Guatemala: anti-rights movement shows its teeth
On 8 March 2022, while commemorations of International Women’s Day were still underway, Guatemala’s Congress passed an anti-gender law simultaneously targeting women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. The new law, which increased prison sentences for abortion, banned same-sex marriage and limited the teaching of sexual diversity, was part of a broader trend across the Americas and in key regional forums. Although Congress quickly backtracked and withdrew the law to avoid a threatened presidential veto, the events were a powerful warning that anti-rights groups are becoming stronger, testing the waters and working towards a long-term project. Civil society needs to stay on the alert.
On a stage set against the backdrop of the presidential palace in Guatemala City, a man delivered an exultant speech culminating with a plea: ‘God bless Guatemala’. It was a religious event, but the speaker was not your typical evangelical preacher: it was Guatemala’s president himself, Alejandro Giammattei.
It was 9 March, a special day – one the Guatemalan Congress had declared the ‘National day for life and family’ – and the conservative president was guest of honour at the public religious ceremony hosted alongside the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family, organised by a Mexico-based Christian group in Guatemala’s capital. The city had just been declared ‘pro-life capital of Iberoamerica’.
In front of this select audience, President Giammattei stressed his country’s dedication to protecting ‘life from conception’, both by constitutional mandate and because ‘our faith commands it’. He also declared that ‘while other countries are dropping bombs, such as Russia attacking Ukraine, we are saying yes to life’. The president unveiled a new monument at the National Palace and renamed one of its areas ‘the courtyard of life’.
Close by, women’s groups staged a protest performance centred around a row of black coffins, an expression of mourning for the rights trampled on and lives lost as a result. They decried the penetration of anti-rights forces into the highest echelons of political power, as reflected not only in the president’s speech but also in the bold anti-rights move the National Congress made the previous day.
#Ahora | Alrededores de la Plaza de la Constitución se encuentran resguardados por las fuerzas de seguridad debido a una actividad del presidente Alejandro Giammattei, quien había anunciado que el país sería Capital Iberoamericana Provida.— Prensa Libre (@prensa_libre) March 9, 2022
Vía: E. García pic.twitter.com/0Do6R8UwZ4
The dark side of 8 March
On the evening of 8 March, before the hustle and bustle of the mobilisation for International Women’s Day (IWD) died down, the Guatemalan Congress passed the ‘Law for the Protection of Life and the Family’, increasing penalties for abortion, banning same-sex marriage and restricting the ability of schools to teach about sexual diversity. Instead of going home, women’s groups who had just taken part in IWD events shifted gears and headed to Congress to protest.
The bill, originally submitted in 2017 by the conservative party Visión con Valores (Vision with Values), encapsulated the territory anti-rights groups are contesting: it simultaneously targeted women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights, portrayed as the demands of ‘minority groups’ whose behaviours run counter to the ‘natural order’ and threaten the ‘moral balance’ of Guatemalan society.
Passed with an ample majority, the new law enshrined ‘the protection of the right to life, the family, freedom of conscience and expression, the institution of marriage between a man and a woman, in addition to the right of parents to guide their children in their sexuality’. It increased prison sentences for women having abortions to between five and 10 years and amended the Civil Code expressly to prohibit same-sex marriage.
The law was unanimously rejected by national and international human rights organisations and brought a strong street reaction by feminist and LGBTQI+ activists. President Giammattei was evidently stung by this backlash. Two days later, and just one day after standing proudly on his preacher’s podium, he announced via Twitter that ‘as a representative of national unity’, he had decided to veto the bill because ‘it violates the Political Constitution and international conventions to which Guatemala is a signatory party’. He later argued that the law had technical defects that might unintentionally enable the criminalisation of women who suffer miscarriages. Exactly one week after passing the law, legislators followed the president’s lead and voted to shelve it.
Voices from the frontline
CIVICUS spoke with the team of Visibles, a Guatemalan CSO that works to achieve the full inclusion of diverse people and build a society where all people can exercise their rights and enjoy respect, freedom and wellbeing.
Anti-rights groups in Guatemala are part of a highly organised and well-funded transnational movement that aims to undermine the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people, as well as the broader participation of civil society in public debate and decision-making.
The state of Guatemala has actively and systematically collaborated to create a narrative hostile to the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And it has done so in a very hypocritical way, as it has promoted public policies that invoke the protection of life and family while at the same time demonstrating a complete lack of commitment to improving the conditions in which Guatemalan individuals and families live. This incoherence becomes an insult when a law is passed that, by criminalising women and LGBTQI+ people, endangers more than half of the population.
