Rigoberta Menchú: A Witness Discredited?

Cindy Forster

THIS JANUARY, THE charge that the Maya human rights activist and Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú had lied about her past hit the U.S. reading public like a ton of bricks.  Anthropologist David Stoll published a book claiming to have unearthed not only Rigoberta’s lies, but also the deceptions of the entire Latin American left from Zapata to Che and beyond.  The book, Rigoberta and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, paints guerrillas as parasites and Rigoberta Menchú, who won the peace prize in 1992 for her defense of Indigenous rights, as their pawn. It’s based on interviews in Guatemala’s scorched earth zones that contradict some of the details of Menchú’s famous testimony, I. . . Rigoberta Menchú.

Stoll’s book unleashed the heavy artillery of the culture wars in book reviews and op-eds across the United States.  Post-modernists declared that the issue of substance was ideological; others criticized the ways that David Stoll twists evidence; activists pointed out that the media’s feeding frenzy marks quite a contrast to its pattern of disinterest in Guatemala’s human rights record during the 1980s, in the Peace Accords or in the Truth Commission’s recent report.

Meanwhile the right pilloried Rigoberta, who has come to symbolize the struggles of the Mayan people under a dictatorship that committed the worst genocide of the century in Latin America.  Ever since she emerged as a leading voice for Indigenous rights, the Guatemalan military and right wing have worked hard to discredit her and now they finally had their “proof.”

Rigoberta, in the old slur, was a lying Indian.  And in David Stoll’s opinion, professors who had helped make her famous by assigning her personal testimony were stooges of Marxist revolutionaries.  More broadly, Stoll questioned the genre of testimony which has served as a critical tool for teachers who attempt to defy eurocentric and imperialist models.  Rigoberta’s life and story were held up as examples of left-wing conspiracy.  Even her well-wishers in the liberal establishment recoiled at Rigoberta’s alleged betrayal.

Many academics who should have seen through David Stoll’s smoke and mirrors instead accepted his reading of the evidence.  Guatemala scholars, who have spent decades chronicling the U.S. connections and right-wing responsibility for the bloodbath, were relegated to the margins by the mainstream press.  The Guatemala Scholars Network launched an ad campaign so it might make its voice heard.

Stoll identifies the following main “lies” and suggests they are not merely lapses of memory or imagination, but in fact conscious distortions.  First, he disputes the circumstances of the deaths of Menchú’s brother and mother.  Second, he discusses whether Menchu was educated and spoke Spanish or whether she worked as a maid and spoke no Spanish.  Third, he suggests that her father and other organizers might have started the fire which led to their deaths in the Spanish Embassy massacre.  And fourth, Stoll believes Rigoberta distorted the land conflict in her family’s village to match the mythology of guerrilla struggle.

To begin with the first claim, Rigoberta has insisted that her 1982 testimony, edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and published in 1983, represents a composite of stories.  David Stoll doesn’t buy it. But he saves the discussion of authorship of the testimony for the end of his book, because he would have no book if he couldn’t conflate Rigoberta with I . . .  Rigoberta Menchú.  Even in the testimony, there are repeated references to “keeping secret what I think no-one should know” (247) and honoring the memory of the dead killed by the Spaniards by protecting the “secrets” of the community (9, 13).

In the testimony, Rigoberta says that her brother was burned alive, whereas Stoll found that her brother was executed and possibly burned after he had been killed.  The book says her mother, Juana Tum, was tortured and killed very slowly on a hilltop, whereas Stoll believes she was probably killed in a pit in an army camp that was not located on a hilltop.  The discrepancies seem unremarkable given the inherent difficulties of narrative, as compared to the precision one would expect of an international court of law.

Testimony is subject to the same fragility of recollection, the same conscious or unconscious choice of “fact,” that governs conventional sources such as autobiography, state of the union addresses, war memoirs or congressional debates.  However, scholars on the right are indifferent to questions of interpretation in the written sources.  Stoll’s attention to “facts” is a smokescreen to hide the real issue: Testimonies and oral histories have brought a range of powerful voices to the classroom and dealt a tremendous blow to efforts to exclude, or at least discredit, the perspectives of the exploited.

