Trouble For Rigoberta

Tucked into the fog-draped mountains of central Guatemala, the town of Uspantan, population 3,413, has three cheap motels, a football field, a towering church and a Ferris wheel. It is the sort of place that one might think would honor its heroes. But there is no sign of its most famous daughter, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, whose 1992 Nobel Peace Prize made her the world's best-known Guatemalan. There is no plaque, no statue, no street bearing her name. "People in town don't like her," says Nicolas Menchu, her only surviving brother, who lives on a small farm a few miles from the central square. Then he adds, "And they don't like me, either."

Not that Rigoberta Menchu lacks admirers. A round-faced Mayan woman whose chilling delivery of the tale of her life brings audiences to tears, she is a hero of the international human-rights movement. Between 1979 and 1983, the Guatemalan Army killed her parents and two brothers. Menchu fled to Mexico to save her life and tell the world about the bleeding of her country. Her autobiography, "I, Rigoberta Menchu," the story of poverty, exploitation and violence she dictated to an anthropologist in Paris, became an international best seller. The Nobel was meant not only to honor Menchu but also to push the right-wing government and the leftist guerrillas toward a peace accord, which they signed in 1996, ending a 35-year civil war. Upon receiving the prize, she declared: "Let there be freedom for the Indians, wherever they may be, in the American continent or elsewhere in the world, because while they are alive, a glow of hope will be alive." Today, at the age of 40, she is a standard fixture at human-rights events around the world.

Yet Menchu is in trouble at home. A recent book by an American anthropologist argues that parts of her autobiography were invented. And the $2.5 million-a-year foundation she set up with her Nobel Prize money is embroiled in an embarrassing fight over its finances. But Menchu's most serious challenge is more fundamental. As a Mayan woman who once espoused the political values of the guerrillas, she sits at the junction of Guatemala's most contentious debates about its bloody history. In war, Menchu earned her respect abroad. In peace, she is struggling to establish legitimacy in a fractured country still largely controlled by rich landowners, a powerful Army and an overriding fear of violence. Her proclamations carry far less weight at home than they do in the halls of the United Nations. As such, she spends less than a third of her time in Guatemala and the rest globe-trotting to international conferences. But this has led to another problem: a sense of betrayal among fellow Mayans, who, despite making up more than half the population of Guatemala, have lived for centuries as second-class citizens. The feeling is bolstered by the fact that just one out of the six people on her foundation's board of directors is Mayan.

"Senora Rigoberta Menchu, where were you?" asked a letter to the editor last month in the daily Prensa Libre. The occasion was Guatemala's most important vote in recent history, a nationwide referendum that would have put into law many of the proposals of the 1996 peace agreement. Voters were asked to change the Constitution to limit the power of the Army and, more controversially, to declare Guatemala "multiethnic" and officially recognize indigenous religions, customary laws and languages. Though backed by every major political party, the reforms were solidly defeated. Fewer than 20 percent of voters turned out at the polls. And where was Menchu? She had campaigned in favor of the changes, but she never cast a ballot. Instead, she was in the middle of an 11-day trip to international conferences in The Hague, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro.

Even to some of her staunchest allies, it was the equivalent of Nelson Mandela's skipping a vote on the rights of blacks. "We have come to recognize that we should not expect too much from Rigoberta because she is not ours alone. She is of the world. And she can be more useful to us there," says Alvaro Pop, a Mayan political scientist. But he laments, "I am deeply sorry she prioritized her international duties." Others are less diplomatic. "It's on her conscience," says 19-year-old Magdalena Sarat Pacheco, a Mayan activist from Uspantan. "She's been going around talking about it. What is the point if she doesn't vote?"

Menchu doesn't take criticism well. Her guardedness about her political views and her private life makes it difficult to see the woman behind the symbol. In an interview with NEWSWEEK nine days before the referendum, Menchu said that her work is "universal" and that at every international conference, "I have always been there as a Guatemalan, as a part of this country and of these people." As for rifts among Mayans, she said a "deal with my Indian brothers" prevented her from discussing them. Seated at her dining table, surrounded by honorary university degrees and a photo of her with the pope, Menchu proudly described her busy travel schedule. She said that the referendum was vitally important to the country's future: "It improves the rights granted to the indigenous pueblos." But when asked about the fact that she would be away on the date of the vote, she announced that she had run out of time and ended the interview.

Her time at home is in short supply. To dedicate herself to her work, she once renounced marriage and motherhood. She reneged on that pledge in 1995, the year after she returned to Guatemala from exile. Her husband, Angel Canil, who is 10 years younger and heads the team of five or six bodyguards she uses inside Guatemala, occasionally travels with her, sometimes with their 4-year-old adopted son, Mash Nawalj'a. On the road, Menchu never stops telling the story of Guatemala's suffering. But she has also denounced discrimination against sex workers in Europe and has spoken out against the war in Kosovo. "I do not believe in solving problems with weapons," she says. "I call for negotiation." She is currently a leader of the U.N. campaign "2000 International Year of Peace Culture," which is a series of meetings with such names as "International Forum for a Culture of Peace and Dialogue Among Civilizations in the Third Millennium."

