Date: Sun, 14 Jul 1996 06:31:12 -0500
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/** nacla.report: 255.0 **/
An Interview with Rigoberta Menchu
By NACLA editors, May/June 1996
Rigoberta Menchu Tum, a Quiche Maya, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 in recognition of her work on behalf of indigenous peoples and poor ladinos in Guatemala. With the prize money, she established a foundation in her name to continue the same work. In early 1994, she returned to Guatemala after 13 years in exile in Mexico. In anticipation of the December, 1995 national elections, her foundation launched a National Campaign for Civic Participation, a non-partisan effort to encourage women and indigenous people to vote. Her decision not to take sides in the election angered some in the Guatemalan left, with whom she had collaborated in the 1980s. Menchu was interviewed in February in the foundation's New York offices by the NACLA editors.
What motivated you to return to Guatemala in 1994?
I decided to go back because I wanted the headquarters of the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation to be in Guatemala. Only by getting to know the country again would we figure out what our work should be and define the nature of the foundation. In exile, I had begun to romanticize Guatemala a lot, to idealize it as the promised land. In the process, I had lost sight of so many things. I wanted to reconnect with the land, to find out how the popular movement was doing, and in particular, to understand the situation of indigenous peoples and their struggle. I asked myself when the security conditions would be better for my return. My desire to go back was so great that I decided to do it regardless of the risks. In retrospect, I don't think it was a mistake. The conditions are not the same as before.
How have things changed?
You can no longer simply say no to elections, no to the government, and no to the system. An immense number of people are working to gain political power at the local level. For example, numerous civic committees participated in the December, 1995 elections. The Maya organizations had gained quite a bit of influence in many places as well. Anyone who scoffed at the electoral process was running up against budding democracy at the local level.
There is still immense insecurity and serious human rights violations. Many people are kidnapped and killed on a daily basis. Yet conditions have improved in the last 15 years. The civil-defense patrols in the countryside, for example, are not the same as those first implemented by Efrain Rios Montt during his dictatorship in the early 1980s. Then, they were bloody and ruthless killers who controlled the population. Today, the patrols still exist but the problems are more localized. Some people feel proud to have weapons in their hands, and act like caciques who repress and threaten people. These people are sheltered by the military institution. Because of that protection, they commit crimes without any scruples. But people are losing their fear of all this. Our message in the national campaign to promote citizen participation was: "Vote against fear." The civic committees which participated in the elections had overcome their fear of the civil military patrols, of the blackmail, of the military. There was also a certain rejection of war. The war has caused a lot of damage, it has divided communities, it has brought confrontation. It was a moment to say no to the war.
How did you perceive your role in the December, 1995 national elections?
I thought that my role as Nobel laureate should be to dedicate myself to civic education, teaching people about their rights as citizens. The foundation launched the National Campaign for Civic Participation, a multilingual voter-education program. We held 30 meetings and workshops in 30 important regions of the country. We broadcast information on 43 radio stations and two television stations. We went to communities to talk with people about the importance of voting.
Early on, there were rumors that the opposition--the popular movements, the human rights organizations, the non- governmental organizations--would participate in the elections. We decided not to align ourselves with any part of the opposition, whether traditional or non-traditional. We had absolutely no relationship with any of the 24 political parties that took part in the elections, or with the 19 presidential candidates. We really guarded our autonomy.
In the past, I have worked in concert with other opposition groups, the most militant companeros, but there comes a time when the population is so fragmented that it's wisest to play a unifying role. Nobody represents all the people. So Catholics would feel disappointed and say that I was sectarian if I supported the evangelicals, and vice versa. I had the opportunity to unite many more people and sectors than any presidential candidate or any political party. A Nobel laureate can't aspire to be a member of parliament, much less a cabinet minister. We have a much wider space than that to operate in.
Do you think that participation in electoral politics is a way to democratize the state in Guatemala?
