Sacred Text

Richard Gott

  • Rogoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans by David Stoll
    Westview, 336 pp, £20.00, February 1999, ISBN 0 8133 3574 4

On the way into Guatemala City from the airport on my first visit years ago, I was informed by the taxi-driver – who else? – of the death of the American Ambassador. It was August 1968, and John Gordon Mein had been assassinated that morning. This was an abrupt introduction to the complexities of Guatemalan politics, and I merely assumed – with the Vietnam War and the less-publicised Guatemalan guerrilla war of the Sixties well underway – that another imperial satrap had received his just deserts. The taxi-driver, however, thought it was bad news. There was an evening curfew and a 24-hour block on all journalistic reports leaving the country; it was not easy to discover quite what had taken place or to telex the story to the outside world.

Later, it emerged that the assassination was a typical guerrilla bungle. César Montes, the leader of a group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and a man fired up with the rhetoric of Che Guevara, had hoped to kidnap the Ambassador from his car and ransom him in exchange for Camilo Sánchez, one of the guerrilla chiefs held in prison. Mein’s car was stopped, but he refused to go quietly and was shot in the scrimmage. Sánchez, of course, was immediately executed. That particular guerrilla movement soon collapsed, but US military and intelligence assistance to successive Guatemalan dictators continued for another three decades; my taxi-driver’s pessimistic estimate was undoubtedly correct.

That was more than thirty years ago, just one small forgotten episode in a horrid war that continued off and on, more on than off, for nearly half a century. Some kind of peace settlement was finally brokered by the United Nations in 1996, and still stutters on. In March this year, President Clinton visited Guatemala City and apologised for America’s role in the genocide of the Mayan Indians during that period. ‘It is important that I state clearly,’ Clinton told representatives of Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission, ‘that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.’

The Commission’s conclusions, published shortly before his visit, revealed (according to a report in the New York Times) ‘that American training of Guatemalan military officers in counter-insurgency techniques had played a significant role in the torture, kidnapping and execution of thousands of civilians’. The Americans, to their credit, co-operated with the work of the UN-sponsored Commission, unlike other countries, notably Israel and Argentina, who were also involved but refused to participate.

The British public was never much concerned with what went on in Guatemala. For many years Britain maintained no embassy in Guatemala City; Guatemala claimed the coastal colony of British Honduras, much as Argentina claimed the Falklands/Malvinas, and diplomatic relations were almost non-existent. The British press did not bother much about the country either, and British academics (apart from James Dunkerley) have, for the most part, steered clear; it was an expensive and dangerous place to send your research students to.

For the Americans, however, Guatemala has long been the most significant country in Central America – far more so than Nicaragua or El Salvador. After the CIA-backed coup of 1954 that finished off the reformist regime of Jacobo Arbenz, it developed into an important Cold War case-history. Guevara, who had worked in Arbenz’s Guatemala, used the experience of its overthrow to argue for the radicalisation of the Cuban revolution, and for the development of a guerrilla strategy to defeat the US-supported armies of Latin America.

The country became a focus of left-wing protest in the Sixties, particularly in US universities. Academics who had received grants from the US Government to undertake research in Guatemala suddenly found themselves denounced by their students. A decent liberal anthropologist called Richard Newbold Adams, the doyen of US Guatemalan studies at the time and a distinguished professor at Austin, Texas, had worked in the rural areas in the Fifties and wrote a US Government-funded study entitled Receptivity to Communist-Fomented Agitation in Rural Guatemala. It was published in 1957 under the pseudonym of Stokes Newbold and Adams’s students never allowed him to forget it. The study of anthropology has taken decades to recover from its association with a dominant imperialism, and not just in Latin America.

David Stoll is another talented US academic, from a younger generation, specialising in Central America, and with a particular interest in Guatemala, about which he has written a couple of interesting, and indeed path-breaking books. Is Latin America Turning Protestant? (1990) is a study based on the explosion of Protestant sects in Guatemala and the extension of this phenomenon to the rest of the continent; Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala (1993) is a reworked university thesis on the dilemma facing the Mayan Indians in the province of El Quiché during the renewed guerrilla insurgency of the Seventies and Eighties.