But even some foreign causes are off limits. For example, Menchu has never taken a strong position on the Indian rebellion that broke out in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1994. Critics say she is too indebted to the Mexican government, which backed her campaign for the Nobel. Menchu, who was rejected as a mediator in the conflict by the Zapatista rebels, deflects questions by saying the issue is complicated and that negotiation is needed.

Nicolas Menchu has never read his sister's autobiography. In fact, he thought she was dead until 1988, when she returned to Guatemala after eight years in exile. He was listening to the radio news when he realized that the human-rights activist who had been briefly detained by police was his sister. They didn't see each other until three years later, after she had won the Nobel.

The $1.2 million prize seems to have stirred some bad blood in the family. Nicolas, a lay preacher and farmer, complains that he hasn't seen any of that money, and that while his sister travels the world, he is stuck hoeing his land. Two of his sons work as her bodyguards in Guatemala City. Rigoberta visits about once a year, once flying in by helicopter. "My sister won the Nobel Prize and got a lot of money," says her brother. "She hasn't given anything here. People say to me, 'Aren't you ashamed of yourself? You don't have shoes. You don't have a nice house. You have a lot of money'."

Resentment that Rigoberta hasn't showered her hometown with money is heard all over Uspantan. "There's been nothing," says Matias Santos Lopez, 49, head of a local Mayan rights group. "She shouldn't forget her own town that she left in oblivion." In fact, the charge is not entirely true. She has built a school in Chimel, the mountainous hamlet where she lived as girl, a five-hour walk from the city. The house where she once lived is gone, but the apple trees her father planted are still there. Sebastian Pinula Gonzalez, a 71-year-old neighbor, remembers Vicente Menchu, Rigoberta's father, trying to stir up local support for the guerrillas. Vicente even persuaded Pinula's own daughter to join the occupation of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City to protest human-rights abuses by the Army. In one of the most infamous incidents of the war, she and Vicente were among the 36 people burned alive inside the building on Jan. 31, 1980.

It is that connection to the guerrilla movement--more than any purported stinginess with her money--that makes Menchu so controversial. In the simplistic version of the war, the indigenous population sided with the guerrillas, who promised them their rights. But the relationship between Mayans and the revolutionaries was more complicated. Support varied by region and fell to its lowest point in the early 1980s, when the government convinced much of the population--including many Mayans--that the guerrillas were to blame for the violence and had to be wiped out. The Army organized roaming patrols of citizens to help do the job. To this day in Uspantan, some of the old military leaders remain popular and many former guerrilla supporters deny their old ties. A child of leftist politics, Menchu joined the Peasant Unity Committee, a political movement once closely allied to one of the main revolutionary groups. Her defenders say she never worked for the guerrillas, let alone ever picked up a gun. There were plenty of legitimate reasons to fight--with both arms and politics--but since the left never delivered its promise, Menchu landed on the wrong side of history.

She got some vindication in February. A U.N.-sponsored truth-commission report blamed the U.S.-backed military for 93 percent of the war atrocities, and said that the majority of the 200,000 people killed were Mayans. It was supposed to be part of the national healing, but old allegiances are hard to change. "The guerrillas came and killed innocent people," says Jorge Delgado, a local government official. "The Army was fighting for a just cause."

Guatemala's only other Nobel Prize winner is the author Miguel Angel Asturias. In 1923, he wrote in his law-school thesis that among the Indians, "moral feelings are utilitarian, mentality is relatively slight and will power is nonexistent." He later came to champion the Mayan cause, but much of Guatemala has been slower to change. That makes it tempting to dismiss much of the resentment against Menchu as racism, as her supporters have done. There are no Mayans in President Alvaro Arzu's cabinet, and of 80 members of Congress, only six are indigenous. Menchu has been fodder for a new industry of jokes that reveal the nation's discomfort with a Mayan woman in her position. The most popular one goes like this: "Mattel is coming out with a Rigoberta doll. Barbie needs a maid."

When Menchu won the Nobel Prize, her supporters rang church bells and paraded in the streets. But the prize did not sit well with Ladinos, as non-Indian Guatemalans are known. Says Juan Luis Font, an editor at the daily El Periodico in the capital: "She has made us think a lot about our own racism." "Symbol" is the word most commonly used to describe her inside Guatemala. "The principal contribution of Rigoberta is not what she says or does but what she is," explains Demetrio Cojti, a prominent Mayan intellectual.

Her transformation from revolutionary to Nobel laureate perhaps happened too rapidly, some supporters say. "This is not a case of a leader building a career and then winning the prize," says Gustavo Meono, a former guerrilla leader who heads her foundation. "She was not prepared for this." Menchu has tried to fashion herself as the country's moral authority. Her foundation rarely takes sides, instead focusing on civic education and resettlement of refugees. "She has become a little bit like royalty. She cannot join a political party," says Arne Aasheim, Norway's ambassador to Guatemala, who first met Menchu in 1985 when she visited the Foreign Ministry in Oslo. "It's so messy that for her to be involved here would throw shadows over her."

