In the early eighties, I, Rigoberta Menchú became an international bestseller. A moving account of gruesome repression, gut-wrenching poverty and vicious racism, the book made Menchú a human rights celebrity, eventually winning her a Nobel Peace Prize and focusing worldwide attention on the plight of Guatemalan Indians. Menchú was unsparing in her criticism of the Guatemalan Army, charging it with the wholesale slaughter of thousands of Indians, including members of her own family.
As the New York Times recently reported, however, David Stoll, a professor of anthropology at Middlebury College, has called Menchú’s story into question. In Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans Stoll alleges that Menchú exaggerated and otherwise distorted some of the events she chronicled in her autobiography.
No matter how absorbing this controversy may be–and it has been taken up gleefully by the right, with Dinesh D’Souza proclaiming in the Weekly Standard that “there were plenty of reasons to be suspicious from the outset of Rigoberta Menchú’s credibility”–we should keep it in perspective. Menchú’s book came out in 1983, just after the Guatemalan military had concluded the most brutal campaign of repression in this hemisphere. In 1982 alone, the army committed more than 400 massacres, destroyed hundreds of Indian communities, killed as many as 100,000 people and forced nearly 1 million from their homes. Until the publication of Menchú’s book, the international community was largely silent about these atrocities, while the major news media in the United States paid hardly any attention to them at all.
Throughout the worst period of the violence, the Reagan Administration repeatedly attempted to discredit human rights organizations working to publicize the massacres. One State Department official went so far as to suggest that Amnesty International was waging a “calculated program of disinformation which originated from Managua, Nicaragua and [was] part of the worldwide communist conspiracy.”
Menchú’s book cut through this veil of silence to reveal a hidden history of pain, death and terror. Her story was a call to conscience, a piece of wartime propaganda designed not to mislead but rather to capture our attention. It relied upon a classic Dickensian technique of pulling together different individual experiences into one character’s heart-rending story. Such distortions were probably necessary to break through the wall of media indifference.
One of Stoll’s principal charges is that Menchú lied about the death of her relatives. It seems that Menchú did not witness her younger brother die of hunger on a lowland plantation, nor was another brother burned alive by the army in the public square of her village, as she had claimed.
Whatever the truth of these allegations (interviews with other relatives, as quoted in the New York Times in mid-December, lend them significant weight), the undisputed facts of Menchú’s story are horrible enough: She did have two brothers who died of malnutrition at an early age; her mother and brother were kidnapped and killed by the army; and her father was burned alive.
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.
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.
What is most offensive about Stoll’s argument is his insistence on blaming the victims for the violence that the military visited upon them.
Stoll would counter this charge by separating Mayan communities from “outsiders”–those whom he baits as the urban “Marxist Left.” But this distinction is too neat. As Stoll himself demonstrated in his previous work, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, the Maya have a long history of alliances with non-Indians. In the seventies, the Catholic activists, peasant organizers, Christian Democrats and guerrilla leaders were themselves Mayan.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Stoll’s argument holds Menchú, her father and her family responsible for “allowing” the military to slaughter them and their neighbors.
In Guatemala, these assertions have all too real consequences. Throughout Guatemalan history, Indians have been portrayed as either violent brutes or docile innocents easily led astray. Elites continue to use these stereotypes to legitimize the violence. They argue either that the war was necessary to stop the Indians from rising up and avenging centuries of exploitation or that outside agitators were responsible for stirring up the Indians.
It is unfortunate that at this moment, when truth commissions and exhumations are opening the secrets of the recent past to scrutiny, Stoll’s work provides both these stereotypes with a scholarly patina. As a military officer responsible for the 1982 scorched-earth campaign recently said, “The poor Indians, they don’t get involved in anything. They were between two armies.” He didn’t even have to bother to footnote Stoll.
Next month, the United Nations Truth Commission (officially known as the Historical Clarification Commission) will release the results of its eighteen-month investigation of human rights violations in Guatemala. International human rights organizations expect that the report will confirm what they have been saying all along: The vast majority of Guatemala’s political violence was committed by the Guatemalan military, with the support and knowledge of the US government. The controversy over Menchú should not be allowed to overshadow this truth.