They call him “the Hurricane.”
Guatemalan coffee farmer Leocadio Juracan (his family name is close to the Spanish word for hurricance) has had a special relationship with many Nova Scotians for many years – though most don’t even know it.
His coffee-farming cooperative – part of the CCDA (Comite Campesino Del Altiplano in Spanish, or Highland Peasant Farmers’ Committee), has been delighting local palates with its fair-trade, shade-grown organic coffee for close to 9 years, through a partnership with Just Us! Coffee roasters in Wolfville.
When Juracan speaks to audiences in Wolfville, Halifax and Tatamagouche this, however, the agenda will include more than just light vs. dark roasts.
According to Kathryn Anderson, Maritimes Coordinator of the Maritimes Guatemala Breaking the Silence (BTS) Solidarity Network, a long-time partner of the CCDA, the organization currently faces “perhaps the greatest threat to its existence since its founding” in 1982.
In May 2008, Juracan explained, after signing an agreement with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom on a framework for rural development, the CCDA’s car was shot at six times while driving down a rural road. The car’s passengers thankfully escaped injury.
“CCDA coffee is about more than fair trade prices for local producers,” said Jackie McVicar, Co-ordinator of BTS Guatemala and former BTS intern with the CCDA. McVicar believes the CCDA’s vehicle was targeted. “CCDA coffee implies political advocacy and ongoing work in the struggle for labour justice and access to land for thousands of Guatemalan peasants. This work is happening at both the grassroots and national level,” she said.
Authorities chalked up the shooting to “common crime,” an assessment that may seem reasonable in a country with one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. But since then, the organization has suffered through two robberies in which a total of $40,000 worth of coffee was stolen. Its leaders have received threats of murder and violence by letter and by phone. A “climate of terror” surrounds the CCDA, said Juracan.
“The robbery and threats the CCDA received reflect an attempt to destabilize the organization and delegitimize the work they are doing,” said McVicar. “CCDA coffee isn’t just about better wages. It’s about changing structures of oppression.”
In February, the threats started to target Juracan’s children. He decided to leave Guatemala, at least until the danger subsided. With the help of Canadian allies, he discreetly left the country with his family, and they found their way to Vancouver.
“If [the threats] had been just toward me,” Juracan said, “I would have kept on.”
The coffee grown by the CCDA—known as “Café Justicia” and sold to roasters around the world—provides capital for development projects and a fair wage for the farmers, said Juracan.
He listed home construction, a rural hospital, health promotion, training for midwives, teacher pay supplements and educational scholarships as the CCDA’s ongoing projects.
But these “alternative” economic models are threatening to some, explained Juracan.
“Guatemala is not a poor country,” he said. “There is a sector of society that is extremely rich, that has appropriated the wealth of the country and excluded the majority of the population.”
This oligarchy has a vested interest in business as usual, said Juracan. He dismissed the theory that threats and attacks against the CCDA are the work of common criminals, noting they always take place immediately after the group takes a public political position: criticizing the government for lack of action on land reform, for example, an issue for which resolution is decades overdue; or condemning the murder of unionists. “We connect [the attacks against us] to political acts,” he said.
Residual violence from Guatemala’s 36-year civil war may exacerbate the current violence. The conflict, which divided communities and in which more than 250,000 were killed—most of them by military and government-backed paramilitary groups—left a legacy of violence that has been hard for the country to shake. It is perfectly plausible, according to Juracan, that his attackers would have connections to wartime paramilitary groups.
Juracan and his family planned to return to Guatemala after two or three months, hoping the security situation would improve. Unfortunately, in the few weeks since they arrived in Canada, there is no encouraging news.
“There is more news of harassment and intimidation, hooded men roaming the community, gunshots at night,” said the campesino.
During his time in Canada, Juracan said he would like to generate conditions for a return to his home country. Many CCDA members continue to work hard in Guatemala for political change, and Juracan plans to strengthen solidarity between the CCDA and concerned Canadians.
Still, said Juracan, he would rather his stay be as short as possible. Being forced out of his country for doing his work is a difficult pill to swallow.
Tomorrow, March 22 at 7pm, Jurican will speak at Immaculata Hall 202, Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. CCDA coffee is available in Nova Scotia as Just Us! Coffee’s “Breaking the Silence Blend.”
Ben Sichel, originally from Moncton, is a writer and teacher in Halifax. He recently took a group of students on an educational trip to Guatemala. An original version of this article was published by the Halifax Media Co-op and the Dominion.