Bitter Fruit for Rigoberta | The Nation


Bitter Fruit for Rigoberta

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Stoll also reveals that Menchú was more educated and politically astute than she let on. It appears that rather than being an illiterate domestic servant and seasonal plantation laborer--a condition suffered by a great many Mayan women--Menchú had received an elementary school education.

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Francisco Goldman
Francisco Goldman, whose journalism has appeared in the New York Times and The New Yorker, is the...
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop, Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and the...

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Each generation seems condemned to have to prove the obvious anew: slavery created the modern world, and the modern world’s divisions are the product of slavery.

Protesters on both sides of the border are revolting against the same transnational policing and trade policies. 

Yet it is no great surprise that political leaders rearrange events in their lives for political reasons. In his presidential campaign, Abraham Lincoln presented himself as a backwoods hayseed even though he was an accomplished legislator and lawyer. Likewise, Betty Friedan portrayed herself as an alienated, apolitical housewife when in fact she was a longtime political activist. And what about the exaggerations in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography? As the director of the Nobel Institute who awarded Menchú her prize reminds us, "All autobiographies embellish to a greater or lesser extent." Perhaps Western readers expect only simplicity and naïveté from Indian women, and Menchú may have skillfully used this expectation to publicize the wholesale slaughter being conducted by the Guatemalan military.

While the publicity on the accusations thus far has focused on the historical accuracy of personal details, Stoll is interested in more than simply exposing Menchú (perhaps explaining why the Times gave the story page-one play). He wants to challenge the larger claim that the Guatemalan revolution had popular support. He argues that guerrilla movements, not just in Guatemala but throughout Latin America, pre-empted peaceful political and economic reform and therefore were responsible for provoking repression:

Some Central Americans believe that only armed struggle could have dislodged the dictatorships ruling their countries.... They could be right, but it also has to be asked: What gave rise to such ferocious regimes in the first place?... What reduced [the Guatemalan military] to the fanatical anticommunism that allowed it to slaughter so many men, women, and children?

While Stoll concedes that the United States bears some responsibility for the violence, he concludes that "it could not have happened without the specter of foreign communism." "Insurgency," he says, "bolster[ed] the rationales of the most homicidal wing of the officer corps in one country after another."

This formulation reveals a deep ignorance of Guatemalan and Latin American history. In the century before the cold war, dictators throughout Latin America, like the nineteenth-century Argentine despot Juan Manuel de Rosas, used terror to hold on to power. If a democratic transition was under way in Guatemala prior to the left's decision to pick up arms, how does Stoll account for the violent 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala's best chance at democracy? Or the 1963 military coup aimed at preventing Juan José Arévalo, a former reformist president, from again running for president? If guerrillas are responsible for Latin American political violence, how does Stoll explain Pinochet's Chile, where military repression took place despite the absence of armed rebels? Or the systemic state violence directed at union activists and independent reporters in Mexico before the Zapatista uprising? Or the 1968 massacre in Tlatelolco plaza?

Just as he accuses Menchú of doing, Stoll arranges and suppresses events to support his claims. Stoll would have us believe that if not for the guerrillas, the Guatemalan military might not have become the most bloodthirsty killing machine in the hemisphere. Yet by reducing Guatemala's conflict to the back-and-forth sparring between the guerrillas and the military, Stoll willfully--or ignorantly--misrepresents the history of Guatemalan opposition and repression. In the seventies, trade unionists, Mayan activists, peasants, students and social democrats came together to push for social reform. No other country in Central America witnessed this level of political mobilization. But well before anyone had ever heard of the guerrillas, the military was going after this movement, murdering peasants in coastal plantations and politicians and unionists in the capital.

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