Stoll’s latest book, Rigoberta Menchú, is a less specialised work and has been greeted with an avalanche of publicity. It calls into question the accuracy of the autobiography of the self-same Rigoberta Menchú, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, and revisits the old debate about the political impact in Latin America of the guerrilla warfare theorists who sprang up in the wake of the Cuban Revolution and Che Guevara’s romantic call to arms.

Menchú herself is a splendidly combative K’iché Mayan woman from the Cuchumatanes mountains, in the north of the province of El Quiché. (K’iché is currently the approved spelling for the language and the ethnic group; Quiché, for some reason, remains the spelling of the place.) She first came to prominence with the publication of a memoir of her life in Guatemala, I, Rigoberta Menchú, put together in 1982.[*] A second volume, Crossing Borders,[†] describes her career as a crusader for peace and justice outside Guatemala, and was published last year.

Born in 1959 into a politically active peasant family which suffered the severe military repression of the late Seventies (her brother, mother and father were killed), Menchú was a member of a political front organisation that supported the movement known as the Guerrilla Army of the People (EGP). Escaping over the frontier to Mexico, she later arrived in Paris, where, in January 1982, she gave a series of tape-recorded interviews about her country and her past life. The woman who recorded her memories was Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, a Venezuelan writer with links to Cuba, formerly married to Régis Debray, who had taken part in Guevara’s guerrilla campaign in Bolivia in 1967.

After ten days with Menchú, Burgos-Debray wrestled with the interview transcripts, edited them, spliced them together, and eventually published the resulting book in 1983, in French and Spanish. I, Rigoberta Menchú describes the typical, brutal life of a Third World woman in an area of conflict. It tells how her brother, Petrocinio, was seized by the military and burnt alive in the town square of Chajul; how her father, Vicente, fought against ladino (or mixed race) landowners and land reform bureaucrats in the province of El Quiché, and was killed during a peasant protest at the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City in January 1981; and how Menchú herself became radicalised, and developed into a political organiser.

The book found favour with many readers in the US and Europe as a result of Menchú’s credentials both as a revolutionary sympathiser and as a Christian catechist, at a time when the Christian-Marxist dialogue was running at its strongest (it was later closed down by Pope Wojtyla). The book became an international bestseller; was translated into a dozen languages; and won one of the prestigious prizes of the Casa de Las Américas in Havana. Taken up by human rights activists and solidarity groups around the world, it turned Menchú into an emblematic figure of the Guatemalan revolutionary struggle of the Eighties.

In the US especially, publishers and readers, and those in charge of academic courses in universities, were on the look-out for first-hand testimonies by women, Native Americans and victims of Third World repression, whose memoirs could be used to confront or undermine the prevailing culture. I, Rigoberta Menchú soon became required reading in US universities. Menchú was transformed into an almost mythical figure, representing both oppressed women generally and the Native Americans of North and South America in particular. Her spreading fame made her an obvious candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in the Columbus quincentenary year of 1992.

A scrupulous academic, David Stoll became irritated by the attention his students lavished on Menchú’s book. As a result of his own researches in Guatemala, he believed it to be a less than accurate account of her experiences. He had visited the province of El Quiché in the troubled period of 1982, and had spent a formative year, in 1988-89, based in the town of Nebaj, engaged in anthropological research among the Ixil in the surrounding countryside, not for from Menchú’s home.

The controversial thesis that emerged from his research was not well received among those influenced by Menchú’s book. In it, he suggested that the Mayan Indians were coerced into the ranks of the EGP during the Seventies, and had not necessarily been motivated, as Menchú and others sympathetic to her cause had argued, by economic necessity or ideological conviction.

