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The Truth About Rigoberta Menchú


In 1983, Editions Gallimard in Paris brought out the original French edition of a book published the following year in English as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian woman in Guatemala. I, Rigoberta is the first-person story of Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a young Maya Indian woman whose family and village had been virtually destroyed by the violence then sweeping Guatemala. The book was soon translated into twelve languages and has since sold more than half a million copies.

Guatemala is a country of eleven million people that had been in a state of intermittent civil war since 1954, when the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by a right-wing military coup. During this period perhaps two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed through political violence. By telling her story in a strong personal voice, Rigoberta Menchú (universally known as Rigoberta) did much to publicize the violence in Guatemala, particularly during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was directed largely at the country’s Maya Indian population. Eventually, in December of 1996, the government and four opposition guerrilla groups (by then joined together in the organization known as the URNG) signed a peace accord. Rigoberta’s book and the international attention it attracted had no small part in bringing about this result.

What made Rigoberta’s message so important was that she was a Maya Indian. Half of Guatemala’s population is Maya, and during the late Seventies and early Eighties—the period in which Rigoberta’s book is set—the Maya suffered violence on an enormous scale. As part of the peace accords, the government and the guerrillas agreed to establish a Commission for Historical Clarification—commonly referred to as the truth commission—which issued its report last month. Compiled under the supervision of a distinguished German jurist, the report, released this February, described the government’s counter-insurgency policy as “genocidal” as well as “racist” and noted that “the massacres, scorched-earth operations, forced disappearances and executions of Mayan authorities, leaders, and spiritual guides, were not only an attempt to destroy the social base of the guerrillas, but above all, to destroy the cultural values that ensured cohesion and collective action in the Mayan communities.”

Most of Guatemala’s Maya live in the country’s mountainous highlands, where they speak a variety of closely related but mutually unintelligible languages and are tied to a desperately poor farming economy based on corn, beans, and squash. In the late 1970s, many Maya became engaged in social activism—they founded cooperatives, started unions, agitated for land. The government felt threatened enough by these movements to begin systematically assassinating their leaders. At the same time, several antigovernment guerrilla groups established themselves in the highlands, and when large numbers of the Maya began to join the guerrillas—often less as a result of political sympathy (although many sympathized) than out of the need to save their lives—the government further increased its violence.

Beginning around 1980, the government initiated a policy of “draining the sea in which the guerrillas swim,” driving people out of large regions of the Maya highlands, killing tens of thousands of Indians, displacing hundreds of thousands of others, and entirely eradicating several hundred villages—including Rigoberta’s. All this eventually proved successful in separating the guerrillas from their social base and thus undermining them politically and militarily. But the cost to the Maya was staggering, and because of the remoteness of the most brutally affected regions, this ruthless policy was little noticed outside Guatemala. As one of the few Indians willing to recount firsthand experience of the violence, Rigoberta, then twenty-three, suddenly became the spokesperson for its victims.

Rigoberta described herself in her book as someone who had grown up in a remote village, had no education to speak of, and had only recently learned Spanish. But she proved an astonishingly effective public speaker. Marcie Mersky, currently a member of the Guatemalan truth commission, who once helped organize Rigoberta’s early speaking tours of the United States, recalls that “Rigoberta had an uncanny ability to stand on a stage and figure out who was in front of her. She’d give her testimony as if she were living it. She’d have everyone crying, everyone in the palm of her hand.”

The horrifying experiences Rigoberta recounted were made all the more vivid by her small size, her open smile, and the fact that she always appeared in the colorful dress of her region. She described the death of her father, a well-known peasant organizer who was burned to death when Guatemalan security forces stormed the Spanish embassy which he and twenty-six others had occupied as a protest over the militarization of the Indian highlands. She told of how her mother had then been arrested by the army, tortured, raped, and left on a mountainside to die. “They left her there dying for four or five days,” she wrote, “enduring the sun, the rain and the night. My mother was covered in worms, because in the mountains there is a fly which gets straight into any wound.”

Finally, she told of the kidnapping of her sixteen-year-old brother, Petrocinio, snatched by the army on his way to the market to buy sugar, wrongly accused of being a guerrilla, and then tortured, doused with gasoline, and burned alive along with other army captives before a crowd of Indians that had been forced to watch. (“This is what we’ve done with all the subversives we catch,” she quoted a soldier as saying, “because they have to die by violence.”) An American journalist, Paul Goepfert, remembers Rigoberta moving a California audience to tears with her account of Petrocinio’s death. After listening to her, he traveled to Guatemala to write about the violence, married a Guatemalan, and still lives there today. “It changed my life,” he told me. “A whole generation of us came here because of Rigoberta.”

