June 23, 2010 by tristan savage
Ramiro Choc is in prison in Guatemala City for his work in the peasant movement fighting imperialism and environmental destruction. We (Katy Savage and Tristan Call) visited him two weeks ago on a delegation with the Guatemala Solidarity Project and the Comite de Unidad Campesina.
We entered the Zone 18 Detention Facility as a group, drawing stares as they quickly herded us up to the front of the crowd, ahead of the women in once-a-month heels and black skirts who lined up surrounded by their children and packages of juice, tortillas, and presents for their men in jail. We took off our belts, bracelets, boots, and hats, emptied our pockets of pens, coins, and phones, and left them with enterprising women outside the gate who charged us to hold the bag. A pineapple Martine had just bought in the market as a last-minute gift for Ramiro was refused entry because, we were told insistently, pineapple juice can be fermented for alcohol. After more searches and an hour of negotiation (lost passports, unplanned visitors who weren’t on “the list”), we eventually got all eight of us into sector 12, in plastic chairs around a table with Ramiro Choc.
Ramiro seemed strong, with a broad face and dark eyes that would shift from tenderness as he showed us a photo of his children, to stoic defiance as he described the landlords whose armed thugs evict his neighbors and harass his family in Izabal, to quick laughter as he showed us the long scar on his stomach from an appendicitis operation a few weeks ago. He was more lively, quicker than we imagined he would be after the two years in jail that he said felt more like twenty-five.
He explained that he is from a humble family, a household of plantation workers. His father was a “colono,” a serf, someone who worked for the right to live at the plantation but received no wages. Illiterate and speaking only Q’eqchi, Ramiro’s father was totally dependent on the plantation owner. Finally, his father decided to escape, and although the plantation owner pursued him and shot his livestock, he began to train himself for a new life. Ramiro saw his father learn to read in Spanish, and to begin work as a carpenter. “My father became my hero,” Ramiro told us earnestly.
He told us about his time as an agronomy student in Coban, the only worker´s son at a school for the sons of plantation owners. In classes, they never talked about his people –the peasants– or how to take care of the health of the land or the people who lived on it.
But he did begin to study the history of Guatemala, and the effects of 500 years of Spanish rule over the Q’eqchi people in Guatemala. “Our poverty was caused,” he told us. He learned that they had been scientists, astronomers, builders, warriors. They had not always been the beggars and servants that his childhood had taught him to be.
But the rich of Guatemala did their best to teach him obedience anyway. Ramiro told us about “when the peasant movement found me.” In what was supposed to be a ‘negotiation’ over a land conflict, the cement-mogul owner of a nearby plantation declared to his peasant neighbors that he would grant them fifteen minutes and three tractors to move all of their things out before ordering armed men into the town. Ramiro, who worked for the Catholic Church at the time, became increasingly disillusioned as he watched his priest sanctify the eviction, invoking the landowner’s “human rights.” He was a good man, the priest insisted, who would give the people work on his land. Ramiro stood up and argued against the eviction, refusing to be cowed into silence, even though he was helpless to stop it from happening.
Recognizing the need for an organized response to the impunity of Guatemala’s ruling class, Ramiro became a leader of the peasant movement that been a thorn in the side of the mining companies, oil executives, and landowners of Izabal that own the vast majority of the land (and the judges). He was arrested for his political work in 2008, on the fabricated charges of being a thief and kidnapper. Now, after surviving an execution order immediately after his arrest, several poisoning attempts in state custody, and more than six months of solitary confinement, we were visiting him in Sector 12, the “VIP Section” of the Guatemalan penal system, where the authorities moved him after international outcry rose over the conditions of his incarceration. Among his neighbors on the cell block are Mario Orantes, the Guatemalan priest who was convicted for murdering Archbishop Juan Gerardi just 2 days after he published a detailed report of the government-sponsored genocide against the Maya people during Guatemala’s civil war (a report Ramiro´s own family had helped to produce). Another of Ramiro´s current neighbors is a former army general who helped coordinate those massacres. Two others were college friends of the very same Izabal landowner who evicted Ramiro´s neighbors in 1992 (now he has to tell his story in a whisper, not wanting to incite another in-prison murder attempt).
At times Ramiro responded with the urgency of a revolutionary, sometimes with stoicism, sometimes with poetry (while he was in solitary, he bought his food by selling love poems to other prisoners to send their girlfriends). Motioning to the ruling-class prisoners with which he now spends his days, he asked aloud, “What does life want from me?” He followed with a discourse on the grave error of using chemical pesticides in agriculture, and the sin of taking the lives of trees casually when cutting firewood.
Ramiro told us about the accusations the Guatemalan “Protected Areas” ministry has leveled against the peasant movement, asserting that indigenous people are bad for forests and urging their eviction. Ramiro responds that if we were to look at Guatemala from above, it would be the indigenous areas that still have their rivers and trees, while the centers of power have long since killed theirs. Guatemala City used to be a forest, we suddenly remember, looking around at the wasteland of asphalt and razor wire and plastic bags. It used to be a productive land, one you could eat. And now the people who tend the land, the campesinos, are either insignificant or (when they organize) the enemies of a government whose top priority is GDP.
And then he turned to the corner, motioning to a line of black plastic bags leaning against the prison wall, filled to bursting with prison-yard dirt and with little sprigs of leaves peeking out over the rim. As he stood, he explained: I want to leave you with something living. Plant it, and maybe in twenty years the tree will have survived, and with your help the world will have seen something beautiful from Ramiro Choc. He handed us the little trees, just emerging from their seeds with a few twigs and the beginnings of leaves. He handed a sapote, a fruit tree, to his friend José, another peasant organizer from northern Guatemala, explaining that this tree can survive anywhere.
For more about the government´s excuse for putting Ramiro behind bars: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72ONwQvYdKE