Stoll’s researches had uncovered a number of inaccuracies in the text that Burgos-Debray had compiled from the tape-recordings, but he did not detail them in his first book. He resolved to write a fresh book about Guatemala that would list these mistakes and explain why they mattered. The new book deals provocatively and comprehensively with the inaccuracies, yet like his earlier work, it is also an informative account of the military repression and the infighting in the Indian communities which that repression brought about.

Stoll lays three principal charges of inaccuracy against Menchú: her brother, Petrocinio, was not burned alive in the square of Chajul in December 1979, but killed elsewhere; her father, Vicente, was not an impoverished Indian done down by ladino landowners but ‘a homesteader’ involved in an intra-familial land dispute; and she herself was not an unschooled Indian speaking little Spanish, but a girl who had had some convent education and was a good deal more savvy than she allows herself to appear in the book.

There seems little doubt that Stoll is essentially correct in all this, and that Menchú, for whatever reason, had both embroidered and, in part, unpicked the fabric of her story before unburdening herself to Burgos-Debray. The particular details of her father’s conflicts over land may, as so often in families, have been largely unknown to his children. Her recorded version was a colourful, moving and, on the whole, honest account of what it was like to be an Indian woman in Guatemala during the years of struggle and repression. Yet producing such a book in such a way, and in a great hurry, may well have given rise to a number of mishearings and misunderstandings, and the introduction of some inaccuracies. It was, after all, designed in Paris more as a solidarity tract than as a work of literature or as a scholarly anthropological treatise. Menchú herself emphasised on the first page ‘that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people ... The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too. My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans.’ Menchú was using her own life story to provide a generalised account of the experience of Guatemalan peasant women for a fairly ignorant non-Latin American audience. Stoll thought that her claims were arrogant. His research revealed the existence of various different versions of her family history. Since he knew that her tale was flawed, it could only be considered, at best, the story of some poor Guatemalans.

In Britain, where no one cares much about the Nobel Prize, Stoll’s revelation was a one-day wonder. In America, it struck deeper chords. Already in universities, as Stoll points out, Menchú’s book had become ‘part of a hotly debated new canon at the intersection of feminism, ethnic studies and literature’. The US press had a field-day with detailing this story of ‘politically correct’ turpitude. Menchú was portrayed as a participant, albeit unwitting, in the great debates about political correctness and multiculturalism shaking the towers of academe. In this rather special context, Stoll’s account is not really a study of events in Guatemala, but a book about the fantasies of the US. ‘The underlying problem,’ he explains, ‘is not how Rigoberta told her story, but how well-intentioned foreigners have chosen to interpret it.’ Menchú has never enjoyed such celebrity status in Britain. Although I, Rigoberta Menchú was first translated and published in English in London, in 1984, it was the American sales that made it into a publishing triumph, with 16 reprints. It is no secret that its large sales across the Atlantic have helped to keep Verso, its radical British publisher (and, incidentally, my own), afloat.

I have had a tangential involvement in this controversy for some time. I read an early version of Stoll’s manuscript in New York early last year, and reported on it favourably; I also gave Verso some editing assistance with Menchú’s more recent book, Crossing Borders, which tells the story of her time as an international activist at the UN in Geneva and New York before she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Written up in the same way as the earlier one, from tape-recorded interviews, the book was a somewhat inchoate translated manuscript that it was my task to try to turn into something shorter and more accessible. I thought I was engaged in an elementary subbing job; it never struck me, as I am sure it never struck Burgos-Debray, that someone might think I was tampering with a sacred text.

None of the discrepancies uncovered by Stoll would have mattered too much, except perhaps to specialists in Central American affairs, had Menchú not won the Nobel Peace Prize, and had the edited memoir of her life not become a set text in US universities. A handful of old tape-recordings were turned into the gospel story of a woman elevated to the status of a latter-day saint.

