Rigoberta for President?
The Serrano Elías government had moved mountains to prevent the coveted Nobel Peace Prize from being awarded to an indigenous Guatemalan woman named Rigoberta Menchú. When the fireworks began to go off in the still dark streets of Guatemala City on October 16, their message surely worsened Serrano's aching head. Now he would have to eat all those words in his campaign to discredit her, including that statement the previous week by an army spokesperson that she did not deserve the award. He would even have to hide his disgust and congratulate her.
It seems that the President did not recover from his headache all day perhaps he never will. That night he did not go to the diplomatic reception for Menchú offered by the foreign embassies. The only Guatemalan government representative to attend was Vice President Gustavo Espina, accompanied by a top military officer wearing the face of someone who had swallowed a wasp.
During the reception, three indigenous women spoke: two from the Guatemalan organization of widows CONAVIGUA, who accompanied Menchú, and the new Nobel laureate herself. The mere image of these three woman, all in their brightly colored traditional dress, seated on the speakers' platform overlooking a sea of elegant suits in varying shades of grey and black, was enough to make one think Guatemala had turned inside out.
Menchú began her presentation, as she usually does, by reading one of her own poems, and ended by saying that the only thing she regretted that day was that her mother and father could not be present to celebrate the award with her, because the army had assassinated them. The First Lady arrived at the end of her speech to give her husband's excuses; he had been unable to attend because, regrettably, he was indisposed.
The following day, thousands of Guatemalans from all sectors and regions of the country marched to a park in the capital to hear Rigoberta Menchú speak. Indigenous people came packed in busses and trucks to celebrate the award to one of their own.
It is still too soon to judge the Nobel prize's impact inside the country, because most of the millions of indigenous people who still live in isolation and extreme poverty do not even know who Menchú is. The many years of repression and censorship in Guatemala mean that this woman, so well known internationally, was unknown inside her own country, even to many professionals, until very recently. Her award, however, is an international accolade to all indigenous people, who have suffered for 500 years. Upon receiving the prize, Rigoberta announced that she will create a foundation to assist indigenous people; it will bear the name of her father, Vicente Menchú, burned to death when the Guatemalan military set fire to the Spanish Embassy in 1980 to smoke out those occupying it in a protest against their own government.
"Women, Damned Women"Other women, too, made life go badly for the Guatemalan government toward the end of the year. Even before Menchú won the Nobel Prize, it was announced that Helen Mack had won the "Right Livelihood" prize, popularly known as the "alternative Nobel." Helen is the sister of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, who was assassinated on the street one night in September 1990 as she came out of AVANCSO, the research institute where she worked. Helen Mack received the prize for "her persistence in the search for justice and against impunity," according to the Swedish jury. Despite the extreme risk to her own life, Mack had insisted on a trial for Noel Jesús Beteta, former specialist of the presidential high command, who is accused of killing her sister. She has been dogging the proceedings ever since.
"Rigoberta and I won these prizes because we are victims of the army's repression," explained Mack upon receiving the prize. "If we have a human rights industry here, it is because the military has created a market."
On October 13, in a public hearing on her suit, Mack asked for the maximum penalty of 30 years for Beteta and announced that she was also filing against General Edgar Godoy Gaitán as the intellectual author of the crime. General Godoy had headed the presidential department where Beteta worked at the time of the assassination.
It is the first time in Guatemalan history that a common citizen has taken measures of such magnitude against a military officer. The visibly upset general said on a TV news program that the accusation was a "despicable act" and that he was considering filing a counter suit against Mack.
There were other new advances on Mack's case that same month, too. On the night of October 28, the crime was being reconstructed on the street where it occurred; to the amazement of all present, a 20 year old man came forward from the darkness to say that he had actually witnessed the real crime. Giving a detailed description of the two assassins, he explained that he was strolling in the street near AVANCSO the night of her murder, but had not dared speak before that moment.
The case, however, keeps running up against difficulties. One new witness appeared, but an old one disappeared. According to Helen Mack, Rember Haroldo Larios Tobar, formerly head of the National Police's Department of Criminal Investigations, took exile in Canada on November 25, after receiving death threats. Larios had helped prepare a key police report that identified Beteta as the main suspect. After testifying in the process in 1991, Larios was transferred from his post and later dismissed from the institution itself.
