Abisola Omotayo (LLM) & Ashley Peoples (2L), with the support of PEN Canada Programs Coordinator, Brendan de Caires, and human rights defender, Rob Mercatante.
Sandra Morán never leaves her work at the office. Before she was elected to the Congress of Guatemala in 2015, Morán’s constant and courageous efforts to fight government oppression had never known the confines of four walls. She has literally and metaphorically beat her drum of resistance against government oppression as a musician, activist, poet, and now, as Guatemala’s first openly gay congressperson.
On an early November evening, we sat at the cozy El Adobe restaurant in Guatemala City. The light was dim, but clear enough to show the anticipation in everyone’s eyes as we waited for Morán. Along with IHRP Director Samer Muscati, IHRP Senior Fellow Hanna Gros, PEN Canada Programs Coordinator Brendan de Caires, and local human rights defender Rob Mercatante, we were in Guatemala for five days to collect first-hand accounts of how freedom of expression operates within the country as it copes with the legacy of a 36-year civil war that ended two decades ago. As one of the most prominent figures in Guatemala’s struggle, Morán has experienced the complexity of championing human rights in a transitional democracy first-hand. When she arrived at the restaurant, she seemed to light up the room with her presence, and an unstoppable energy hummed beneath her measured words. For over an hour, we talked above the thrums of a low-toned guitar and rhythmic clapping on overhead speakers.
Born into Civil War
Morán was born in Guatemala City in 1960, the first year of Guatemala’s brutal civil war. According to the UN-backed Commission for Historical Clarification, from 1960 until 1996, more than 200,000 people were killed or ‘disappeared.’ The majority of the victims were ethnic Mayans, one of Guatemala’s primary indigenous populations. Those who were ‘disappeared’ were usually forcibly abducted, clandestinely imprisoned, tortured, and then killed. Only rarely were bodies dumped in public places; secret mass graves of the forcibly disappeared continue to be discovered.
Throughout the war, the Guatemalan Army and counter-insurgency forces violently suppressed political dissent with the explicit approval of the Guatemalan Government (which experienced multiple changes of leadership during the 36-year period). According to the Commission for Historical Clarification, the heavily militarized state—which received U.S. government support throughout—targeted students, teachers, lawyers, activists, and anyone else they regarded as subversive. Those within the social movement lived with constant fear of being disappeared. In the early 1980s, during what was arguably the war’s most violent period, the state launched scorched earth campaigns against suspected Communists in rural communities.
The Peace Accords orchestrated by the UN were signed on December 29, 1996, to end the bloody civil war. Today, Guatemala is a transitional democracy, recovering from the war’s legacy. Since September 2007, the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or CICIG) has made considerable headway in fighting corruption and impunity. Partnering with local prosecutors, it has investigated and convicted scores of previously untouchable public officials, including military officials active during the civil war, and disgraced former Guatemalan President (2012-2015), Otto Pérez Molina. Despite this progress, twenty years after signing the Peace Accords, Guatemala remains one of the most violent countries in the world outside a war zone with a high level of impunity. According to the Overseas Security Advisory Council, its homicide rate is one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere, with close to 31 homicides per 100,000 people in 2014 (UN Office on Drugs and Crime). According to CICIG, the impunity rate for homicide hovered around 98% from 2008 to 2014.
Morán has had a revolutionary spirit since she was a child. She first spoke out against the violent and suppressive government at age 14 as a student leader. She also participated in public protests against the government. As a result, she was repeatedly threatened to ‘be disappeared’—something she said had happened to several of her family members and friends.
Morán said she continued to receive severe threats of death and kidnapping. At age 21, she finally made the difficult decision to flee the country and live in exile. Exile entailed leaving her life behind (work and studies, friends and family, culture and country) in order to protect it. Her exile lasted 14 years, during which she moved between Mexico, Nicaragua, and Canada. However, during her forced migrations, she never left behind her revolutionary spirit. Instead, she changed her perspective. “When you go into exile, you start from zero,” she explained. “You go by yourself and everything that you were is nothing … Then you start building your life again. And for me it was like, I was always with my bag ready to come back. I learned how to live day to day because tomorrow I could be killed or kidnapped. You start thinking about your life in that way. The only thing that you have is this moment … the present.”
Morán’s desire to make the most of every moment led to a deeper connection with her music. In Mexico, she joined a renowned Guatemalan revolutionary band composed of other exiled Guatemalans. In 1986, four members of the group toured Canada for six months and then decamped to Nicaragua to support the Sandinista movement. It was in Nicaragua that they found their name, “Kin Lalat”, coined by Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan K’iche’ indigenous rights activist who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Kin Lalat means “a pleasing sound produced by nature or somebody else’s work.”
Four years later, the members of Kin Lalat became destitute and applied for refuge in Canada. Morán quipped, “We were probably the only musical band with refugee status in Canada.” The group lived in Vancouver, where Morán built a new life, but always with an eye on returning to Guatemala.
Morán tried to return home in the early 1990s, but was forced out again within months after receiving death threats. She finally returned in 1994 to work on the Peace Accords as a member of a new women’s movement. “I needed to come back,” Morán explained. “I heard the Peace Accords were being discussed. That meant that the UN was here and it was safer.” Soon after, she co-founded Mujeres Somos (“We are Women”), the first collective of lesbian women.