The second issue, education and monolingualism, is disavowed by Rigoberta as somebody else’s story in the book’s composite portrait.  Stoll points out that she possessed seven years of schooling and passable Spanish, which in his view changed her class status dramatically, and which leads him to some debatable conclusions.  Rigoberta says that she worked as a maid in the Catholic school where she also took lessons, but disguised this experience in order to protect the nuns who ran the school from military reprisals for mere association with the daughter of an activist.

As for the fire that burned people alive in the Spanish Embassy (no one refutes this event since it was captured on film), Stoll suggests that the protesters who occupied the embassy possessed Molotov cocktails and may have accidentally or even intentionally started the fire in their zeal for martyrdom.  His speculation takes the spotlight off the actions of the police, who were violating diplomatic immunity and treating civilians like belligerents.  In fact, his speculation is the same story as the one spread by President Lucia Garcia’s press office.

Journalist Elias Barahona was chief press officer at the Ministry of the Interior and covered events from his office that day. He leaked the story months later because he was in fact a guerrilla who had infiltrated the security apparatus.  Barahona said that “police broke into the embassy throwing grenades,” then President Lucas Garcia himself gave the order to “Set them on fire” (Jonathan Fried et al, Guatemala in Rebellion, 205).  After the massacre only the United States, Israel and military regimes such as Baby Doc’s Haiti persisted in supporting the Guatemalan military.  Spain cut diplomatic ties and Guatemala became an international pariah.

On the fourth point, Stoll challenges the picture of land conflict between Ladinos and Indians in I. . .  Rigoberta Menchú. He simply denies the primacy of this model.  He says that the dominant pattern in Guatemala is one of endemic conflict between poor Mayan villagers.

Yet his own evidence suggests otherwise.  In the first place, he doesn’t ask why there are only crumbs to fight over, since that would lead him where he refuses to go: one of the most racist and unequal ratios of land distribution in the hemisphere.  As important, the valley of Chimel where the Menchú family fought for land was in Ladino hands by the end of the war (251-252).  Further, he remarks that Ladino villages were spared the massacres that racked their Indigenous neighbors.

At one point Stoll treats national institutions as neutral while at others he suggests those same institutions are Ladino (for example, 39).  By the end of his book Stoll seems to have forgotten his earlier thesis altogether when he states of Menchú that “In Guatemalan intellectual life, she is a Mayan voice attempting to transcend the ladino-indigena dichotomy at the root of all struggles over national identity” (283).

In an interview published in NACLA’s Report on the Americas (March/April 1999) Rigoberta pointed out that when I. . .  Rigoberta Menchú first appeared, hers was a solitary Indigenous voice telling about what was happening in the Guatemalan highlands.  Today, she notes, there are thousands of voices whose testimony has been gathered by the Interdiocesan Recovery of Historical Memory Project and the UN Commission on Historical Clarification.  Yes, there were omissions in the book-for example, “If I had said my sister Anita was with my mother when they burned my brother Patrocinio, I would have been exposing her to death.”

Are Peasants “Mute”?

Stoll’s method explains why his analyses share so much in common with those of the Guatemalan government and military.  He sees peasants and Indigenous people as “mute” or disengaged.  So in his view organizers bear the burden of guilt for unleashing the violence and the guerrillas sacrificed tens of thousands of Maya in a futile war. Worse still, “by claiming to represent a civilian population that is typically mute, terrified, and divided, insurgents muddy the distinction between themselves and noncombatants [and] .  .  .  sooner or later, civilians are likely to perceive that their supposed defenders are using them as cannon fodder” (154).

The Guatemalan military has been charged with causing ninety-three percent of the human rights violations among some 200,000 political murders.  Yet Stoll, with the permission of local military commanders, collected interviews in the heart of the conflict zones in El Quiché.  By contrast, Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack believed Mayan peasants are historical actors capable of changing the nation’s trajectory.  She chose to research the return and integration of the population that had been driven out by the counterinsurgency campaigns of the early `80s, basically looking at the same area that Menchú is from and that Stoll studied.  Mack was murdered in 1990, stabbed seventeen times as she left her office in downtown Guatemala City.