On November 24, human rights ombudsman Ramiro de León Carpio accused the Guatemalan state, and concretely Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo, President of Guatemala at the time of Myrna Mack's murder, of responsibility for the crime. Carpio explained that the security forces viewed the studies she was carrying out as "destabilizing," adding that only the state entities, in particular those in charge of national security, had the ability to set up a vigilance operation such as that prior to and after Mack's death. So far, Vinicio Cerezo, who did not respond to the last summons to testify at the hearing, has insisted that the issue is merely one of "a common crime."
The "Guerrilla Case"Still another woman causing the government problems is Maritza Urrutia, a member of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG), who was kidnapped in the capital in July 1992 by the security forces. The army tried to handle her kidnapping as a supposed desertion and her later release as amnesty for a guerrilla a ploy which failed in the face of a national and international campaign to free her. After two months of exile in the United States, Urrutia testified in Washington before the Organization of American States' Inter American Human Rights Commission that she had been kidnapped and psychologically tortured by the Guatemalan army.
This revelation provoked yet another crisis between the government and the Catholic Church, since Urrutia had asked the archbishop's Human Rights Office for protection, and it had helped her leave the country in August. The human rights ombudsman also admitted that he knew of the kidnapping.
Both institutions said that Urrutia had asked them not to reveal their knowledge about this to the government, for fear of reprisals against her family. Through the presidential spokesperson, the government angrily declared that the two institutions had probably committed a crime by withholding information from the government.
As a consequence, Archbishop Próspero Penados was called to a tribunal to make his declarations about the case. Urrutia's testimony also led the OAS human rights commission to pay a five day visit to Guatemala in November, to learn more about this and other cases, such as Myrna Mack's. The commission made no declarations about Urrutia's kidnapping, but did criticize the human rights situation in the country in general.
Prior to the commission's arrival, the Guatemalan press had announced that it would tour some Communities of the Populations in Resistance (CPRs) in Ixcán, to investigate accusations by these indigenous groups that the army had bombed their communities. The commission sent a letter to the URNG advising that its delegation would be flying over the zone by helicopter, so that it would not be attacked. But after Minister of Defense General José García Samayoa publicly warned that military conditions in the zone would make the trip dangerous, the commission had to cancel its plans. It did, however, meet with CPR representatives in the capital, and announced plans for another trip at the beginning of 1993. Commission members denied that the minister of defense had pressured them to cancel the trip, but human rights activists saw it as a temporary victory for the army, which was able to prevent the commission from investigating the situation of the CPRs first hand.
The Official CounterattackEven these modest signs of hope in recent months have had a very high cost for some members of Guatemala's grassroots movement, demonstrating once again that many will have to pay with their lives to make real change in the country. Two weeks before the announcement that Rigoberta Menchú had won the Nobel, a new wave of repression was unleashed against various sectors in anticipation of possible protests against the official celebrations of the quincentennial. On October 5, a bomb exploded in the offices of Tinamit, a magazine whose editorial line is very critical of the government and army. Another explosion occurred that same night, almost at the same time, in the Association of University Students (AEU) at the University of San Carlos. The students believe the attack was due to the AEU's suit against Hunapú, a joint paramilitary force of the army and police, which killed one student and wounded six others in April. Hunapú was surprisingly dissolved in October.
One week after the other bombings, the offices of the Mutual Support Group (GAM) were also bombed. GAM is an organization that works with family members of the disappeared. Some analysts believe that all three attacks were a response to the public support these groups were giving Rigoberta Menchú.
The week Menchú spent in Guatemala offered a respite, since the eyes of the world were on the country. But as soon as her plane departed, the repression increased again. The very day she left, two women who work with CONAVIGUA were kidnapped in the capital. Their captors freed them hours later, leaving them nude and beaten in an alley, after warning them of the consequences of their support for Menchú. Some days later, Byron Morales, president of the Union of Popular and Trade Union Action, barely escaped an assault against his car by two men with automatic weapons. A photographer from the British news agency Reuters was with him.
Yet another incident occurred at the end of October, this time a death threat against the director of an international nongovernmental development organization (NGO). The incident passed without the press knowing about it, because the victim had decided to address it through diplomatic channels instead of making a public charge. But after the second death threat, she left the country. Several other NGOs also received death threats in 1992, but these, too, were never made public for two reasons: first, diplomatic pressure is more effective, and second, publishing a denunciation could encourage still other groups to make such threats. But, given that the threats continue, it is necessary to question whether silence really discourages those making them.
The Cave AgeThis wave of threats and attacks has gone hand in hand with a government campaign to discredit and neutralize human rights organizations. In November, President Serrano and Minister of Defense Samayoa assailed some human rights activists as "destabilizers."
