It took a few tries before the taxi driver taking me to meet Lorena Cabnal found his way to her address. We drove up and down streets along the outskirts of Guatemala City, directions made confusing by the profusion of closed-off neighborhoods. Here, residents simply block streets and put up barriers to prevent cars from circulating, paying a guard to monitor who goes in and out. These aren’t the private gated communities of the rich, but rather survival strategies of the poor and working class in Central America’s largest metropolis.
Finally, we found Cabnal’s apartment, and I called up to where she was staying. I was buzzed in and climbed a flight of stairs, where I waited on a modest loveseat in the narrow entryway. A lit candle burned beside a printed photograph of murdered Honduran activist Berta Cáceres.
Cabnal is a Maya-Xinca woman who considers herself a communitarian feminist. She works with a network of healers in Guatemala, and she lives in this unlikely location, far from the buzzing core of activism in downtown Guatemala City, for her own protection after threats related to her political activism.
“It’s not true that in [Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador] there has been an economic stimulus that has developed and strengthened education, health, and infrastructure,” said Cabnal, looking at me from behind thick framed glasses. “Quite the contrary: Impoverishment has gotten worse, and the big security problems haven’t been resolved.”
In addition to performing traditional healing work for activists and others seeking aid, Cabnal works to support political prisoners in Guatemala, most of them incarcerated because of their role in land defense. Today, she’s speaking out against the Alliance for Prosperity, a new US-backed aid program that is supposed to stem the flow of migrants from Central America toward the north.
In 2014, people around the United States began to learn that thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America were turning up at the US-Mexico Border. In June of 2014, the ACLU and others filed a complaint on behalf of 116 youth against US Customs and Border Protection. According to the complaint, one young woman was raped by a border agent, and another was held in a freezer and forced to drink water from a toilet. By the spring of 2015, a record number of children had crossed the border, most of them from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. To shift the narrative, the US government had to come up with a response to the crisis.
As if on cue, the Alliance for Prosperity was announced by the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras at an event at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) headquarters in November of 2014.