The real purpose of David Stoll, however, is not so much to question the accuracy of Menchú’s life story as to criticise the use that has been made of her version of political developments in the Guatemalan countryside during the guerrilla war of the late Seventies and its aftermath. The effect of her book, he complains, has been ‘to mystify the conditions facing peasants, what they thought their problems were, how the killing started, and how they reacted to it’.

It is certainly true that ever since the success of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, there has been considerable romanticism on the part of the Left about the role of peasants, and it may well be that some of this romanticism lives on in the American academy, possibly confused with the aura that surrounds indigenous peoples. Elsewhere, however, even in Latin America, most people have long realised that peasants are naturally conservative, uncertain about what happens beyond their horizons, usually divided among themselves, and seriously mistrustful of outsiders. This is not to say that they cannot, on occasion, be mobilised for some cause which appears to be in their interests, particularly if such a cause is seen to preserve the status quo rather than to allow something worse to happen.

Stoll is convinced that the EGP was irresponsible in seeking to persuade the Mayan Indians to rebel, and to confront the forces of the state, when its guerrillas were in no position to support them, a strategy that led inexorably to massacre. He gives a graphic account of the repression visited in 1981 on the three towns with which he was familiar: Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal in El Quiché. ‘To discourage Ixil farmers from helping the guerrillas,’ he writes in Between Two Armies,

the Army burned down all hamlets and homesteads outside the three towns. At first in reaction to guerrilla ambushes, then by plan, Army units shot, hacked, or burned to death thousands of unarmed men, women and children. As refugees fell under the Army’s control, it drafted all the males into ‘civil patrols’ which it then sent out against the insurgents, who retaliated with massacres of their own. So sweeping was the destruction that it gave credence to the accusation that the Guatemalan Army was committing genocide.

Stoll puts much of the blame on the guerrillas for unleashing these events. Like the Guatemalan Communist Party, he deplores the recourse to armed struggle by sections of the Guatemalan left. It would have been far better, he seems to suggest, if the Indians had been left to negotiate their own way out of their historic difficulties, taking advantage of what political opportunities (perhaps the Christian Democrat Party) or administrative paths (the Land Reform Institute) were open to them. This argument must sound plausible to anyone unfamiliar with Guatemala, yet it ignores not only five hundred years of history but even the five years that preceded the Central American explosion of 1978-82. Two potentially reformist politicians, Alberto Fuentes Mohr and Manuel Colom Argueta, were assassinated at the beginning of 1979.

The guerrillas certainly adopted a schematic and somewhat mechanistic approach to the problems of their country, where – to put it in old-fashioned terms – a racist oligarchy was tightly allied to a dominant imperialism. Yet with or without a guerrilla movement in the background, it is difficult to imagine a reformist movement making much headway in those years. Stoll’s account would have appeared more even-handed if he had hinted at the fact that only 10 per cent of the peasant massacres have been laid at the door of the guerrillas, and if he had paid a little more attention to the role of the United States in ensuring the guerrilla defeat. He argues that ‘the spectre of foreign Communism’ and ‘the revolutionary theatrics from Cuba’ bolstered ‘the most homicidal wing of the officer corps in one country after another’. Yet the ideological panic that spread through Latin America in the Sixties and Seventies was hardly home-grown; it was confected in and propagated from Washington. Nor was it uniform in its effect. In the Sixties, in Peru and Bolivia, the defeat of guerrilla movements was followed by the unexpected eruption of left-wing nationalism in the Armed Forces.

The burden of Stoll’s argument is that ‘guevarismo’, the guerrilla strategy of armed struggle, was not just disastrous for the peasants, but dramatically counter-productive for the country’s political Left. Here, he is echoing an argument made by Jorge Castañeda, the Mexican political scientist, in Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (1993), which is fast becoming the new orthodoxy in the post-Cold War era. ‘The kind of armed struggle envisioned by guerrilla organisations,’ Stoll claims, ‘has strengthened rationales for repression, poisoned other political possibilities that might have been more successful and repeatedly been fatal for the Left itself, by dismaying lower-class constituents and guaranteeing a crushing response from the state.’

