Indigenous Farmworker Leader Bids for Guatemala Presidency

Mar 16, 2023
10:49 AM

Thelma Cabrera, presidential hopeful for the Movement for Peoples’ Liberation (MLP) party poses for photos at her home in El Asintal, Guatemala, Monday, March 13, 2023. Cabrera and the MLP are waiting for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to approve the candidacy of her running mate Jordan Rodas ahead of the 2023 general elections. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

By SONIA PÉREZ D., Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — An Indigenous female farmworker leader hopes to become Guatemala’s next president. But Thelma Cabrera faces an uphill fight after the country’s Electoral Tribunal refused to allow her to register her candidacy.

There is just one week left in the registration period for the June 25 elections, but Cabrera and her Movement for Peoples’ Liberation are vowing to go ahead with her campaign whether she gets registered or not.

It was never going to be easy. Even though the government’s last census said around 48 percent of Guatemalans identify as Indigenous —and some Indigenous groups insist the number is higher— lighter-skinned elites have always ruled.

Paradoxically, the tribunal barred Cabrera’s running mate from registering their ticket on the grounds that he did not supply a letter stating there were no corruption cases open against him—even though it allowed politicians with pending cases to register.

“The political system has been corrupted,” said Cabrera. “The system itself has been designed by the corrupt to keep them free but to tie the hands of those who are honest. We cannot stand this slavery we are living in anymore.”

Cabrera, 52, has unlikely hands for a president, roughened by decades of washing clothes in a river and planting food. She has a sixth-grade education, which she calls “quite a lot for an Indigenous woman in Guatemala.”

“We are seeking to transform the country, after all the injustices we have suffered,” Cabrera said in a recent interview at her home.

The fight is not without risk. At least 26 members of the Farmworkers Development Committee, the group that founded the Movement for Peoples’ Liberation, have been killed since 2019.

The group fights for land and public services for Indigenous people and it seeks to block privatizations. But it has also been accused of stealing electrical power.

“They are afraid of us,” Cabrera said of the country’s elites. “It is they who are afraid of a roadmap for the nation.”

“Nobody is going to take anything away from anyone,” she said. “All we want is for everyone to do their duty.”

While Guatemala has been ruled by a succession of male politicians representing the elites, Cabrera still lives in her humble, tin-roofed house in the village of El Asintal on Guatemala’s Pacific coast.

Like many Guatemalans, Cabrera’s daughter, one of four children, emigrated to the United States in 2021 because she couldn’t find a decent job in her homeland.

The U.S. government has sharply criticized the weakening of anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, and in 2021 it canceled the U.S. visa of Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who had been pursuing former prosecutors who conducted corruption investigations.

Around 30 former anti-corruption officials have fled the country, and the persecution appears to have extended to journalists.

President Alejandro Giammattei has been dismissive of U.S. officials’ criticism of his attorney general and what they see as Guatemala reneging on battling corruption. The country’s new special prosecutor against impunity has been placed on a U.S. list of people suspected of corruption or undermining democracy. He is accused of obstructing corruption investigations.