Rigoberta Who?

The Canadian press is having a hard time wrapping their minds around the achievements of Rigoberta Menchu, a woman who began her life as a Guatemalan peasant and has now won the Nobel Peace Prize

By Robert Rodvik | 1993-01-01 12:00:00

It is instructive to note how the mainstream Canadian media treats the confirmation of Rigoberta Menchu as this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Ms. Menchu is a Guatemalan Indian, a peasant of Mayan extraction from the highlands of that Central American country, and a woman who knows firsthand the horrors of the terror imposed by a U.S. sup-ported military regime.

Sandie Rinaldo, on CTV National News, reported that Rigoberta Menchu is a native Guatemalan Indian "who experienced first hand racial discrimination" a gross understatement. Knowlton Nash on CBC national news gave an equally brief and unenlightening presentation, demonstrating how much the truth is suppressed. Nothing is said about the ongoing violence against the peasantry, nothing to tell us what made Menchu the most exceptional peace person on the planet at this time.

The story of Rigoberta Menchu is not unusual in a land whose military and allied death-squads readily murder its native population, but is instructive as to the ongoing horrors. Army counter-insurgency operations in the northern departments of El Quiche' and Huehuetenango had, since early in 1976, made peasant organizations and cooperatives a target of mass killings.

Successive delegations of Indian peasants then made trips to the capital to plead with President Lucas Garcia for a halt to the terror and disappearances. Unsuccessful in this attempt, 22 members of the delegation went to the Spanish Embassy on the 31st of January 1980, intending to stage a sit-in to attract international attention to their cause.

Amnesty International details the subsequent events:

Informed of the peasants' presence, the police surrounded the building. When the delegates saw the police outside, they at first refused to leave. Despite a demand by Ambassador Maximo Cajal y Lopez that police stay out of the embassy and the agreement of the delegation to withdraw peaceful ly, police stormed the embassy. Thirty-eight people died, some from shot wounds and others in an ensuing fire.

One of the men burnt to death in the peasant delegation on that fateful day was Vicente Menchu, father of Rigoberta. From a young age she had travelled with her parents and siblings to the coast to work on the plantations; this is her story:

Two of my brothers died in the finca. The first... Felipe... died when mother started working.

They'd sprayed the coffee with pesticide by plane while we were working, as they usually did, and my brother couldn't stand the fumes and died of toxification. The second one... was Nicolas. He died when I was eight... [from] malnutrition.

Early in the seventies Vicente Menchu was involved in a lengthy dispute with influential Ladinos over the ownership of some land. He spent the family savings on lawyers' bills, surveyors, and trips to the department capital, all to no avail. He was unjustly imprisoned and upon his release was kidnapped by thugs working for the landowner, tortured, and left for dead. Never able to walk properly or work again, Vicente became involved in a peasants' union. In 1977 he was imprisoned once more, this time as a subversive. When he was released from jail and fearing for his life, he went under-ground. Rigoberta describes how it was:

We began to build camps in the mountains where we would spend the night, with the aim of preventing the troops from killing us while we slept. In the daytime, we had taught the children to keep watch over the roads so they could warn us whenever the soldiers arrived in town. This was the beginning of our self defense.

Ronald Wright, in Time Among the Maya ,tells us what happened next.

On the ninth of September, 1979, Rigoberta's younger brother was kidnapped and tortured. His sexual organs were mutilated, skin was flayed from his face, but he did not die. Two weeks later the army paraded him and several other victims before their relatives at the Iii' town of Chajul; the captives were then doused with gasoline and burned alive.

It was four months later that Vicente Menchu and the peasant delegation travelled to Guatemala City to address the terror being inflicted on the indigenos of the highlands, and where he too met an early fate in the [supposed] sanctuary of the Spanish embassy.

On the nineteenth of April, 1979 Rigoberta's mother was kidnapped, tortured and killed near Uspantan. Rigoberta then went into hiding, and later fled Guatemala to bring her story to the outside world.

She dictated her book I, Rigoberta Menchu in Paris and has campaigned tirelessly for justice for the indigenous Indians of her native country.

