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I, Rigoberta Menchu’

In response to:

The Truth About Rigoberta Menchú from the April 8, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

Because I, Rigoberta Menchú is the life story of a Guatemalan Indian as told to a Parisian intellectual, skeptics have wondered whether interviewer and editor Elisabeth Burgos put words in the mouth of the future Nobel peace laureate. The evidence that this was Menchú’s story, as laid out in my book Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, is considerable. But in Peter Canby’s review [NYR, April 8] he rightly takes me to task for failing to listen to all the available tapes of the Menchú-Burgos interviews. Now that I have been able to listen to the eighteen hours, Iam pleased to report that they bear out my earlier conclusion, as well as the most recent of Menchú’s own statements, that this is indeed her story. In view of Burgos’s explanation that she shifted Menchú’s episodes to maintain chronology, what most surprised me about the tapes is how closely Burgos ended up following them in the book.

Another issue in the debate over I, Rigoberta Menchú is whether guerrilla warfare was an inevitable response by Mayan Indians to the problems they faced. When Menchú told her story in Paris in 1982, this is what she believed and this is what she wanted us to believe, for the understandable reason that three members of her family had been killed by a military dictatorship, prompting her to join the country’s revolutionary movement. From other violence survivors I tended to hear a different story, of being sucked into the war by the organizing wiles of the guerrillas and the brutal reactions of the Guatemalan army.

So was Mayan support for the guerrillas an inevitable response to worsening social conditions as portrayed in I, Rigoberta Menchú? This is still the most widespread presumption. Or were many Mayas actually making modest gains before violence hit their region, as I argue? In the case of the Menchús, I demonstrate that Rigoberta’s father, Vicente, was clearly on the rise. Because Peter Canby doubts that this was the case for the Mayan population as a whole, he cites Susanne Jonas, a scholar who is a useful guide to Guatemala on the national level but who has not focused on the Mayan region. What local research shows is lessening dependence on seasonal migration to coastal plantations, not increasing dependence. Local studies also show that, well before the violence and continuing to the present, Mayan Indians have been regaining control of town halls and expanding into economic niches previously controlled by non-Indians.

Another common misconception is that the guerrillas originated as a defensive response to government assassinations in the Mayan region. It is true that the Guatemalan army ended up doing most of the killing, but in Menchú’s municipio and others I have studied, the guerrillas committed the first political executions, of nonindigenous landowners, in the hope that these would galvanize Indians into joining the insurgency. It was then that the army occupied and militarized a region which until then had been policed. According to Canby, I “seem to believe that [the guerrillas] must have started the violence everywhere.” It is good that he included the caveat “seem,” because that allows him to overlook my analysis of how the army used preemptive violence (p. 155), including its May 1978 massacre at Panzós (p. 51), its contemporaneous repression in the town of Chajul (p. 117), and its 1990 massacre in Santiago Atitlán (p. 222), none of which was provoked by guerrilla ambushes in an immediate sense.

David Stoll
Middlebury College
Middlebury, Vermont

Peter Canby replies:

I am not surprised that Elisabeth Burgos’s interview tapes corroborate Stoll’s assumption that Burgos’s book is faithful to what Rigoberta Menchú told her. I don’t feel I faulted Stoll for not listening to the full set of tapes. It is to his credit that he listened to the tapes at all, and that he had the independence of mind to take on the unpopular task of questioning Rigoberta’s account. Nevertheless, the central question in the debate Stoll has generated is not the truthfulness of Rigoberta’s account so much as whether her story is a guerrilla-inspired Marxist fable, or whether, despite her inventions, her story is an essentially accurate representation of the nature of the violence. Stoll believes the former. He disagrees with Rigoberta’s underlying description of worsening economic conditions and state oppression leaving the Maya no choice but to take up arms and argues that, prior to the violence, the Maya were making “modest gains” and that guerrillas provoked the army for their own political ends.

The idea that conditions were improving for the Maya is central to Stoll’s argument against the guerrilla account of the violence. Yet he offers no evidence for this assertion. It’s simply stated as fact. It’s true Stoll makes it clear that after years of struggle Vicente Menchú has won the right to his community’s land, but he then implies that the improvement in Vicente’s situation somehow proves that things were getting better for the Maya as a whole. This, of course, doesn’t follow. Vicente’s situation may have been improving, but the particular doesn’t prove the general. By contrast, Susanne Jonas, in her book The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and US Power, uses statistics from the Guatemalan government and international agencies from the United Nations to the World Bank to describe worsening land shortages among the Maya, a steady decline in the size of the Maya agricultural plots and in the percent of family income derived from these plots, and an increased dependence on underpaid seasonal labor. Stoll’s statement, therefore, that Jonas addresses Guatemala on the national level but does not focus on the Mayan region is baffling.

Stoll mentions local studies and local research that contradict Jonas’s thesis. It’s hard to know what to make of this. Given the point’s centrality to his argument, it’s curious that he never describes these studies in his book, nor mentions specifics in his letter. If David Stoll says such studies exist, I believe him—Stoll is a responsible scholar who’s done a great deal of valuable work in Guatemala. But even if in several Indian municipalities local Maya were taking over town halls or lessening their dependence on migratory labor, it would seem incumbent on Stoll to demonstrate how it was that these local studies fit into the larger pattern of disintegrating conditions convincingly drawn by Jonas (and others).

As to the origin of the violence, Stoll could hardly have avoided mentioning such benchmarks of state oppression as the army massacres at Panzós, Santiago Atitlán, and elsewhere. My point was that while he makes a convincing case that the guerrillas set off the killing in Rigoberta’s region, he once again uses the situation there as if it were proof of his contention that guerrilla assassinations were the cause of army oppression more generally. Setting aside the evidence against this argument in the Truth Commission, I would stand by what I said in my review: “This might or might not be the case. In his book the issue is entirely unexplored.”

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