This is a sharp and damning indictment of guerrilla strategy, and many readers will recognise the truth that it contains. Yet Stoll ignores, or skates over, the context in which the strategy was elaborated. The Guatemalan EGP was an heir to the group that killed the US Ambassador in 1968. It had worked quietly among the Indian population in the mountains along the Mexican border ever since 1972, and was one of the first left-wing movements in Latin America to try to make common cause with indigenous peoples, an essential precondition of success for any political movement in a country with a majority Indian population. The guerrillas only opted for armed action towards the end of the decade, when the conditions both at home and abroad looked promising.

Although the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in July 1979 gave a much-needed fillip to the guerrillas in Guatemala, they were also spurred on by the growth of military repression after 1978, during the dictatorship of General Romeo Lucas García. The famous Panzos massacre of peasants in Alta Verapaz, the adjacent province to El Quiché had occurred in May 1978. In 1980, with the Sandinistas in power and the guerrillas in El Salvador planning a major offensive (which took place in January 1981), the strategy of the EGP seemed reasonable enough.

I do not agree with many of Stoll’s conclusions, but I am glad that his book has finally seen the light of day. Rigoberta Menchú is a powerful character, who can look after herself, and the criticisms of the early version of her life are, as Stoll admits, no longer central to the continuing political debate in Guatemala. More interesting is Stoll’s perverse and polemical contribution to the continuing debate in the US about the role of anthropology. Ever since the Sixties, anthropologists have been made to feel publicly uncomfortable about the imbalance between their wealth and knowledge and the poverty and ignorance of the people they study. Stoll writes about the help he and other foreign scholars have needed to deal ‘with a professional but very personal moral dilemma, over our legitimacy as observers of people who are so much less fortunate than we are’.

One of the many injustices in the relationship between poor Third World countries and the wealthy West is surely that an American researcher like Stoll knows a lot more than Menchú about Guatemala. She is a woman in a hurry to exact justice and advance the struggle. When working on Between Two Armies, Stoll was able to employ a second North American researcher as well as four Ixil teachers and students. His team interviewed ‘164 Ixils in leadership or entrepreneurial roles’, including ‘teachers and bilingual promoters, evangelical pastors, Catholic catechists and saint society heads, labour contractors, and merchants’, and put ‘a wide range of questions concerning household composition and economy, labour migration, religious affiliation, ethnicity, and tradition’.

Between the detailed investigations of American academic researchers and the elementary simplicities arrived at by Latin American guerrilla movements, there is no contest. Nor is there an easy way out of the dilemma facing foreign anthropologists. Many of them, in league with the Greens, have sought refuge in emphasising the nobility of ‘the noble savage’ at the expense of the savagery, but Stoll is more brutal. He believes that anthropologists should discover what is going on, and expose the myths by which people live their lives. If they are dangerous – and that is how he sees the myths espoused by the EPG and Menchú – then he hopes to destroy them.

In undertaking his self-imposed task, he seems unaware of the difference of interest between an American researcher who unearths ‘facts’ that may lead to ‘truth’ and ‘understanding’, and a Third World revolutionary who believes that ‘myths’ are important wellsprings of political action. Stoll’s campaign against myth, benevolent though he would wish it to be, is also a force for political demobilisation and stasis.

Guatemala, by the way, is back on track. By the late Eighties, when Stoll came to live in Nebaj and to start his research project, the town had already been made safe for foreign visitors, ‘a popular stop for backpack tourists’, as well as for foreigners with a larger sense of purpose: ‘evangelical missionaries and wholesale weaving buyers; graduate students looking for research sites; journalists taking a break from the war in El Salvador or filing an easy story; and couples looking for orphans to adopt’. Anthropologists and guerrillas notwithstanding, life goes on.

[*] I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, translated by Ann Wright (Verso, 1984).

[†] Crossing Borders, translated and edited by Ann Wright (Verso, 242 pp., 1 October 1998, 1 85984 893 1).