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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.

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Originally from Spain, Ms. Zibermann de Lujan married a Guatemalan and has lived in the country for over thirty years. She spent months last year trying to fix a mistake on her new DPI. The registry listed her birth year as 1711, which would make her an impossible three hundred years old. She hired someone to take care of the lengthy bureaucratic process of correcting her ID, something she acknowledges is a luxury many Guatemalans don’t have.

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“I’m scared when it comes to doing any paperwork in a public office in Guatemala,” she says. “And I’m an educated person who understands the process and can protest. But there are a lot of people who wouldn’t dare question a government office.”

Mayans hardest hit

Nonetheless, Guatemala’s indigenous population is hardest hit by RENAP’s disorganization, according to Yoc.

“Most problems and complaints have come out of departments that are majority indigenous, which is at least seven or eight departments in Guatemala,” Yoc said during an August 2011 interview in his Guatemala City office. “It’s complicated… the [registry’s] service and the DPI is supposed to benefit the population and make things easier, but instead it’s become a complication.”

The difficulty many Mayans face in obtaining a new ID could affect their civil and social rights across the board come 2013, when the DPI will be required to register for marriage, enroll in a public university, vote, apply for a passport and any other civil, administrative or legal service in Guatemala.

Part of the reason Mayan communities are hit hard by the registry’s errors is that many can’t read or write Spanish. An estimated 77 percent of the indigenous population is illiterate, according to the International Development Research Center. In some cases these citizens aren’t aware their information was misrepresented in the first place.

Guatemala has the largest indigenous population in Central America. Though there have been international advances in indigenous rights in recent years, such as the 2007 United Nation’s Declaration on the Right of Indigenous, this doesn’t translate to immediate changes for local populations. Implementation is key, and Ms. Aflord-Jones of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA says getting more Mayans elected to political office is an important first step to accomplishing this.

“The indigenous population is highly underrepresented in public office and elected positions,” said Alford-Jones. “This means there’s no one beholden to the Mayan populations and their needs.”

Room for improvement

RENAP, which has offices set up in different departments throughout Guatemala, made important improvements since its inception. Based on recommendations from the OAS’ six-week audit in 2010, RENAP worked to adapt a regulatory framework, strengthen its technological components, and train staff. But the registration process is still far from perfect.

García Ixmatà finally received his DPI two days before the September 11 elections this fall. There was an error in the number printed on the back of his card, though, which is supposed to correspond with his outgoing ID. So, García Ixmatà refused to accept his DPI, and continues to wait for an identification card that correctly reflects his personal information.

He says the simplest solution may be to hire indigenous employees who speak the local language in predominately Mayan departments.

“If they just asked questions in the applicant’s own language there would be far less misunderstanding,” García Ixmatà said. “But instead they are sending people from other areas that don’t understand the names, aren’t invested in the community, and are writing things down incorrectly.”

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