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The Gulf Times (Qatar)

Indigenous Rights Champion Fights On

César Chelala

That Rigoberta Menchú, a Nobel peace laureate and Unesco's goodwill ambassador, wasn't able to reach the runoff presidential election in Guatemala doesn't diminish the tremendous achievement of having participated in this year's election. At the time, when the elegant Hotel Coral Beach in Cancún would not let her in the door, Rigoberta Menchú, was not fazed. After all, she had suffered that sort of affront before when wearing her typical Mayan dress. It took the intervention of several guests for her to remain in the hotel.

I first met Rigoberta in the early eighties in New York and interviewed her; it was before she became world famous. I was impressed by her intelligence and by the coherent way in which she expressed herself and described the horrendous difficulties of peasant life in Guatemala. I was not surprised when, in 1992, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of the indigenous people of her country.

I was surprised, however, by the extensive public discussions following an investigation carried out by an American anthropologist, David Stoll, according to whom Rigoberta's account of her life and that of her family was fabricated.

Stoll, who interviewed dozens of individuals and conducted archival research, claimed that he had found many inconsistencies between her personal testimony as told in a series of interviews with the Franco-Venezuelan writer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray - entitled I, Rigoberta Menchú - and the information he had gathered.

It is quite possible that there are inconsistencies in Rigoberta's account of her terrible years during the Guatemalan military's brutal repression. I have spoken with many victims of torture and with people who have suffered cataclysmic events in their lives, leaving their memories shattered. Rigoberta has undergone an excess of traumatic events in her life which are also recorded in the interview I did of her -Things have happened to me like in a movie- that was published in Mexico, Europe and the US.

Despite the controversy surrounding her, the Nobel Committee refused to rescind the peace prize and she has continued to be a formidable advocate for the rights of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Those who claim that her story is an exaggeration of facts should study more closely the history of the indigenous population of Guatemala; theirs is one of decimation by the Guatemalan military, who are a sad example of genocide in Latin America.

Rigoberta's testimonial book continues to be widely read. It is a classic testimonial through which her intelligence shines. I found there the same woman I had met and interviewed years before and had never forgotten. Years later, I met Rigoberta again by chance near the UN headquarters in Manhattan. She was standing in front of a cash machine in a bank next to the UN, surrounded by several women. I greeted her and asked how she was doing.

She replied that she had been doing well until encountering the cash machine. Her frustration was evident as she kept trying to withdraw cash and could not. I attempted to make light of the situation and said: "You know, Rigoberta, that machine was probably made by a witch doctor." Without missing a beat, she retorted: "No, Cesar, this machine was made by the white man."

César Chelala, a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, writes extensively on human rights and foreign affairs issues.

© 2007 Gulf Times Newspaper

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