Stoll criticizes faulty evidence but he doesn’t seem to practice the rudiments of scholarship.  He changes the argument at will. His footnoting is haphazard.  He surveyed combatants and conducted studies of particular cases but we learn nothing of his methodology.  Often, we do not know the socioeconomic status of the speaker (see e.g. 196, 102, 116).  He presents conflicting stories with no resolution (150-51), apparently as a strategy to argue that truth is unknowable and action ill-advised.

My own understanding of international relations and the nature of grassroots resistance in Guatemala led me to a history doctorate and very different evidence.  I can see how Stoll might find a terrified populace.  Beginning in 1982 I visited Guatemala yearly as an activist and freelance journalist, then, beginning in 1989, as a historian and U.S. trade unionist working “to add my grain of sand” to building ties between U.S. and Guatemalan labor.

Stoll believes the army had won on the battlefield and in the political arena by 1982 (6, 204).  For him the country was a wasteland.  For me, his omissions are instructive: after 1983 a new guerrilla front formed and a stream of young people joined the armed struggle up to the time the peace accords were signed in 1996.  Starting in 1984 the union movement rebuilt itself and reemerged with ties to the guerrillas, based on shared political principles (Stoll notes this in an aside).

By the late 1980s, tens of thousands of people filled the streets for May Day protests and campesino marches from the countryside in alliance with what Stoll calls guerrilla front organizations.  Of one such organization, the Committee of Campesino Unity or the CUC, Stoll says that “the EGP [the Guerrilla Army of the Poor] invented [the CUC] as a way to lure peasants into confronting the state” (xiii).  Based on my own evidence-gathering, I would read the CUC as a vehicle to “lure” peasants into raising the minimum wage.

By the mid-’80s, strikes of tens of thousands of workers spread up and down the plantation belt under CUC leadership.  The plantations were surveilled by helicopters and the fields surrounded by riot police, attack dogs, and the landowners’ paramilitaries, but the workers struck simultaneously, communicated in secret among themselves, and voted on negotiated agreements, acting in unison up and down the sugar cane axis when they lifted their strikes.

I stood amazed in the face of grassroots organizing of epic proportions.  It always entailed a cost in lives.  The bosses relied on death squads and Israeli-designed intelligence, yet such mechanisms could not defeat the networks of Indigenous farmworkers who drove up the minimum wage for the entire country, under the leadership of “front groups” that did a better job of acting like unions than most U.S. unions.  As one of their leaders told me at the time, “The CUC survived because there were always people committed not to saving their own lives but the life of the organization.”

Stoll’s logic rests on a vast divide between leaders and led, which I would argue crumbles on closer inspection.  The Maya have survived five centuries of assault and remained the majority unlike other countries in Central America where Indigenous majorities have lost their identity.  Collective values lie at the heart of their resistance, no matter how imperfectly those values are realized in the life of quarreling neighbors.  Loyalty to the collective kindled the faith that possesses people such as Rigoberta Menchu or her father, Vicente.

Indigenous participation was the backbone of the guerrilla insurgency and remains the lifeblood of the popular movement.  In the international sphere, demands for stability in Central America forced the military to shift to a formal democracy, trusting that they could thus hold onto power.  At home, loyalty to a dream of justice, which is multiplied many times over in the masses Stoll calls “mute,” inspired unrelenting grassroots pressure that robbed the dictatorship of legitimacy.  Nothing else did-not the rich, allied with the generals; not Washington, which was arranging funding for the generals through Israel and Taiwan; and not the evangelicals allied to the generals in their conversion of the survivors of scorched earth.  [See note, below]

In my reading of the evidence it was thousands of grassroots activists who risked their lives to move forward the machinery of a just peace, rather than the dissident guerrillas in exile after 1983, or the Christian Democrats with their hands in the till after 1985, or the first Protestant president Jorge Serrano, who fled to Panama in 1993 with every cent he could extract from the National Treasury.  As Stoll notes, even the guerrillas watered down their demands in the 1990s, while the organized campesinos, shantytown dwellers and trade unionists pressed for peace with integrity, peace with memory.

