Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 312 | Julio 2007



Rigoberta Menchú: A Shooting Star in the Electoral Sky?

“We’ll build trust among Guatemalans so we can have a better future… We’ll pull people together to share the vision of the country we all want… We’ll make Guatemala into a new, more humane, inclusive, multicultural republic.” These were Rigoberta Menchú’s words when she announced her decision to run for President. Why does her bright star seem to have burned out so quickly?

Ricardo Falla

What has happened to Rigoberta Menchú’s candidacy for President of Guatemala? Didn’t several polls show her as the most widely recognized person in the country? Didn’t her February announcement that she would run send a jolt through the nerves of the dominant ladino (non-indigenous) population?

How is it possible that some of the most influential—if not most reliable—polls showed that the number of people who planned to vote for her in September’s general elections had dropped to a mere 1.5% by June? Didn’t foreign governments and international cooperation organizations see this 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who aroused such hopes among indigenous peoples of the continent and as far away as Scandinavia as the brightest star in our political sky? She’s a friend of Jacques Chirac, someone whom crowds of young people thronged to hear speak in Italy and was invited by the former President of Mexico to his private home. Why is her political proposal not resonating more strongly with voters?

These are all valid questions, although in considering them, we must remember two important points. First, many voters are still undecided; the same surveys that give barely 1.5% of the vote to Rigoberta also show that a full 40% of voters have not yet made up their minds. Second, some polls done in May by private organizations not backed by the big media showed her pulling 10%.

How to explain the
lack of enthusiasm?

In any event, there’s a general feeling, confirmed by my own perceptions, that the initial hope that Rigoberta’s candidacy would profoundly change the terms of a routine, predictable campaign vanished quickly. There are several explanations for this lack of enthusiasm, which seems to have calmed the fears of politicians and the dominant society as a whole; they no longer see her as the feared enemy who will garner the support of all Mayans in cities and towns across the country.

The first and most important reason is that, unlike Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rigoberta is not backed by a mass organization or social movement. Nor can she count on a party structure that covers the country’s many indigenous regions, much less the country as a whole. Her main strength—which is her international reputation and presence, her international work in general—is her main weakness inside Guatemala. The Menchú Foundation is a small NGO, made up of a handful of people working in the capital. Her ethnic identity alone will not bring people together unless some kind of fiber or running thread can structure, coordinate and, above all, move this identity. Indigenous identity has been compared to the wind: it’s very powerful, but needs this visible, tangible thread that reaches into the smallest indigenous villages.

A second reason I’ve been hearing is that many indigenous people feel Rigoberta has become distanced from her people. She received the Nobel Prize and didn’t share it—they say—but rather invested it in a pharmaceutical business. They also say she’s arrogant, that she doesn’t want to talk to the poor, that she doesn’t visit her home town of Chimel, that she has forgotten her people’s suffering. “We’ve gone to the Foundation,” people complain, “and they tell us to come back in three months. But a gringo comes in and they see him immediately.” I’ve heard frequent complaints like these, in various forms.

Furthermore, some indigenous women who might be expected to be happy about the thought of an indigenous woman becoming President instead seem to feel a kind of competitive envy and attack her sharply. This has led to discussions in which I’m the one who’s defending Rigoberta.

A dead campaign is killing her

A third reason is that in the 1980s Guatemalans saw their moment—a moment when they felt a great hope for a very radical change—pass out of reach. It was a powerfully frustrating experience. Such a surge of enthusiasm is not likely to come again for several generations, perhaps not until the third generation after the one that experienced that moment comes of age. At that moment, a spark of enthusiasm could be seen in the eyes of young people that moved them to act, to commit themselves, even to give their lives; it was a spark that could have fueled a movement. People had a sense, almost a certainty, that they could win. They no longer feel this way. Many people think that even if Rigoberta were to be elected, we won’t have won anything, because she’ll be like a prisoner.

There’s no possibility of change in today’s Guatemala. There is no possibility of a great hope like the one that Evo Morales has awakened in Bolivia. I see this, for example, here in Santa María Chiquimula, where I live. Rigoberta’s party, Encuentro por Guatemala (EG), almost reluctantly chose a candidate for mayor here, but no one pays any attention to her, no one dedicates time to her campaign. Rigoberta grabbed hold of a dead electoral campaign and instead of her reviving it, it has been killing her. It’s sad. Some indigenous women have even said to me, “Let’s hope this doesn’t fall back on all of us women.”

Just a business

A fourth reason is that people view the election campaign as a business, not only because it requires a lot of money to pay for televisions ads, put up huge billboards and pay party activists, but also because success in the campaign is a business as well. It’s money.

If Rigoberta doesn’t have money for her campaign, townspeople aren’t willing either to finance it or support it through their work because they believe it will merely serve to enrich her if she wins. People don’t see the campaign as a struggle for a measure of power that can be used to change things, but rather as a struggle for a share of the deals made to get rich.

No money, no presence

A fifth reason is that Rigoberta’s choice of businessman Fernando Montenegro—former president of CACIF, the country’s wealthiest and most elitist business organization—as her running mate has not translated into campaign funds. In May, one firm calculated what each of the main parties had spent so far on campaign ads, especially on television. The National Union for Hope (UNE) spent nearly $300,000, the ruling Grand National Alliance (GANA) $270,000, the Patriotic Party (PP) $100,000 and the EG a mere $5,300.