I think so. What is the alternative in Guatemala? Is it the seizure of power by an armed insurgency through a revolution? I believe that option no longer exists. The democratization of the country is going to come from civic participation. For example, 50% of women in Guatemala in rural areas aren't even registered to vote. The day when these women participate, they are going to make changes, they will elect better authorities. In the national elections in 1990, 80% of the people abstained from voting. This high abstention rate reflects the lack of credibility and confidence in the system. People don't believe in the political parties and state institutions because so many promises have been left fulfilled and because there is a lot of corruption. But abstaining from voting is not the solution. For so many years, we've abstained from political involvement, but we haven't achieved anything that way. So now we are dedicated to making people aware of the importance of participation.
Maya organizations have traditionally organized at the local level. What are the obstacles to moving into the national arena?
The current government is profoundly non-indigenous. There are two sectors missing in this administration: women and indigenous people. The state is profoundly ladino, and lacks channels for indigenous participation. We all realize that the municipalities are the best places to gain a foothold in the political system. In Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second- largest city, the municipal council is made up of an equal number of men and women, of youth and old people, and the majority are indigenous people. These mayoralties face the challenge of reflecting a pluricultural, multilingual, multiethnic country, which is of course what the government in general should look like. In Guatemala, there is a significant number of professional women and men who are indigenous. These people will have an important role to play in future administrations. We don't think that it's necessary to make a separate ministry for indigenous peoples to incorporate them. Rather, they should be an integral part of the political system.
How do you explain the strong support that Alfonso Portillo-- ex-dictator Rios Montt's stand-in in the presidential race-- had in indigenous areas?
There are several elements. First of all, the evangelical churches directed their followers to vote for Portillo. Rios Montt's candidate was also supported by people involved in the civil-defense patrols and others who have benefited from the militarization of the country. Their electoral campaign was much more elaborate than any other party as well. They had volunteers who went house-to-house to talk to families. Rios Montt spent three or four months making the rounds in each town in each region. As a consequence, he became much better known than the other presidential candidates. I think that the financial resources of the Rios Montt campaign played a role as well. In many places, they bought votes. When faced with deciding between 10 quetzals and whether you believe that Rios Montt was the best candidate, the choice is straightforward for people with great needs. People are also tired of political discussions, of ideologies. They just want to feel secure. Rios Montt and his people manipulated the concept of internal security. They said that they were going to be tough on crime, that they were going to execute all the criminals. Unfortunately, there really weren't any alternatives. The choice was between a militaristic, fundamentalist regime and Alvaro Arzu, who is a wealthy aristocratic. But when it's said that Portillo garnered a lot of votes in the interior, it's important to remember that he didn't win even a majority of the vote. There are places where less than 10% of the people voted.
What do you think of the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG), the new left-of-center political force?
I believe the FDNG has an important role to play in the political opposition. It could have had a stronger showing had it begun campaigning earlier on rather than 15 days before the registration deadline. To be sincere, I have to say that if the FDNG hopes to be successful, it will have to take up indigenous rights and identity in a much deeper way. If they continue to deal with indigenous issues as they have up to now, they will become like any other political party in the country. First, the companeros don't really understand indigenous identity. With indigenous issues, you can't apply Western concepts of party militancy--in other words, that you are with me or against me. Recently the FDNG proposed creating an indigenous ministry in Guatemala. We all came out against it. Why? Because it would be returning to apartheid in Guatemala. The Ministry of Defense and all the other ministries would be in the hands of non-indigenous people, and there would be a tiny bureaucratic office for Maya peoples. That would be a mistake. That proposal shows that the FDNG has not really grasped the plurilingual and multiethnic nature of Guatemala. That's a pity because the Mayas would be their natural allies. But I think that since it was the first time they participated in electoral politics, they have a great opportunity to revise their party's approach to many issues.
I think that the prospects for the political opposition will be greater in the year 2000 than this year. It's possible that the FDNG will consolidate itself, develop a stronger base, pursue a policy of alliances, and have a wider vision of what is happening in the country. The seeds are there. These last elections, in fact, generated a vacuum where there was no national political leadership and everything was in crisis. The opposition didn't play the role it should have with respect to channeling the expectations of the people and opening up democratic spaces because they were afraid of this unfamiliar arena. I think that the same thing would have happened with the opposition in any other country. We have said "no, no, no," to the system for years. When we decide to incorporate ourselves within that system, obviously we won't be familiar with certain ways of maneuvering. I think it was good that the FDNG participated in the elections because nothing will change so long as you only look in from the outside and don't get involved. You learn by getting your feet wet.
