It Was Heaven That They Burned
Conservatives recognized the value of Stoll's argument because it had been made before, at least as early as 1790, when Edmund Burke said France's old regime had been in the process of self-reformation before ideologues who read too much Rousseau derailed things. In fact, Stoll's position parallels, probably unwittingly, more recent revisionist arguments concerning the French Revolution. Since feudalism was already on the wane before 1789, revolutionary militancy did not advance liberalization but rather represented a ghastly dérapage, as François Furet put it, a slide into chaos. In later work, Furet revised his opinion, rejecting the contingent implications of the word dérapage to argue that the "very idea of revolution" generated Jacobin terror. It is a position that runs to the core of contemporary debates concerning the causes of militancy, between those who see conflict as rooted in larger social relations, with violence resulting from the instigating intransigence of elites, and those who attribute terror to utopian ideological fervor. While the latter position has been used to explain events in Europe and the United States, such as the Holocaust, Stalinism and the New Left, it holds considerably less influence in the third world, where the relationship between repression, on the one hand, and colonialism, imperialism and capitalism, on the other, is hard to deny.
Thus the broad resonance, beyond anything having to do with Guatemala, of the Menchú controversy. Guatemala has long been recognized as one of the most exploited societies in a region defined by exploitation, a place where many Mayans were subject to what was in effect slavery well into the twentieth century. The role of the United States in terminating the first and still so far only government that tried to democratize the country has been so well documented that it has become the mainstream example of choice when one wants to illustrate the misuse of Washington's power abroad. It even forced a sitting president to apologize. The catastrophe that followed the 1954 coup had staggering human costs, resulting in one of the most savage wars in twentieth-century Latin America. So, if it could be demonstrated that political violence in northern Quiché—among the poorest of regions in the poorest of departments in the poorest of countries—was caused not by land dispossession, racism or aborted reform but by, as Stoll thinks, "middle-class radicals" entranced by the Cuban Revolution, then the whole of Latin American history would be up for grabs. And indeed, by the end of his book, Stoll has parlayed discrepancies in Menchú's story into a blanket indictment of the Latin American left throughout its cold war history, attributing the rise of death-squad dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and other countries in the 1970s to the "misguided belief in the moral purity of total rejection, of refusing to compromise with the system and seeking to overthrow it by force."
It is hard, though, to hang such a grand interpretation on the personal motives of one disputatious indigenous peasant and the imaginative license of his 23-year-old orphaned daughter. But Stoll does try, insisting on tracing nearly every act of aggression Menchú attributes to Ladinos, planters or security forces back to an original provocation committed by her father. Nowhere is this shadow narrative more perversely applied than in his account of an event that serves as the climax of both Menchú's memoir and Stoll's riposte: the January 1980 firebombing of the Spanish Embassy, which resulted in the death of Vicente Menchú and more than thirty other peasants and university students who were protesting escalating military repression in the countryside, including the killing of Petrocinio Menchú. Investigations by the Spanish government, the Catholic Church and the United Nations all confirmed Menchú's description of events, and in 2005 a Spanish judge issued an arrest warrant for a former Guatemalan interior minister accused of ordering the bombing.
But on the signal event in the civil war, a naked display of unyielding power when many Guatemalans realized that no reform would be tolerated or petition considered, Stoll cannot help but weigh in. He speculates that the protesters might have intentionally killed themselves to reinforce "the Guatemalan left's cult of martyrdom." It's hard to overstate how extraordinary this statement is, especially coming from a researcher who bases his legitimacy on championing his own fact-based, empirical argumentation over the deductions of a politicized left. There is no tradition of tactical suicide among Guatemalan leftists, and there is not one piece of evidence, not one witness, not even among those critical of the protesters, to support the possibility that the embassy massacre could have been a "revolutionary suicide that included murdering hostages and fellow protesters." But the logic of his argument, if not the facts of the case, compels Stoll to consider it, and in so doing he transforms Vicente Menchú from victim to victimizer.