Update, March 25: On March 23, the three volunteers with the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (BTS) that were stranded in Guatemala returned to Canada. A BTS staff member was also able to return to Canada on March 24, though another one remains in Guatemala.
The Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (BTS) is calling for immediate action on the part of the Canadian government to support the return of its Canadian volunteers and staff, as well as all Canadians currently stuck in Guatemala.
BTS has been engaging in solidarity with Guatemalan human rights defenders and educating Canadians throughout the Maritimes on human rights issues since the 1980s. BTS is housed at the Tatamagouche Centre in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia and has committees throughout the Maritimes. Through BTS’ Human Rights and Community Development Cooperant Program, Maritimers and other Canadians are placed with partner organizations in Guatemala in support of their work. There are currently three BTS Cooperants in Guatemala, as well as two in-country staff members.
In light of the global outbreak of COVID-19, BTS made the decision on March 14 to immediately arrange for BTS cooperants to return to Canada. Despite facing booking challenges, BTS was able to secure flights for BTS cooperants to leave Guatemala on March 17. However, the day before they were supposed to leave, the Guatemalan government announced that the border would close for a period of two weeks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This decision resulted in a suspension of all land and airline travel in and out of Guatemala, leaving BTS staff and cooperants, as well as other Canadians stranded in Guatemala. BTS quickly responded by arranging for in-country accommodations for the cooperants.
In a letter addressed to Foreign Affairs Minister Champagne on March 20, the organization notes: “Since the closing of the borders by the Guatemalan government, our attempts to contact the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala to obtain support have been unsuccessful.”
The letter calls for the Canadian government to take the following measures:
Provide a contact person at the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala City to ensure a steady flow of communications and timely access to information, to provide logistical support and to coordinate repatriation efforts as soon as possible;
Provide daily updates from Canadian Embassy consular services to ALL who are registered with ROCA.
Engage Guatemalan authorities immediately in order to negotiate the return of Canadian citizens currently stranded in Guatemala as soon as possible, whether through official or unofficial channels;
Make arrangements to guarantee the safe return of Canadians currently in Guatemala, including organizing a chartered bus from Guatemala City to an airport in Mexico with direct flights to Canada, and supporting the arrangement of flights from Mexico to Canada.
Develop a contingency plan in the event the current situation is prolonged;
Provide support to Canadians stranded in Guatemala to ensure access to basic necessities and health care should they require it.
“The Canadian government has the responsibility to provide the necessary support to all its citizens in Guatemala who wish to return home and currently unable to do so, including enacting measures to protect their health and safety while in Guatemala. Canada must lead by example and simply cannot abandon its citizens abroad in the midst of one of the most acute global health crisis in recent history,” reads the letter.
The BTS cooperants include Laura Robinson (from Rothsay, New Brunswick), Indigo Christ (from Halifax/Mabou, Nova Scotia) and Lenora Yarkie (from Edmonton, Alberta). Staff members include BTS Lead Cooperant Este Chep (Kristofer Orantes Migoya) and BTS Guatemala Coordinator Lisa Rankin (from Mabou, Nova Scotia).
Stacey Gomez is the Breaking the Silence Maritimes Coordinator.