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Mayan Guatemalans disenfranchised because their government can't spell?

As elections loom, Mayan Guatemalans are unable to get correct ID cards that will soon be required to vote.  Among the purported explanations: the government can't spell Mayan names.

By Correspondent / November 4, 2011

Guatemalan indigenous supporters arrive during a campaign speech by presidential candidate Otto Perez Molina in Chichicastenango, 87 miles northwest of Guatemala City on November 3, 2011. Guatemala will elect a new president on Sunday with two candidates facing off in the second and final round of voting.

Carlos Jasso/Reuters

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In January 2010, Ajpub’ Pablo García Ixmatà applied for a new national ID card in his native Guatemala. He wanted to be sure he had all of his documents in order ahead of the country's presidential election.  A month later he returned to the local government registration office, but his ID wasn’t there. Mr. García Ixmatà’s application couldn’t be processed, officials told him, because of the Mayan spelling of his name.

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García Ixmatà is just one of the more than 400,000 of Guatemala's indigenous voters affected by ID card issues, according to Carlos Guarquez, director of the Guatemalan Association of Indigenous Mayors. The government decided to allow citizens to vote in the current presidential elections – the second round of which will be held Sunday – using other forms of identification.

But the problems are indicative of the difficulties Guatemala continues to face in integrating its native populations and restoring national unity, 15 years after the end of its civil war. “There is institutional discrimination regarding all public processes,” says Kelsey Alford-Jones, director of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA.

'Just an apostrophe'

During Guatemala’s 36-year conflict, identity played an undeniable role. The indigenous population bore the brunt of the violence, with a United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission report stating that 83 percent of the victims of Guatemala’s civil war were indigenous. Even though indigenous groups, including 4.4 million Mayans, make up nearly 50 percent of Guatemala’s population today, they face ongoing barriers to accessing government services, says Ms. Alford-Jones.

The RENAP national registry was set up in 2007 to create and disseminate the new national identification card, called the DPI. The transition to a more sophisticated ID card, complete with an embedded data chip, is meant to guarantee citizens’ rights to identification, and the government services and protections that accompany that right. But, with corruption scandals and an audit by the Organization of the American States (OAS), which led to the required correction of over 2.9 million ID cards, RENAP earned a reputation for incompetence.

But Tulane University Professor Judith Maxwell fears RENAP's inability to support the proper spelling of Mayan names goes beyond government inefficiency.

“Mayan names usually contain a symbol in them, which is not found in the standard Spanish alphabet,” says Dr. Maxwell, who has worked as a linguist, teaching and preserving indigenous languages in Guatemala, since 1973. “But it’s basically just an apostrophe … you can’t tell me those symbols aren’t on a computer.”

Maxwell worked with a team of linguists to standardize the Mayan alphabet after Guatemala’s civil war ended in 1996.

“One of the principles we used is they’ve got to be all symbols that are readily available on a standard keyboard,” says Maxwell. “I believe the government is inefficient, but I think that this is systematic discrimination.”

Rolando Yoc, the director of public policy and conflict resolution programs at Guatemala's Human Rights Investigator’s Office disagrees. He believes it’s a lack of cultural understanding that led to the majority of registration mistakes in indigenous communities. For instance, in some towns in the east of Guatemala, people have last names that are often used in Spanish-speaking communities as first names. As a result, registry employees might unintentionally mix up the order of the names.

“For example, the name Renato Pedro. It sounds like two first names, when really Pedro is the last name,” Mr. Yoc says. “When a registry employee writes it that way, it shows their cultural predisposition.”

Bureaucratic obstacles

But DPI mistakes aren’t limited to the spelling of Mayan names, and can range from incorrect addresses to marriage status or date of birth.  Cristiana Zibermann de Lujan says RENAP’s mistakes reach the entire Guatemalan population.

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