"There are groups very interested in damaging the country's image, seeking national instability at all cost," declared Samayoa in a press conference. "Some individuals who say they are Guatemalans travel to Washington to speak of tortures in Guatemala as if we were in the cave age in this country." During the press conference, Samayoa also denounced a plot supposedly discovered by military intelligence to destabilize the Serrano government.
Undesirable "Tourists"Samayoa aimed his criticisms at Ronald Ochaeta, directer of the archbishop's Human Rights Office, and at the Méndez brothers, Amílcar and Factor, recognized human rights activists. In a seminar in Washington in November, the Méndez brothers gave declarations about torture in Guatemala. Although Ochaeta did not attend the seminar, he sent a representative from his office.
Samayoa accused Ochaeta of working in tandem with the URNG. The general added that the human rights defenders are following a guerrilla strategy in the "political war" to discredit the government internationally, noting that this strategy had replaced the "war in the mountains."
These declarations against Ochaeta were curtly rejected by the Bishops Conference, and Archbishop Penados declared that he would support Ochaeta "to the final consequences." After Penados and Ochaeta met with Serrano, the year's tenth crisis between the Catholic Church and the state seemed to calm down. Ochaeta agreed to take all his office files to the Ministry of Defense to clear up any doubts about the nature of his work.
The government also announced that it was going to detain Amílcar Méndez, leader of the Runujel Junam Ethnic Communities, when he returned from Washington on November 23. Méndez was accused of being a "subversive" based on the testimony of two men who said they had received propaganda bombs directly from him full of URNG flyers. Later, however, one of them said that they had been pressured to make that declaration.
Méndez arrived in Guatemala in the company of Democratic congressman Peter Kostmayer, various US human rights activists, and Kerry Kennedy, the deceased Robert Kennedy's daughter. Upon arriving, Kostmayer announced that he had come to oversee Méndez's security, and declared that the charges against Méndez were "absolutely false." Méndez was freed by a judge the same day, although he will have to appear in court.
The following day, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Gonzalo Menéndez Park denounced the "foreign interference" of those who accompanied Méndez, adding that "it is a case of tourists who have no authority to question Guatemala's judicial system." Menéndez Park said that the government was considering what measures to take against the outsiders.
In Washington it was rumored that Kostmayer, whose congressional term would end in January, was being considered for a foreign policy post in President elect Clinton's new administration. Clinton's election was like a bucket of cold water for the Serrano government, which had been counting on a Republican victory. Greater emphasis is expected from Clinton on the human rights issue and Guatemala can expect to see more "tourists" like Kostmayer.
The Unending HeadacheAfter receiving her Nobel, Rigoberta Menchú announced her decision to end her exile and return to Guatemala in December. There had already been signs that she might run for president in 1995, which could provoke an incurable migraine for Serrano. It is evident that the Guatemalan government and rightwing groups would do everything to prevent her from running.
The repression against CONAVIGUA is a sign of what could come for those who dare to support "la Menchú," as her detractors call her. On November 22, the CONAVIGUA office was searched; the break in team carried off Menchú's personal documents and files on victims of violence. Given the excessively high international political cost of any assassination attempt against Rigoberta, it is more probable that the right will try to discredit and politically neutralize her, as it is also trying to do with other leaders such as Amílcar Méndez.
But it doesn't matter, Rigoberta, because we suspect that you have allies. In a trip to the Petén in October, I met an indigenous man from El Quiché, who now lives in a cooperative in the forest of the Usumalcinta River, bordering Mexico. This gentleman had worked for the Treasury Police 20 years ago, and left that "dirty work," as he called it, to cultivate the land in that zone more inhabited by monkeys and crocodiles than by human beings. Virtually the only news that arrives there is that the guerrillas are passing nearby, or that there was a shootout between drug traffickers in the night. But he had somehow gotten a daily newspaper that had an interview with you in it, and he showed it to me with pride.
"Do you know her?" he asked me. "She is from my land, I know her district. Well, perhaps some day you can speak with her, you can give her my name and tell her that, when she's President, I want to work as her bodyguard. I could even be her new chief of police," he said, smiling. "I know a lot about that and could reorganize this force for her. Do you think there's some possibility that she'd let me work with her?"
I didn't want to give him too much hope, but he kept insisting, so to leave him happy I promised I'd leave a little piece of paper with his name and address at the CONAVIGUA offices in the capital. Because in today's Guatemala, suddenly, because of you Rigoberta, everything seems possible.