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In Guatemala, bishops crusade for justice to match peace accords

What happened in recent weeks on a large coffee plantation in Solola, Guatemala, won't make it to the evening news, probably not even to the inside pages of most newspapers. But it is worth noting and watching, for this is the Guatemala -- the dangerous, arbitrary and unjust Guatemala -- behind the peace accords.

Guatemala has a law describing a normal work day as eight hours. The plantation manager ordered workers to stay on and perform tasks that would have extended the day to 11 hours, but without adding anything to the paltry wage of 14 quetzales or $2.26 a day.

When the workers refused, they were threatened with loss of their jobs. Being fired from a job on the coffee plantation for most workers means losing their shelter as well as wages, and it means uprooting children from familiar surroundings, schools and friends. But the 15 workers involved in this incident have refused to undertake the extra work, and the plantation owner has given them a month to get off the land.

An appeal has been made to the national Labor Office, but the owners and managers of the huge plantation that employs several hundred workers have refused to recognize the appeal, saying the Labor Office has no jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, there are other reports of landowners refusing to pay wages and firing workers in large numbers for protesting what they believe are unjust conditions. Law, in recent times, has been a slippery matter in Guatemala, and it remains so even in peace time.

Don't expect the United States and other Western countries that benefit from low-priced imports and access to Guatemala's rich resources above and below ground to take up the cause of the plantation workers.

Few would be willing to rock the boat for mistreated campesinos. But the Catholic bishops in that wildly beautiful but injustice-plagued country know well that the few campesinos, multiplied thousands of times, are the central element to Guatemala's tragic recent history.

The bishops and a handful of others in the religious and human rights communities have given voice to the campesinos' concerns. It is dangerous advocacy in a land where, so recently, defying authority often brought a secret death sentence carried out by faceless paramilitary squads.

In fact, the bishops have incurred the anger of landowners, who charge that the Catholic leaders are encouraging campesinos to break the law. Fundamental to Guatemala's long troubles -- an internal war of varying intensity that began in the late 1950s and ended in peace accords early this year -- has been the issue of land. Indigenous people -- the country's majority -- and other poor people have been swept off their land over the decades.

The bishops have openly supported the rights of the workers on the coffee plantation in question. They also maintain, in a recent statement, that the church "respects the right to private property," but at the same time affirms that "private property has a social function; in other words, it is a good that should be, in its use and possession, for the common good in order to generate social welfare for all people; however, there are many people who have no property."

The peace accords are hardly a conclusion. The long journey toward justice has just begun in Guatemala. Events like that on the coffee plantation in Solola are the tiny steps that move the cause along.

As the bishops said, "the demand for land is present everywhere and the campesinos have the right to demand it." And they have the right to demand just wages and humane treatment. And the world has an obligation to hear them.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997