Without money and with the kind of charisma, charm, spark and intelligence that barely comes across on television, Rigoberta is in a very weak position. In media appearances, she seems somewhat tense, and as though she had been borrowed to play a part in other people’s programs, not her own. In addition, Montenegro is seen as a rich, retrograde racist, a far cry from the “third way” sociologist Anthony Giddens envisioned for Great Britain, which is the thinking Montenegro claims to favor.

Within a party-prison

A sixth reason is the damage done to Rigoberta by the party-prison on whose ticket she is running. Encuentro por Guatemala is not hers, nor does it belong to the indigenous people she says she represents. The EG was established by human rights activist and legislative representative Nineth Montenegro, who is also related to the vice presidential candidate. The party has no roots outside the capital and Nineth Montenegro, who wants to be its presidential candidate in 2011, is using this race to break it in.

In a tight space without support

In these circumstances, Rigoberta’s maneuvering room is tight, and the door very narrow. Rigoberta does not want to appear left-wing. She chose not to run on the ticket of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG), the party of the former guerrilla forces, calculating that this would have “burned” her, and she is avoiding identification with any radical agendas. When she participated in the Second Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples, held in Iximché in March, she did not receive the support that many expected from the summit’s participants. In fact, they refused to give it. Nor has Evo Morales, who was expected to attend the summit, endorsed her. Although we don’t know why he didn’t put in an appearance at the summit, it suggests that there’s no deep sympathy between the two. Or could it be that he didn’t want his presence to jeopardize her?

Her beautiful huipil
splattered with blood

Even before announcing her candidacy, Rigoberta put herself in this prison by agreeing to serve as Peace Ambassador for Oscar Berger’s government. As some analysts predicted, the February murder in Guatemala of three Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament and the police who killed them has tarnished not only the country’s image but also hers for representing a government that at the very least, accepts and covers up for extrajudicial executions.

It is significant that the flurry of media attention following the announcement of her candidacy in February was soon overshadowed by the media frenzy surrounding these murders. Did one have anything to do with the other? Some of us believed that Rigoberta could do nothing from within the government about the hidden powers encrusted in the state, but that realization dampened our enthusiasm, dashed our dreams and brought us back to earth and the reality in which we find ourselves. Others, however, think those murders damaged her precisely because they came from a government in which she held a post. Either way, the blood of the murdered Salvadorans and the dead police officers splattered her beautiful huipil.

An inexplicable silence
is also doing her harm

A final bar in this prison she has built around herself is her silence in the wake of the charges of genocide filed by the Spanish government against General Efraín Ríos Montt, charges she herself once advocated. Now, in the midst of an election campaign, Rigoberta has said she will not promote the charges for “ethical reasons.” Nor will she attack the general, who has just announced his candidacy for a legislative seat in order to obtain immunity. What “ethical reasons” could Rigoberta be referring to? This silence is another thing that’s hard to understand.

Is her silence to avoid drawing attention to the Menchú Foundation, which is following through on the charges, albeit quietly? Or has the EG told her to stay clear of the general’s case because of the “gentlemen’s agreement” signed at the start of the campaign?

Will it strike in the end?

Rigoberta Menchú is being driven in a car that’s not hers. Although the car is taking her, she can’t insist that it keep moving when its owner wants to pull over for some reason. Nor can she make it stop if the owner is in a hurry to get somewhere and doesn’t want to get out and talk to her friends. Rigoberta is effectively a prisoner.

In any case, there are still all those undecided voters. A teacher in Totonicapán told me the other day that the genocidal general’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) is the lead party in this strongly indigenous departmental capital because of the gifts its representatives hand out. But he added that Rigoberta’s party, the EG, is in second place, with a quiet campaign carried out virtually door to door, from village to village in the Quiché tongue, and will strike when least expected.

Let’s hope for this “strike.” But in Santa María Chiquimula, a municipality next door to that departmental capital, there’s little if any sign of this grassroots work and no visible enthusiasm for Rigoberta. As a politician from Alta Verapaz told
me shortly after her candidacy was announced, “It won’t have any influence, because everything is already divvied up here.”

It’s not time yet

That’s the same thing we perceive in this small corner of Guatemala. Each party, with its candidate for mayor, already has its people and its connections. And they’re all indigenous. “Don’t come and tell me that we should support an indigenous person’s business, because I’m indigenous too.” I think that deep down this is what many people think.

And the pie is being divvied up the same way as always. That pie has more to do with money—and the flow of it—than with power. It has to do with who will give us the most sheets of roofing, the most fertilizer, who will build roads for us, who will give us cement to build an atrium for our church. It doesn’t have to do with who’s going to transform the state, who’s going to deal with the problem of access to land, who’s going to tackle the fiscal issue and ensure a fair division of the tax burden …

All of this seems too big and too distant; it seems like empty promises. It doesn’t mobilize people, but rather provokes a feeling of helplessness. What moves people is what is at hand, the everyday grinding problems: food, shelter from the rain, a desire to be left alone to earn a living without more laws or other state meddling. It’s not yet time to see electoral constellations in the sky, organized stars that aspire to power in order to change things.

Ricardo Falla, sj is an anthropologist and social researcher. His two most recent books are Alicia. Explorando la identidad de una joven maya. Ixcán, Guatemala and Juventud de una comunidad maya. Ixcán, Guatemala,” published by La Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales (AVANCSO) and the University of San Carlos.

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