Do you no longer consider yourself part of the left? It's that I don't know what is meant by "left." For me, for a long time now, those old labels have been problematic, not only in Guatemala but throughout the world. I greatly respect the work done by the popular organizations, the trade unions, etc., but I don't put a label on them. I understand what is meant by political opposition, but not of the left or the right. I consider myself part of the opposition, an opposition that has a role to play in proposing alternatives.
Do you think that the peace process can produce real social change in Guatemala?
The armed conflict has become a cover for all kinds of violent and criminal acts. Everyone justifies everything under the pretext that there is an armed conflict. The moment that the armed conflict officially ends, I think it will become much easier to fight this crime wave. There are people who have made their living from the war. We will all have to work together to identify those sectors, isolate them, and neutralize them. At the same time, I don't believe that a peace agreement will bring about paradise either.
What do you think of the indigenous accord signed by the government and the guerrillas? It is a minimal set of guidelines and standards, but very important nonetheless. What the accord lacks is how it will be translated into national law. It can be a very beautiful, very poetic document but it won't do any good unless it is part of the official laws of the country. A lot of work must be done to struggle for constitutional reforms so that the Guatemalan Constitution reflects these pluriethnic, pluricultural, multilingual principles.
What are the chief obstacles to signing and implementing a peace accord?
I think that a peace agreement will be signed in the near future. I have the impression that the peace process has entered into a stage of political negotiation. When you arrive at this stage, normally it smoothes the way for the signing of a peace accord. y We have to be careful, however, not to commit the same errors that occurred after a peace accord was signed between the government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, when 80 or more former guerrillas and their supporters were killed. We need guarantees that those involved in the conflict in Guatemala will not face reprisals once they lay down their weapons. Also, we will need programs to help reintegrate former guerrillas into civilian life. Such a program would also have to assist displaced people.
A more serious obstacle is how to control the armed forces as well as those who supposedly aren't army officers but, we know, have ties to the army. We also have to establish mechanisms to control the private security forces and the weapons and munitions companies often owned by retired generals. How can we control these sectors without provoking them to retaliate with more repression, kidnappings, and organized killings? On the day President Arzu was inaugurated, he cashiered nine army generals. Presidents such as Vinicio Cerezo and Ramiro de Leon Carpio, far from firing generals, would have decorated them with more honors. The dismissals were minimal demonstrations that it is possible to confront an army like the one in Guatemala.
Once the accord is signed, the greatest challenge that Guatemala will face is reconciliation. How are we Guatemalans going to reconcile our differences? How can we do so without it becoming the banner of a particular political party? How can we ensure that the process of reconciliation doesn't turn into a free-for-all that opens up old national wounds? History has been written, the social debt exists. How will we heal these wounds? It's not enough to tell my story, that they killed my mother, that they tortured my brother, that they burned my father to death, that they burned down my house. What law can they pass that will assure me that those things will never occur again? The theme of reconciliation is so profound, it goes beyond being rich or poor. We Guatemalans must have a vision that is more national, less sectoral, less sectarian. We need to begin to erase the boundaries that divide us.
Do you believe that an amnesty should be part of that process of reconciliation?
Absolutely not. For example, we are fighting hard right now in the case of the massacre in Xaman on October 5 of last year. In an earlier era, if such a massacre had occurred, all of us would have run away, or at the most, organized a large demonstration to protest, and nothing would have happened. Today, we decided to make a contribution--however small--to challenge the judicial system and embark on the path of justice. Soldiers indiscriminately kill civilians, and afterwards they are sheltered by their own institution because in the military tribunals, the judge who hears the case is a military officer, and the lawyers who contest it are part of the military. Military officers are not used to respecting the law, only giving orders.