At the tail end of his book Stoll concedes that the guerrillas “conceivably initiated the gradual dislodgment of the army from its dominant position” (278).  Earlier he also acknowledges, in passing, that those he interviewed may have had “some reason to discredit Rigoberta or her father [who fought for campesino land rights].  Or perhaps they did not like being questioned and misled me (63).”

Military Violence-A Backlash?

The most obvious villain in Guatemala is the military, and Stoll explains its stunning violence as a backlash against leftist provocation.  I would argue that we are in the presence of a more complex sociopathy.  Ex-soldiers have shed light on the details:

“They killed the dogs with sticks and said, `This is how we’re going to kill the guerrillas.’ They cut off their heads and gave us the blood and said, `This is how you’ll drink the blood of the guerrillas.

“Soldiers who showed their fear of eating dog-flesh were forced to eat uncooked human flesh, and drink human blood.  They would make us watch as they cut out the flesh from people held there in the torture center on the army base.

“In the torture center when they killed someone, they bled them into a container beneath the body and that way saved all the blood.  We never knew who these people were. From the look of their clothes and their faces they seemed to be poor Ladinos.  Only Ladinos live there in Zacapa.  All of the soldiers on the base went there to see them.” [Drawn from my interviews, published in part in Report on Guatemala, vol. 13, issue 2 (Summer 1992), 6-7, 14.]

Among some ten soldiers I interviewed from different regions, the details remained the same. Depending on the year, foot soldiers were taken one-by-one to the torture cells and forced to practice burning and cutting civilians imprisoned there.  “Gringo” advisors were present according to the soldiers and knew how the foot soldiers were being trained.

Such behavior can hardly be explained as the product of leftist provocation.  It started long before the escalation described by Stoll in El Quiché.  In fact, the state he describes as relatively benign in the 1960s was a dictatorship.

To illustrate, one Indigenous man who had been an active trade unionist from the 1950s and remained so through the 1990s was kidnapped for eight days in 1968.

“It was my turn to die, I was sure I was going to die,” he said. “They took me with blows, forced me into a car then bound my hands with plastic ties. When we got to the clandestine jail the torture started, the kicks and blows.  ‘What do you do, you communist?’ they shouted.  ‘With this razor we’re going to take out your eyes and your tongue,’ they told me. And God gave me so much strength that I withstood the blows and said, ‘I have nothing to hide. Kill me now, just do it.’

“Eventually they let me go. I pretended I was a drunk who’d been in a fight and beaten badly.  I hitched a ride then walked all the way to the plantation and people when they saw me acted like I was a ghost.” (1990 and 1996 interviews by author)

Long before any violence unleashed by the guerrillas, the government sided with the landowners against the majority of its citizens and tortured those who agitated for a living wage. Stoll’s picture of national politics conceals as much as it reveals.  Because he condemns left politics as destructive and fails to see the politics of the status quo, Stoll distorts this history in order to write about “the misinformation in which revolutionary movements envelop themselves” (195).

The Jesuits for instance come under attack because they were “insistent about raising political issues” (97).  By this he refers to their post-Vatican II decision to talk about poverty in grassroots Bible study groups formed among Indigenous parishioners in the 1970s.  Stoll does not concede that the failure to raise such issues constitutes its own politics, since in his vocabulary “politics” are always tainted, and always a politics of the left. Thousands of rural Christians viewing contradictions such as these moved into the Christian Democratic party, then out of it toward more radical solutions.

Alongside Marxist guerrillas and radical Catholics, a third group completes Stoll’s cast of villains: international fellow travellers responsible for prolonging Guatemala’s civil war. Stoll describes his colleagues on the left as “Recoiling from the contribution of Western thought to colonialism, [and] worried about our right to “represent” or depict the victims of this process” (12).

