and violence by the landowners and their allies in the local police. However following lengthy legal battles they secured financial settlements that enabled them to purchase land and establish their new homes.

Assistance from international housing charities enabled them to secure homes, and while the majority of the population continue to work long hours in coffee fincas in neighbouring districts, the PLQ school is a major boost to the communities sustainability and standard of living.

For the student, the experience is an exceptionally enriching one. Not only is the standard of language education exceptionally high, but the teachers, families and school staff share their life experiences with you, in such a way that even during a short stay of one or two weeks you get a deeper understanding of what life in Guatemala is really like.

Humbling experience

One of the most striking things, especially for an Irish republican, is that despite the vast differences in standards of living, the social and political dynamics of daily life are so similar to those in many parts of Ireland. During my two weeks in the school I attended a number of meetings that could have easily been in Belfast or Dublin. We met with former URNG combatants who outlined their own difficult transition from armed resistance to political party and we listened to young people from the Nuevo San Jose community who talked about problems of teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and anti-social behaviour.

Perhaps the most humbling experience was eating in the homes of local families, listening to their life stories and how they continue to overcome poverty, inequality and state neglect.

The language projects of Guatemala, particularly those connected to social and community struggles such as the PLQ offer many opportunities and lessons for those of us involved with conflict resolution and struggles for equality at home. They provide us with a concrete and meaningful way of expressing solidarity with a people who appear to have been forgotten by the international community. Two weeks with the PLQ not only gives the student the holiday of a lifetime and a valuable educational opportunity but also significantly contributes to the wellbeing and development of local people. It is sustainable tourism and social economy at its best. In addition it provides much food for thought for how we could develop similar initiatives at home.

While many Irish republicans and socialists are listening and learning about positive developments in Bolovia, Venezuela and other Latin American countries it is important that we don't forget those countries who's political situations are more bleak, thus requiring more international assistance and support.

News in Brief

Brazil

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has narrowly missed re-election in the first round of polls in Brazil. Lula needed at least 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off on 29 October, but fell about 1% short. The Workers Party leader will now go head to head with former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, who took 41.4% of the vote.

Austria

Austria's opposition Social Democrats have won a surprise election victory, defeating Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's People's Party. The centre-left Social Democrats won 35.7% of the vote, narrowly beating the the People's Party at 34.2%.

Lebanon

The UN has said Israel has withdrawn the bulk of its troops from Lebanon, fulfilling a key condition of the UN ceasefire ending war with Hezbollah, but it said some Israeli troops remained in the small border village of Ghajar, where Israeli troops were deployed before the month-long war. Lebanese and international peacekeeping troops are being deployed to monitor the nearly seven-week-old ceasefire.

US and Torture

On Wednesday, 27 September the US Congress approved legislation giving President George Bush extraordinary powers to detain and try prisoners. The legislation strips detainees of the right to challenge their own detention and gives the President the power to detain them indefinitely. The bill also immunises US officials from prosecution for torturing detainees who the military and CIA captured before the end of last year.


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