The War on Rigoberta

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

There can be little doubt that the publishers of David Stoll’s book,Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans are highly gratifiedat the readiness of the New York Times, in a front-page “special report”by Larry Rohter subtitled “Tarnished Laureate” published on December15, to adopt so enthusiastically their thinly-veiled innuendos and allegations.The book, they wrote, was about a “living legend, a young Guatemalanorphaned by death squads who said that her odyssey from a Mayan Indian villageto revolutionary exile was ‘the story of all poor Guatemalans’. Publishedin the autobiographical I, Rigoberta Menchu, her words brought the Guatemalanarmy’s atrocities to world attention and propelled her to the 1992 NobelPeace Prize”.

But, they imply, their author had dug up another story entirely. I RigobertaMenchu was “not the eyewitness account it purported to be” butrather a story edited by Elizabeth Burgos which the Nobel laureate has “seemedto repudiate” and which “served the ideological needs of the urbanleft'” Indeed, this tendentious tale is responsible for “caricaturingthe complex feelings of Guatemalan Indians towards the guerrillas”and having “shaped the assumptions of human rights activists and thenew multicultural orthodoxy in North American universities.” The book’spresence on college reading lists has pained many conservatives, such asC. Vann Woodward, who once derided I Rigoberta Minchu in the New York Reviewof Books as the work of “an unlettered Indian woman”.

As it happens, anyone who actually reads David Stoll’s book, publishedby Westview and allegedly based on many years’ research, soon finds thatthese tantalising allegations are not borne out. For starters Stoll discoveredthat I,Rigoberta Menchu is exactly the book it claimed to be. ElizabethBurgos, the Venezuelan writer and anthropologist who edited the book fromtwenty-seven hours of interviews with Rigoberta in 1982, had produced atext very faithful to the interview tapes which she allowed Stoll to listento. Burgos encouraged Rigoberta to speak at length and without interruption.She did, however, urge her to explain her cultural background and the customsof her people. Some of this material was then spliced into the narrativeat appropriate points and digressions trimmed. But the words and emphasisof the book were Rigoberta’s. The New York Times’s insinuation that thebook was somehow scripted by the “urban left” with their romanticnotions of peasants and violence is quite at odds with the actual accountStoll offers.

Both Elizabeth Burgos and Rigoberta Menchu made it clear from the outsetthat they had a political purpose in the book and that was to expose theatrocities committed by the Guatemalan army. Rigoberta made it perfectlyclear that she was an active member of a peasant organisation and guerrillagroup. Her account was not the fruit of some judicial investigation strivingto be fair to the landlords and army officers. It was based on her own experiencesand those of close relatives and friends.

From the New York Times it might seem that it is these very claims whichhave now been contradicted. Have their intrepid reporters, after severalintensive days of questioning neighbours and relatives, really discoveredthe book to be “all lies” as they quote someone saying? Is it,perhaps, the case that half Rigoberta’s family was not killed and that thearmy was not massacring thousands of peasants? In fact nothing of the sortemerges either from Stoll’s book or from the reporter’s story. Instead,what they do is query details of Rigoberta’s account or claims that shepersonally was present at all the killings she describes. They also mountan attack on Rigoberta’s transparently metaphorical claim to tell the storyof “all poor Guatemalans”.

Both The Times and Stoll, though the former far more blatantly than thelatter, write on the implicit assumption that if Rigoberta’s account doesnot square at all points with those of someone else then Rigoberta mustbe lying. For example she describes how her brother Petrocinio was capturedby the army and burnt in front of other family members whereas the reporterfinds another brother who says it was not like that at all; in fact Petrociniowas kidnapped, kept in a hole and shot. Two other younger brothers of thelaureate had died of disease and malnutrition but a family member is quotedto the effect that Rigoberta could not have witnessed this and it had happenedbefore she was born.

The New York Times reporter claims that Rigoberta was not as poor asshe makes herself out to be and that she attended a “prestigious boardingschool”. Rigoberta did mention living in a convent in I Rigoberta Menchuand also her time working as a maid. Stoll’s researches bear out that sheworked as a maid at the convent school, being allowed to attend some classesat the same time.

It seems quite likely that Menchu, speaking in a Paris flat in 1982,edited her own account, appropriating stories she had been told by others,highlighting her own hardships and presenting an unsympathetic portraitof her enemies. In an oral culture the distinction between what has happenedto oneself and what has happened to close relatives or friends may not beso clear cut. Rigoberta was not giving evidence in a court of law; she wastrying to explain how bad the situation was in her country for her peopleand to do so as vividly as possible.

The affected naivety belongs not to those who have lauded Rigoberta’sbook but to those who now seek to discredit it. Did they really supposethat because she was a Guatemalan peasant she was incapable of rhetoricand metaphor? Or are Western journalists the only ones who are allowed localcolor? And only Western politicians the arts of spin-doctoring? At no pointis evidence offered that Rigoberta invented the blood-soaked plight of herpeople and country, even if her account of it was a partial one.

David Stoll ventures a substantial political criticism but is equallyunable to make it stick. He claims that Rigoberta was romanticising a guerrillaforce whose activities had brought appalling violence to the region whereshe grew up, much of it intra-communal in nature. The curious aspect ofthis criticism is that, once again, an attentive reader of I Rigoberta Menchuwould have grasped both the huge human cost of the guerrilla war and thefact that it often pitted indios against ladinos rather than peasants againstlandlords – these categories overlapping at points but being by no meansidentical.

It is alleged that Rigoberta and Elizabeth Burgos were engaged in romanticisingthe guerrillas. In fact, what the two women were really embarked on wasan effort to change the terms of the struggle. By telling her story as effectivelyas possible Rigoberta was indeed doing something which the guerrilla commandershad failed to encompass. She was putting the Army’s brutal regime on thedefensive. The eventual decision of the government to negotiate with theguerrillas was in part fruit of this successful moral campaign. All thatStoll can offer against this are some nauseating insinuations familiar toanyone who has studied the rationalizations of US-sponsored extirminationcampaigns, that it was the guerillas who are somehow responsible for theGuatemalan army’s genocidal violence.

At the end of his book Stoll almost admits that: “Even if it isnot the eyewitness account it claims to be, that does not detract from itssignificance. Her story has helped shift perceptions of indigenous peoplefrom hapless victims to men and women fighting for their rights. The recognitionshe has won is helping Mayas become conscious of themselves as historicalactors. To many ladinos as well as Mayas, Rigoberta is a national symboland will continue to be one, however many vicissitudes she suffers becauseshe is a living one.” If he had taken these conclusions a little moreseriously Stoll might have written a work less inviting of sensationalistexploitation. And he might have dropped that unqualified phrase “notan eyewitness account” since he does not deny that Rigoberta witnessedmuch that she relates, nor that there are other sorts of truth to be foundin her story. The last sentence of Stoll’s book attempts to mimic a Mayamyth: “The story Rigoberta gave her people can be chopped to pieces,like some of her neighbours were during the violence, but it will grow backtogether again, and maybe Guatemala will too.” CP

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