International forces enter Stoll’s logic to preserve the thesis of innocents caught between two armies.  It’s a thesis that prefers order at any cost over civil war, even if order entails bloodshed by the right.  In February, U.S. Ambassador Donald Planty intoned the same theme to distance Washington from its responsibility in the Guatemalan conflict on the occasion of the release of the government-sponsored human rights report (ironically, President Clinton himself apologized for U.S. involvement weeks later).

By contrast to the solidarity movement, the Reaganite right enters Stoll’s book in vague references, as do the presence of U.S. weapons, advisors, and corporate ties. Even today Washington refuses to release documents that would shed light on the torture and murder of its own citizens by the Guatemalan government.  Among many survivors is a New Mexico nun named Diana Ortiz, who was raped, thrown into a rat-infested pit with dead and dying bodies, and scarred by over 100 cigarette burns.  She is so persuaded of U.S. Embassy complicity in her own torture that she regularly testifies to the U.S. Congress.  None of this appears in Stoll’s book on “the international left.” Stoll dissembles carefully.

David’s Funhouse Mirrors

So how does David Stoll understand injustice?  His stance on the rise of Indigenous voices has drawn attention since his version of race in Guatemala is oddly disembodied, with little evidence of the race hatred that poisons the society.  Rather than race, in his telling, class divides and land disputes among peasants are the society’s main faultlines.  Apparently for Stoll there are no connections between class and race. And he denies the politics of race by insisting that above all, intra-ethnic conflict reigns.  So his analysis cannot explain why most of the dead are Indigenous-eighty-three percent according to the government truth commission report.

While Stoll claims to have discovered class in Mayan communities, his tools are quite blunt.  He looks at Mayans in municipal governments and calls them a “bourgeoisie” (17), and then in apparent contradiction argues that nurses and teachers do not belong to the “wealthy upper class” of campesino villages (20).

Teachers in rural Guatemala belong to local elites, which does not mean as Stoll implies that they are “wealthy,” but rather that they are bearers of national culture and elite status in places where most people cannot read, speak Spanish, or forget that their grandparents carried an earlier generation of teachers on their backs among other unpaid labor obligations.  Later, when it suits his argument, Stoll casts aside the theory that teachers are just regular folks and insists that Rigoberta’s seventh grade education (164) erected an impassable divide between herself and her unschooled peers.

So who are the “bourgeoisie”?  What proportion of land do they hold?  Who are the poor?  Who are the rich peasants?  The poor Ladinos?  What is the class status of the “Pan-Mayanists” who organize a counterweight to the “popular movement” left?  Or the labor contractors like “Ignacio,” who give their neighbors cash advances to keep them indebted to the plantations, represent the army in local politics, and impress Stoll as a more accurate reflection of village sentiment than campesino activists (237)?  You won’t find answers in Stoll’s book.

Class is a dangerous substance for a scholar who is unimpressed by the violence of poverty and who believes that “a polarized view of Guatemala enables us to magnify the evils of colonialism and the status quo” (238).  Where does the “polarized view” end and the reality begin in a country that is among the poorest in the hemisphere, where infant mortality for a “well-to-do peasant” like Vicente Menchu takes the lives of four of his thirteen children (26)?

Stoll’s book could profit from the work of many others, such as Guatemalan anthropologist Ricardo Falla, who documented the stories of those who managed to flee the army massacres, Jim Handy’s Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-1954, or Linda Green’s extensive work on widows, gender and terror in the highlands, including The Realities of Survival: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala.

For Stoll at least, “class” stops at a town’s boundaries.  His lengthy book presents a fishbowl view of a local community.  In the debate Stoll ignores his own discipline’s contributions, which urge that “the community study” be imbedded in national and international economic matrices.