Menchu denies having any aspirations to hold political office. She has complained to friends about the strains of always being in the public light, and has written that someday she would like to retire to her family's land. She told NEWSWEEK that her role is so profound that it defies classification: "When I am with women, some think that I am a feminist. When I am with Indians, some think I am an indigenista... And when I am with the academics, some think that I am no longer linked with the people, that I have become like the intellectuals who sit on a hilltop and write the story of people for whom they have no respect." She also said: "If I were a man and not indigenous, I would be accepted differently... Some people say Menchu is a myth. But I see myself in the mirror and say to myself, this myth is a woman who thinks, a living woman who walks and writes her story."

In Guatemala, she has usually chosen causes that capitalize on the resonance her name has in left-wing circles abroad--with some important successes. In 1993, she helped force President Jorge Elias Serrano's resignation after he tried to dissolve Congress and the courts. More recently, she declared the justice system a farce when a court failed to convict soldiers in the 1995 killing of 11 peasants who had resettled, with U.N. help, in the village of Xaman after years of exile in Mexico. At the signing of peace accords in 1996, Menchu delivered a speech about reconciliation, and a photograph of her embracing an Army general appeared in newspapers around the world. Even so, she still vows to someday take Army generals to court for genocide--a brave claim in a country still grasping for answers in last year's assassination of Juan Gerardi, a bishop who had led an incriminating, four-year inquiry into the violence.

Many Mayans still believe she should be more radical. Says Estuardo Zapeta, a Mayan columnist for the conservative daily Siglo XXI and one of her harshest detractors: "She's an international star, but at home she has competitors." The most prominent is 42-year-old Rosalina Tuyuc, who started a widow's organization in the 1980s after her father and husband "were disappeared." The group now has 15,000 members. Tuyuc, who was elected to Congress in 1995, has even been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate. Her advice for Menchu: "Eventually she is going to have to get involved in local politics. That's the only way to make real change here."

Political inexperience, bad management and just plain bad advice have caused a chain of recent embarrassments for Menchu at home. In 1995, she was quick to blame the Army when a great-nephew was kidnapped. It turned out that the boy's own parents had faked the abduction in an attempt to extort money from Menchu. And last year Menchu came out against a proposal to overhaul the tax system, a position that put her in a bizarre alliance with the conservatives. Most analysts agree that the tax reform would have meant that the rich would pay a higher share of taxes, but to their amazement Menchu and her advisers argued the opposite.

And now her foundation is in a legal jam. In late 1994, the Banco Comercial in Guatemala City accidentally deposited an $81,594 donation from the European Commission twice into the foundation's account. Bank officials didn't realize the error for 18 months, and when they asked for the money back, the foundation leaders said they had already spent it. Then they asked the bank to let them keep the money as a gift. Now the case is in court, with the bank demanding the money, which, compounded by interest over the last four and a half years, has grown to about $160,000. Foundation officials say they will eventually pay back the money but need to work out the terms.

Then there is the problem of the American anthropologist. Late last year David Stoll, a Middlebury College professor who has studied Guatemala for many years, came out with a book, "Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans," that raised serious questions about parts of Menchu's original autobiography. The new book says that the land dispute central to Menchu's testimonial pitted her father against his Mayan in-laws, not rich Ladinos; that Menchu had learned Spanish at a Roman Catholic school despite her claim that she never went to school and didn't learn the language until her late teens, and that the Army did not burn one brother alive but instead kidnapped and killed him. Stoll argues that Menchu was manipulated by the left to tell a black-and-white story of suffering that would win the guerrillas international support.

The reaction to Stoll's book was a measure of the divisions still tearing at the country. Opponents lambasted her as a liar. Most Mayan leaders stood behind Menchu, as did her international friends. Says Marcie Mersky, an American consultant with long experience in Guatemala: "Maybe if it had been that Rigoberta is not an Indian, that would have been a story." Menchu, used to criticism inside Guatemala but rarely from abroad, was flustered. At first she claimed she was not the true author of her autobiography. Then, after a long stretch of silence, she held a series of press conferences, often looking nervous and deferring to her advisers to counter specific charges. Finally she settled on the argument that the 1982 book was not strictly her personal story and that Stoll is part of a right-wing conspiracy to desecrate the memories of survivors of Guatemala's violence. "We really want to know who is behind the book," Menchu told NEWSWEEK. "If there is a CIA faction or those who supported ethnocide in Guatemala."

The controversy from the book has died down now, and Menchu is back into her routine. Four days after the failed referendum, she returned home for a week to meet with presidential candidates. Then she left again, this time for Rome, where Luciano Pavarotti had invited her to a benefit concert for children from Guatemala and Kosovo. Rome is also a place where Menchu can speak without having to defend herself.