Prev Witness for Peace
Guatemala 2000
A photo journal by David Booth

Day 2 Part 4 - Meeting with Rodolfo Robles, Union Organizer

After our meeting with Dr. Camaro, we drove back to our hostel to meet with Rodolfo Robles, a union organizer working for Coca-Cola, to learn about the labor situation in Guatemala. 

Rodolfo Robles, Union Organizer
February 28, 2000
(Translated and transcribed by Roberta Borgonovo)

Rodolfo Robles, Union Organizer (1605.06 Kb)

Rodolfo Robles, Union Organizer working for Coca-Cola. 

Although the war is over, there have not been fundamental changes.  On the contrary, old structures enable the violence to continue.  There is still a lot of terror and a lot of psychological shock.  Many people now think that Guatemala does not need or require much interest anymore because the was is over and on the surface things do not look bad, but many Guatemalans are still suffering.  What is interesting is that even during the war, unless you would go deeper into the country, you would not know that there was a war going on.  There are no more disappearances or physical violence, but the psychological terror and impunity are still very much present.  Many people that were at the roots of the terror are still present in Guatemala, for example Rios Montt.

One of the biggest problems in Guatemala is disorganization.  During the war public opinion and some organizations helped Guatemalans.  But now, with the Peace Accords, everybody thinks that it will be different and get better.  But students are not organizing anymore, the labor sector has weakened, even the church has not been able to follow up what Bishop Gerardi had done.  Many international organizations have left; only few stay permanently to help bring about real change.  There is still a need to pressure for the implementation of the Peace Accords, and for the establishment of all sorts of rights: health, education, labor etc.

The government is currently very divided.  President Portillo is very intelligent and capable; but even during the last election campaign they would say Portillo for president and Montt for power.  When Portillo tried to undermine Montt, it created a lot of division within the government. Also, whenever Portillo has presented any reform, there has been conflict: there is a need for a multisectoral alliance, but it seems that each sector is more interested in maintaining the power and not compromising it.

A reform that did not go very far was that of the civil code.  A specific aspect of this reform was the creation of an institution that would prevent violence and punish those that commit violence against women and children.  The reform was opposed because many feared it would undermine parents' rights to punish their children, and because the evangelical church (Rios Montt's religious affiliation) was against it, many believers thought it was against God's will.  The reality though was that the reform would have regulated the institution of adoption, which now is almost like a business between Guatemala and other countries.  It is not controlled, and many children who are adopted are actually kidnapped, and some of them are used for organ trafficking.

Rodolfo Robles (1605.06 Kb)
Rodolfo Robles (center).

I had experience as a labor union organizer within Coca-Cola, and I remember having been perceived as a communist.  Many organizers and leaders were killed for that reason.  I remember in particular a period during the 1980s when the unions were on strike and they had occupied the Coca-Cola plant.  It was a dangerous time.

After a few years of struggle, changes were made towards workers' policies.  Unfortunately, two years ago Coca-Cola changed its policy in Latin America and the concession for bottling plants is controlled by a group called Ponampo, and now the Guatemalan workers cannot do much against the very powerful company.

Workers in general are losing the space to negotiate with their employers, and they are losing the right to fight. There is a little bit of organizing in the maquilladoras (sweat-shops), but whatever advances are made are quickly crushed by violence or by closing down the plant.

There is a project at the regional level that would cover all of Central America, which proposes a single document to regulate all laborers' rights, but proceeding this way would only hinder the laborers' position.

Many workers have already lost some rights, and many have to turn to the informal market (exploitation of children, prostitution, drug dealing) because they can only earn 600 quetzales [about $75 USD] when three times more is needed for a family of five to survive.

The only solution in sight is increased awareness and increased civil participation: too many people have been misinformed about the constitutional reform and were afraid to vote. That has to change.

[End of meeting notes]

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All text and photos by David Booth unless otherwise indicated.
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