In 1992, the year of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Rigoberta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was the second Nobel Prize ever given to a Guatemalan (the first, for literature, went to the novelist Miguel Angel Asturias in 1967), and it made Rigoberta a potent, and controversial, figure inside Guatemala. Guatemala has long been a country where Maya Indians are treated with scorn by the country’s non-Indian population. Rigoberta’s achieving such international recognition was thus something of an embarrassment to many Guatemalans. The president at first declined to meet with her and racist jokes immediately began circulating around Guatemala City. (For example: One day Rigoberta goes to heaven and knocks on the gate. “Hey Jesus,” Saint Peter calls out, “the tortillas are here!”)

Dina Fernandez, a columnist for the Prensa Libre, one of Guatemala’s leading newspapers, told me she thinks that Guatemala is gradually changing its attitudes toward Indians. When I mentioned to her that I’d seen Rigoberta’s name in the papers for one reason or another nearly every day I’d been in Guatemala, she said, “My mother runs the style and social section of Prensa Libre. A year or two ago, she commissioned a poll which showed that Rigoberta was the most recognized woman in Guatemala. In the middle classes, people are beginning to accept that Rigoberta is entitled to meet European leaders and royalty. You couldn’t say this about people from the upper classes, but little by little the Maya are beginning to become integrated.”

In the aftermath of the peace accords, however, what Guatemala seems to be experiencing is not so much integration as a strange kind of postwar explosion—economic, psychological, political, a succession of changes that seem simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. The current president, Alvaro Arzú, was elected in 1996 and is the leader of the PAN party, the party of big business. Under his administration Guatemala has experienced not only considerable foreign investment but what people nervously refer to as an opening of “political space.” But as befits a country that is credited with inventing the concept of “disappearing” people for political purposes, and where government-sponsored death squads until recently killed with complete immunity, this seems tentative, and quite possibly temporary—something like a flower that blooms only once every few decades.

Ironically, moreover, many Guatemalans are calling for the one thing that seems most likely to narrow that political space—an accounting that would show who caused the deaths and how. An outsider might wonder why Guatemalans can’t leave the past behind; inside Guatemala it seems clear to many that examining the past is the only way to leave it behind. As one human rights activist put it to me, “The war created fear, a lack of communication, a lack of confidence, an inability to resolve conflicts. You can’t reconcile with the living if you can’t reconcile with the dead.”

Just how perilous an undertaking this can be was demonstrated by the murder last spring of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the chief sponsor of the human rights report supported by the Catholic Church and produced by a group called REMHI, or Recuperación de la Memória Histórica. REMHI took testimony from some fifty-five thousand victims of political violence, three quarters of whom were Maya. Many of these statements were collected by Maya interviewers in their native languages; the organizers hoped that the cathartic experience of remembering would help restore unity to torn communities.

By simply providing a forum in which the victims of the past had a chance to speak out, however, REMHI was on dangerous ground. The REMHI report was released on April 24, 1998. Two days later, on April 26, Bishop Gerardi was ambushed in his parish-house garage and bludgeoned to death with repeated blows from a cinder block. “We never expected such a strong reaction,” Edgar Gutiérrez, a former economist who is the REMHI project’s coordinator, told me. “We expected an effort to discredit the report psychologically but never this. It had a big impact, it was a big blow to us. But it also made us realize that the report was important for the country, that even if the cost was human life we had to proceed.”

The idea of the REMHI report arose in 1994 during an early stage of the negotiations between the army and the guerrillas. When human rights organizations in Guatemala proposed establishing a truth commission to investigate the violence, they met with opposition from both the army and the guerrillas. “We looked at the negotiations and weren’t optimistic about the truth commission,” Edgar Gutiérrez told me. “Neither party wanted it. We wanted to open the way.” At the insistence of human rights organizations, the truth commission was nevertheless established. The government consented to it, however, only on the condition that its report would both contain a general amnesty (except in cases legally established as genocidal) and that it not include specific names. In other words, as Marcie Mersky put it to me, the contents of the report couldn’t be used to prosecute individual crimes.

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