Telescoping History

Stoll’s half-truths are ambitious.  A process of agro-export expansion that spanned eighty years-it started in the mid-1800s, then accelerated with a vengeance in the 1870s, and lasted through the Great Depression of 1929-is described by Stoll as “the liberal land rush around the turn of the century” (53).  For the period that follows, he says that “The worst abuses became less common under the labor reforms of the 1930s and 1940s” (21), which collapses one of the hemisphere’s more perverse dictatorships (under Jorge Ubico from 1930-1944) and a decade of grassroots mobilization (the October Revolution of 1944 to 1954).  The latter period gave birth to rural labor struggle, agrarian reform, and a complete rooting out of the dictatorship’s apparatus of coercion.  Today, even Washington recognizes the October Revolution as a pivotal opening towards democracy.

In other words, Stoll implies that the Ubico dictatorship should be seen in the same light as the pro-democracy movement which toppled Ubico.  At the time, the revolutionaries called Ubico a “fascist” because the dictator ordered labor organizers shot or tortured.  Stoll whitewashes the tremendous violence of the 1930s, which ironically is what he accuses the left of doing in their reading of the 1980s.  Not until some twenty pages later in a very different context does he offer a chronology that clarifies the transition from dictatorship to democracy (45).

Charitably, Stoll could be called ill-informed.  More likely, he interprets the dictator’s Vagrancy Law as a boon for rural workers, since it replaced their debts to the plantation owners with forced labor under government mandate.  Scholars on the right often interpret forced labor under Ubico as government protection of Indigenous communities from rapacious plantation owners.

Stoll telescopes and simplifies historical depth, and so manages to dilute the reader’s understanding of the racial divides that were sharpened by debt peonage and forced labor on the plantations.  In my historical research I found that the poor in many regions remember the Ubico period as “the time of slavery,” while those who share the values of the middle class remember it as a golden age of “law and order.”

Equally disturbing, in Stoll’s initial historical overview he skips the 1952 Agrarian Reform legislated by President Jacobo Arbenz (24).  This seems a strange oversight in a book about land conflicts.  Stoll’s lapse makes it easier to claim that gradual reform in the 1960s would have achieved the aims of equality, were it not for the escalation caused by armed struggle.

Stoll’s own evidence from El Quiché underscores the absence of reform after the CIA-led invasion of 1954 that drove out President Arbenz.  Thus, the Indigenous Ixiles of the town of Cotzal won land through agrarian reform in the early 1950s only to lose it in the aftermath of the CIA coup, then spend years in conflict with the Brols, the Ladino landowners.  The Brols paid less than the subhuman wage of the coastal plantations, and when workers launched an organizing drive in the 1970s the Brols drove out “hundreds of workers” (53).  In Rigoberta’s village, plantation workers arrived from another province fleeing the same pattern of injustices (34).

Stoll’s argument rests on breathtaking misreadings of the historical record that generate silly questions, such as why the Guatemalan army was “reduced” to “fanatical anticommunism” (279) in the 1960s.  His reader is never informed of the U.S. training on Guatemalan soil for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which inspired many nationalist junior officers to desert and form the first wave of guerrillas.  Neither does Stoll mention U.S. military training which rendered Guatemala a “laboratory test case” for counterinsurgency in the hemisphere to battle the ideas of Che and Fidel (see the work of Susanne Jonas).  Up to and including the recent past, he rewrites history by simply ignoring the crimes of the right.  For example, in Stoll’s description of the “credible” election results of 1995, he does not mention that during the campaign two of the left candidates were murdered (269).

Mute and Terrified, Bold and Eloquent

The challenge in the debate over Stoll is to open up the discussion to other histories, other evidence.  From 1982 to the present I’ve met and interviewed campesinos who were not only “mute, terrified, and divided” but also bold, eloquent and outspoken, aware of the imperative to build alliances among themselves and to exclude neighbors or relatives allied to the army.

Deborah Guzman, who had nothing to do with guerrillas or front groups, became an organizer in the garment factory where she sewed, then was kidnapped in 1995 by the bosses’ goons with military connivance.  Several months pregnant at the time, she was forced by her captors to telephone her husband and insist he stop organizing as a condition for saving her life. Instead she said, “Listen closely, come what may, never stop the struggle we are in” and at that point they hit her and slammed down the phone (international pressure won her release).