Let me tell you the story. Since 1972, I have been involved in helping refugee communities in Mexico return to Guatemala. Over two years ago, we began to prepare the return from Mexico of the exile community from Xaman in the department of Alta Verapaz. For a year, we looked for land and credit for that community. The people patiently waited for us. In Xaman, there were 50 families who were involved in the civil-defense patrols, and 200 families who were returning from exile. The question was how to integrate these two groups. We helped establish a process of dialogue between them to show how they could live with each other. It became a great model of reconciliation in that zone.
The returning refugees arrived on October 8, 1994. We began to rebuild the area. We are helping to provide basic and secondary education. We already have the primary schools. We never thought that there would be a massacre. It was terrible. More than 50 people were wounded. They were shot in cold blood. Eleven people were killed, and three children were shot in the back. Many of those killed received coups de grâce, that is to say, they continued to be fired upon after they were already dead. Army grenades were used. Unfortunately, the official autopsy was a cover-up. We have had to pursue an alternative investigation to uncover the truth. We are preparing a strong case. We believe that we have all the evidence we need. It's the first time that common citizens have become involved in a lawsuit against the army.
Was it a problem of the local military troops or do you believe that the order for the massacre came from higher up?
Yes, I believe that it was a political massacre. It was intended to send a strong message against the return of refugees, against the peace process, and against the elections. Without a doubt, there are sectors of the military who don't agree with these activities. We are the only foundation that works in this zone. Therefore, it was also a very direct message to me and the foundation.
In the investigation, however, the military has refused to admit this. Until now, in the military court, all the military officers that we have called to testify have declared absolutely nothing. They claim that the 26 soldiers acted in self-defense, but it is clear that they intend to let them take the rap. All their testimonies have been clearly aimed at absolving the military of any institutional involvement in the massacre. We am fighting so that this case is heard in a civilian court, not a military court. The appeals court ruled that the military tribunals don't have the authority to deal with the case of Xaman. There were threats against the judges, against the lawyers, against the prosecutors in the Attorney General's office. But a few days ago, the court of appeals again ruled in our favor.
What are we ultimately confronting? We are talking about the role of the military in society. I believe that we wouldn't be alive to tell this story if we had challenged a massacre in this way a few years ago. But the time is propitious to do so now, to work in this way.
What is the role of human rights groups in the struggle against impunity?
There has to be a serious investigation into those responsible for human rights abuses. We have to begin to name names, to identify who is responsible for the repression. The public ministry has to investigate those incidents. When a person is being investigated, his hands become tied, and it's harder to act with impunity.
Independently of what is decided at the negotiating table between the URNG and the government--even if they decide to give amnesty to all the assassins in Guatemala--we will not accept an amnesty, not for those killed at Xaman, not for Jorge Carpio, not for Myrna Mack, nor for any of the other cases that are before the courts. Our fight against military impunity is yesterday, today and tomorrow. The struggle against impunity must continue whether or not there is an armed conflict.
Human rights groups will have to do this work. The elections caused a setback in human rights work because everyone got involved in the elections. All the routine human rights work was put to the side. Now the human rights NGOs have to reconstruct their image, their role in the struggle against impunity, and their credibility. This is a very big crisis that we will have to confront. You are either a politician or a defender of human rights. You can't be both.
What do you think of the Guatemalan UN mission (MINUGUA), which is responsible for verifying the fulfillment of the global human rights accord signed by the government and the guerrillas in early 1994?
The UN has an important role to play in Guatemala. The fact that the UN is present in different parts of the country has reduced the repression of the civil patrols and the army. People have more opportunities to denounce human rights violations with the certainty that their confidentiality will be respected. The UN's presence assures people who present complaints that they won't be harmed. Without the UN here, I don't know if it would have been possible to carry out the kind of activities we have in the recent elections. That said, I would like to see the UN do more. I recognize that the UN has a specific mandate that limits its options. But I would like to see the UN not only receive complaints and publish them in exhaustive reports, but also get involved in finding a solution, in punishing those responsible, in bringing justice to Guatemala.