On the same day that the ‘Law for the Protection of Life and the Family’ was passed, protests began. Street pressure was novel and important: it showed that organisations can work in coalition and that people are willing to join in and look out for the welfare of all.
Mobilisation raised the cost the government would pay if it validated the congressional decision. The administration led by President Giammattei was already unpopular and facing a growing number of demands for accountability – from journalistic investigations revealing the misuse of power and allegations of corruption to international sanctions against key officials. In this context, President Giammattei threatened to veto the law on the grounds that it violated Guatemala’s constitution and international agreements Guatemala has made, and Congress reacted by reversing and shelving the law.
The approval of – and subsequent U-turn over – this regressive law gave us a taste of the real power the state has over women and LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala. The risk does not disappear because the law has been shelved, but this may hopefully have the effect of sending a wake-up call to the international community.
It is important that they turn their attention, support and resources to Guatemala, whose anti-rights forces are part of a regional advance guard. We cannot lower our guard and allow anti-gender movements to advance their goal of sustaining and consolidating unjust structures of unequal power in which some maintain their privileges at the expense of the basic rights of others.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Visibles. Read the full interview here.
Anti-rights groups active in Guatemala
To get to this point, anti-rights groups had been patiently shifting public discourse and increasing their influence for years. At election time, presidential candidates had increasingly mobilised anti-rights sentiment for political advantage. In the 2019 presidential contest, most parties and candidates, including some that had previously expressed some support for LGBTQI+ people, embraced anti-rights discourse. In May 2019, 15 pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates signed a ‘Declaration on Life and Family’ drafted by an anti-rights organisation, in which they committed to block any progressive legislation on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
The president from 2016 to 2020, Jimmy Morales, was a conservative evangelical who was outspoken in his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage and fuelled anti-rights hatred. The anti-rights bill was submitted during his term in office. In 2018, Congress rejected two progressive initiatives: one seeking to provide an effective response to minors who were victims of sexual violence and decriminalising abortion for rape victims under 14, and another on the recognition of gender identity. The rejection of the abortion bill was accompanied by a massive anti-rights rally.
President Giammattei pledged on the campaign trail to shut down the Presidential Secretariat for Women. Similar pledges are being made by winning candidates across the world, most recently in South Korea. Since gaining office, Giammattei has been loyal to his anti-rights promises. In July 2021 he presented his ‘Public Policy for the Protection of Life and the Institutionalisation of the Family’, enshrining the state’s supposed duty to protect ‘life from conception’.
Both the president and the congressional majority have closely engaged with anti-rights and fundamentalist religious organisations, as reflected in the legislative initiative that declared 9 March as the Day for Life and the Family and imposed an obligation on the three branches of government to hold commemorative events – a commitment that representatives of each gladly fulfilled on the public stage earlier this month, effectively doing away with any semblance of secularism and co-opting the public sphere.
A transnational threat
Guatemalan anti-rights groups are far from exceptional: they are part of a well organised and well-funded transnational movement that is making an impact throughout the Americas.
This can be seen in Ecuador and the USA. The day after Guatemala’s anti-rights law was shelved, Ecuador’s conservative president partly vetoed a bill legalising abortion in cases of rape that the National Assembly passed in February. President Guillermo Lasso, who has repeatedly positioned himself ‘in favour of life from conception’, called for the unification of time limits on abortion for all cases, in both urban and rural settings, and demanded the inclusion of articles to guarantee health professionals the right to conscientious objection.
In the USA, a major source of funding for anti-rights groups around the world, an avalanche of state-level restrictions on abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQI+ people, particularly transgender people, have been introduced in recent years. Also on 8 March, Florida’s legislature passed the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill – better known as the ‘don’t say gay’ bill – aimed at preventing teachers from speaking to students about sexual orientation and gender issues, and potentially subjecting them to lawsuits if they fail to comply.
Across the region, anti-rights movements are highly connected and run coordinated national campaigns using the same discourse, focused on opposition to what they call ‘gender ideology’. They use the same slogans and even the same symbols and aesthetics. And they work together in the international arena, co-opting spaces meant for civil society participation and attempting to hijack the main multilateral regional body, the Organization of American States (OAS).
Anti-rights groups on the regional stage
It was in Guatemala that anti-gender groups first made themselves visible at the OAS, when the country hosted the General Assembly in 2013. Their goal at the event was to prevent the adoption of the Inter-American Convention against all forms of Discrimination and Intolerance – which opposed discrimination on gender and sexual orientation grounds. The convention was eventually adopted, although only 12 out of 35 OAS members states went on to sign it over the following years.