For the following ten years, Morán moved between Guatemala and Canada. In 2003, she made a definitive move back to Guatemala on her own, leaving the other members of Kin Lalat in Vancouver. Although she would have been eligible for Canadian citizenship if she had stayed until 2006, she decided, “No way. I cannot. I cannot [live outside of Guatemala] for another three years. I love Canada, but I cannot.”
Transitioning to life back home was not without its challenges. Morán’s revolutionary lifestyle was turned on its head. She recounted, “I had to learn again how it is to have a life. I was with my friends [in Guatemala], and I was asking them, ‘How do you do it? How do you live a life thinking of your future? How do you organize your mind and your life, so you are able to think five years ahead?’”
Despite headway made by the UN-backed CICIG, Guatemala’s own transition out of civil war and towards democracy has not been smooth. Former military actors have devised new ways to suppress political dissent, and to intimidate journalists and human rights defenders like Morán. In December 2011, for example, Morán’s name appeared on a list of over 60 alleged subversives and guerillas. She said the list was compiled by former military officials and their supporters, including the right-wing Foundation Against Terrorism and an allied organization, the Guatemalan Association of Military Widows. Because of this list, she said the authorities criminally investigated her and the others for a range of crimes including kidnapping, torture, and murder, which are all charges levelled by CICIG against current and former military officials.
Mercatante, the local human rights defender who accompanied us in Guatemala, emphasized the irony of the situation: “It’s almost an honour roll, because these human rights activists and journalists are the best and the brightest in Guatemala.” Mercatante said that the roster of allegations made against Morán and her allies appear to be part of a deliberate attempt to misuse the legal system to wear them down, and ultimately quell their voices. When asked how it felt to be accused of these crimes, Morán said, “It was so hard because for me [they were saying], ‘shut up, you can’t continue doing the work you are doing, you cannot say the words.’”
Despite the attempt to intimidate and silence her, Morán’s voice only grew stronger. She continued to sing and perform poetry about violence and human rights abuses. Two days after receiving notice of the allegations against her, she performed at a concert in front of hundreds of spectators at Guatemala City’s majestic Plaza Central, alongside several other Guatemalan artists. She ignored warnings that she should go back to Canada to avoid further trouble. In fact, the threats only made her determined to be stronger. She said, “that concert was so strong … so strong because I was so angry.”
And Now a Congresswoman
Today, Morán’s revolutionary work assumes a different tone. Resolved to reform a system that has actively oppressed her and many of her revolutionary colleagues, she has decided to push for change from within. In September 2015, she was elected to Congress as a member of the progressive Convergencia Party. She was the first and only openly gay candidate. According to Morán, concealing her sexual orientation could have given power to someone to use it against her. “I knew it and I decided not to give those people the power, [but instead] to present myself as I am, to force them to deal with it.”
Once elected, Morán enjoyed a honeymoon period with the public and the media. She was interviewed and positively profiled in mainstream Guatemalan news sources and the international press. LGBT Guatemalans openly expressed their delight that, for the first time, there was a congressional candidate “who [was] like them.” A year later, however, she faced a smear campaign to unseat her as leader of the Congressional women’s caucus. A letter to the Congress president complained that a lesbian was “not enough of a woman to represent [other] women in Parliament.” Morán suspects that her stance on abortion provoked the letter. She had recommended that, through changes to legislation, abortion be made available to girls (aged 9-14) impregnated through sexual violence.
The Struggle Continues
Morán’s only relief from persecution has been the support of the women’s social movements she helped initiate in the mid-1990s, and that of fellow legislators. Yet, just a few days before our conversation, some of that support began to crumble. A tough political calculation led her to back leadership candidates in Congress that a majority of her supporters abhorred. Although opposing them would have essentially deprived Morán of political influence in Congress for the year, her supporters felt betrayed.
For Morán, the controversial vote was a necessary evil that allows her to continue the struggle for rights and freedoms that Guatemalans have craved for decades. She has promised to present laws that protect and uplift the Guatemalan LGBT Community, and she hopes to lessen violence against the community by organizing a legally mandated annual march for LGBT persons. She also wants legal recognition for transgender citizens.
Morán remains politically active outside of her work hours as well. She plays solo concerts, singing poetry while she plays her jembe. She also travels outside the capital to facilitate community building and leadership training for youth in disadvantaged rural areas. The very next morning following our meeting, she had scheduled a visit to a community outside the city before starting a full day’s work at the office.
Outside of Guatemala, the work also continues. Last June, Guatemala legalized overseas voting, and Morán visited Canada to help organize the diaspora vote. Noting her frequent returns to Canada, we asked if Guatemala still feels like home. She laughed knowingly, “Yes it is. But Canada is my second home.”
Born into a civil war that criminalized her peers and drove her into exile, Morán continues to face adversity while in office. Yet, her revolutionary spirit has never been quenched. She has persevered with immeasurable strength. Her work demands a tenacious commitment to the possibility of a better future, an endless series of compromises and sacrifices, and, at the end of a trying day, sharing a comfortable laugh with a group of researchers from her second home.