Only knowledge of the terrible ongoing violence against the oppressed people of Guatemala can spur a public outcry to counter this state sponsored terrorism. The TV networks in this country have done little to expose the horrors of the U.S. sponsored regime in Guatemala and the print media little more. The Vancouver Sun ran a brief AP (Associated Press) wire story that acknowledges "military repression," but since AP is a compliant instrument of U.S. media monopoly, there will never be an admission of U.S. complicity arising from a policy of absolute control in the Western Hemisphere, and especially in their "backyard," Central America.

Those who have seen the Costa Gavras film State of Siege will remember a scene where an Uruguayan police officer is shown as he receives training in bomb-making at a secret school in the southwestern U.S. Later in the film he is linked to a right-wing death squad responsible for the murder of prominent Uruguayan radicals. This was not a piece of fiction from an imaginative mind; documents discovered by U.S. Senator James Abourezk in 1974 proved the existence of a covert camp for bombers and assassins at the U.S. Border Patrol Academy in Los Frenos, Texas, run by the CIA.

Matthew Harvey of MD (Agency of International Development), acknowledged in a memorandum to Senator Abourezk that the Office of Public Safety had provided instruction in the design, manufacture, and use of home-made bombs and incendiary devices to at least 165 foreign policemen, most of them from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. According to the MD documents, students in this "Technical Investigations Course" first attended a four-week session at the International Police Academy in Washington, D.C., for lectures on basic electricity problems involving electricity as applied to explosives are given), bombs and explosives (a lecture/demonstration of incendiary devices), and assassination weapons (a discussion of weapons that may be used by the assassin).

Rigoberta Menchu knows such repression all too well. She is a victim of that U.S. sponsored terror. It is up to those of us who care about justice and dignity to see to it that the message rings out loud and clear; that we are tired of the slaughter of the poor and we just won't take it any more. It begins by demanding honesty from our media, both electronic and print, and once that is obtained we must stand and be counted on the side of decency-against a corporate elite that would rampage across the world for its own benefit.

The symbolic angel of this cause is the brave Rigoberta Menchu. Let her name be a constant reminder that oppression will no longer be tolerated.

Robert Rodvik is a historian and a freelance journalist based in Gibsons, B. C.

Democracy Guatemala-Style

The Mayans, who constitute 65 percent of the Guatemalan population, live on the land. Like other indigenous people throughout the history of the Americas, they have been losing their land, their livelihood, and even their lives. The genocide that has been going on there has been well hidden.

From 1934 to 1954, the country was governed in a progressive way and promoted land reform, but in 1954 the CIA overthrew the regime and since that time government has been aggressively favorable to the interests of big landowners. The United States is known to be very influential in the ongoing affairs of Guatemala, though the relationship is often covert. The recent history in the country has involved so many brutal violations of human rights that the United States avoids the taint of association with the regime. In the fifties, the U.S. trained the Guatemalan military directly, but in recent years the support has been indirect-channeled through Israel. Most of the military advisors and weapons are Israeli.

At present time, there is a democratically elected, right-wing civilian government, but it is extremely corrupt and does not control the army, which even in recent weeks has continued to repress the Mayans. There have been many death squad actions, in addition to the open counterinsurgency campaign. Like Rigoberta Menchu, many Mayans have fled to Mexico, living in a refugee camp in a dry river bed. Now they want to go home and repatriation will begin in January. What they face there remains to be seen. Negotiations are going on between the government and a coalition of guerrillas, but no agreements are likely to be forthcoming soon. The guerrillas still believe they can win if their movement becomes broader and more popular.

Canada cut off all aid to Guatemala until about three years ago. Now it offers direct, bilateral, government-to-government aid with no strings attached. Canadians who are familiar with the situation urge that the rest of us inform ourselves about Guatemala, demand additional information from the press, and ask the government to stop this bilateral aid. All Canadian aid should be administered through independent groups, such as the inter-Church committee, an umbrella organization that has the capability to ensure that money reaches its intended destination instead of being diverted by the Guatemalan government.

Assembled by Peace editors

Our March issue will review I, Rigoberta Menchu (NY: Routledge)

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1993

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1993, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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