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.

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[*] 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).