According to the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala, the Convention ‘promoted homosexuality’. In a statement issued in June 2013, bishops also expressed concerns over civil society efforts to legalise abortion, urged the Guatemalan government to not follow the recommendations of the Follow-up Mechanism to the Belém do Pará Convention and rejected the OAS General Assembly’s resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
Local groups were prominent in the 2013 Assembly, including Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life) and La Familia Importa (Family Matters). But anti-rights groups from other countries in the region were present as well, alongside international anti-abortion groups such as Human Life International.
These organisations argued that the recognition of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was a ‘gateway’ to same-sex marriage, equated the prohibition of discrimination to religious persecution and claimed it infringed the freedom of expression.
The participation of anti-rights groups in OAS General Assemblies has increased ever since, causing alarm among human rights organisations that feel displaced from participation and consultation spaces. When the General Assembly was held in Paraguay in 2014, a working group on ‘life and family’ was established; it excluded LGBTQI+ and feminist CSOs and produced a widely distributed public statement. Many prominent international anti-rights organisations took part for the first time, including CitizenGo, which delivered the signatures collected through its online petition platform.
In 2015, when the General Assembly was held in the USA, anti-rights groups opted for a diversionary strategy, arguing there were more pressing issues than the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people, such as the rights to education, health and water and, especially, the defence of democracy in Cuba and Venezuela – issues that dominated the debate. This was also the year when a significant anti-rights youth contingent trained in advocacy by Frente Joven – a group based in Argentina with branches in Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru – began to participate actively in OAS General Assemblies.
At the 2016 General Assembly in the Dominican Republic, tensions rose as transgender people using a gender-neutral toilet were attacked. As in the previous year, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, known for his support for sexual and reproductive rights, was harshly questioned and his dialogue session with civil society was disrupted and overrun by anti-rights groups. General Assembly events were accompanied by a massive anti-rights street demonstration.
To avoid tensions, the following General Assembly, scheduled to take place in Mexico City, was moved to the coastal city of Cancún just a few weeks before it was due to start, limiting civil society’s access. Spaces for interaction were also reduced and CSOs were required to group into coalitions, each with five minutes to make a presentation. According to observers, at least 10 out of 24 presentations were made by anti-rights groups, which appropriated human rights language and argued that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human rights were ‘overreaching’ when making recommendations and creating precedents on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
The 2018 General Assembly, again held in Washington D.C., USA, brought another innovation that would remain: the massive presence of churches, mainly evangelical. This was the result of a decision reached at the Ibero-American Congress for Life and the Family held in February that year. Strategically adopting a secular tone, evangelical churches formed three coalitions against the ‘dictatorship’ of ‘gender ideology’ and to defend ‘parents’ right to raise their children’.
The last pre-pandemic General Assembly was held in Medellín, Colombia. By then, most anti-rights groups were affiliated with evangelical churches.
In the Americas and beyond, anti-rights movements all follow the same tactics. These include the use of apparently legitimate channels, such as court actions, campaigning in elections, triggering referendums and participating in consultations; mobilising people in public space, including with the intent of disrupting or preventing civil society mobilisations; using and manipulating social media, including to promote narratives, recruit support, spread disinformation and conspiracy theories, promote hate speech and smear and harass progressive civil society; and enabling and sometimes even directly deploying physical violence. As foundations for these attacks, they can both borrow and distort the secular language of human rights and mobilise fundamentalist versions of religion.
Danger not averted
Anti-rights groups are in this struggle for the long haul. In Guatemala, they tested the waters, found the temperature uncomfortable and retreated strategically to continue their work, striving to create more favourable conditions for their next attempt. But overall, anti-rights groups are gaining confidence, visibility and resources. In a variety of contexts their narratives resonate and they win support from considerable segments of the public. They shape public narratives, including through disinformation and manipulation, and sow hatred. They help to make and benefit from regressive political change, and take advantage of people’s insecurities in highly uncertain times.
The international community must turn its attention, support and resources to Guatemala, whose anti-rights forces are part of a regional advance guard.
For now, Guatemalan women’s and LGBTQI+ groups can breathe a sigh of relief. But they must not let their guard down. There is no doubt that anti-rights groups will strike again as soon as the opportunity presents itself, and progressive civil society must be ready to fight back.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Progressive civil society should learn to better connect with the daily struggles of people who are being won over by anti-rights discourse.
Women’s and LGBTQI+ rights groups should build wide alliances with other rights-oriented groups and connect with other potential allies, including moderate religious groups.
The international community should shine the spotlight on rights regressions brought about by anti-rights groups.
Cover photo by Visibles/Facebook