I’ve met families with terrified individuals and courageous individuals, and terrified individuals who turned wildly defiant in their defense of a child, a brother or a sister.  Young women who cower in fear whenever the police invade the shantytown, because they’ve seen the military kill their relatives, live together with young women who grab machetes, break Coke bottles into jagged weapons, tear up paving stones for barricades.

Among those who were most devastated by torture and displacement are people who view the guerrillas as sisters and brothers-as warriors, really, for the poor-quite outside Stoll’s picture of peasant neutrality.  Campesinos in the province of San Marcos told me they are much worse off now that the peace treaty has been signed because, at least, previously the guerrillas forced plantation administrators to pay the minimum wage and threatened or even killed abusive supervisors.

Resisting Austerity

Stoll fails to mention that Guatemala has suffered a full-blown assault on the nation’s slender social wage, launched by the international lending agencies in the early 1980s.  Structural adjustment doubled and tripled the price of beans and corn, and gutted health care, education and public services.

Labor unions and federations organized thousands of working people to resist austerity measures even as their members were disappeared and their offices ransacked.  In the words of Byron Morales, a trade union leader whose federation emerged from the era of scorched earth, “We have no choice: we have to organize because if the bullets don’t kill us, our hunger will.”

From the mid-80s forward, thousands of people staged land occupations or temporary takeovers that arose from their desperation.  These followed a similar pattern.  At Plantation La Exacta in 1994, four plantation administrators and 600 anti-riot police cordoned off 350 workers, who had taken over the plantation administration buildings to demand that their employer pay the minimum wage. The minimum stood at 11.20 quetzales a day but they were only receiving six.

“It wasn’t an eviction, no, it was a slaughter ground,” in the words of one campesino worker.  “They fired into the crowd then left the wounded in the sun for three hours at midday.” An older man said, “They dragged me, kicked me in the chest and face. `Why are you mixed up in this?’ they yelled.  ‘Because I’m hungry, I want a tamal,’ I said, and they kept beating me. Since then I can’t work; I can hardly even walk.”

That day three died. Another was taken alive in a helicopter and his body found, thrown in a ravine.

I visited two years later and another eleven people had died, not from bullets but from malnutrition.  One of the widows kept pushing her little girl toward me to show me the child’s blood-clotted ear. She said, “That day they left us three hours in the sun and when they finally let me leave, I came home to find my husband in a coffin.  My father took one bullet in the mouth, and another in the arm; it left him disabled.  My children are suffering.  All we want is justice, that’s all we ask, but the bosses buy the judges.  The murderers sit down to eat their dinner every night while the dead have turned to bones in their graves.” (Summer 1996 interview by author)

Smashing Icons

In Stoll’s view Rigoberta Menchú, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela are dangerously poised as symbols or icons “that resolve […] painful contradictions between privilege and its opposite” (245).  He maintains that the middle class creates the mythified leaders to salve its conscience.  At the same time, organizers are driven by a false romanticism that separates them from the working-class and Indigenous majority.

Like a good liberal, Stoll sets himself above theory, outside the fray. Like a good ideologue, he disguises his motives.  In the end David Stoll erects his own icon, the objective scholar.  Perhaps the saddest truth about the firestorm created by Stoll’s new book is what it reveals of the ever-dismal state of U.S. intellectual debate.  Where else could a scholar stitch together such half-truths and still be taken seriously when he says, “Rigoberta’s approach is easy to criticize, but a detached account on the order of this one could never be expected” (200).


During the worst years of violence, right-wing evangelical sects in Guatemala (some with close ties to U.S. Christian fundamentalists) moved intothe conflict zones under the protection of the military and with significant U.S. funding. , Because the military equated Catholicism with guerilla sympathies, more and more Indigenous villages were converted to Protestantism until within a few short years, nearly a quarter of the population had formally renounced the Catholic faith.  Stoll is himself closely tied to the Protestants who led this crusade, and has written a book titled Is Latin America Turning Protestant?

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Cindy Forster reaches at Scripps College in Claremont, in the county of Los Angeles.

ATC 80, May-June 1999