Never get involved in a land war in Russia. Most of all, do not question the veracity of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning author.
Middlebury College Professor of Anthropology David Stoll has done just that. Last Friday at 4:00 in Griffin 3, he spoke to a small crowd of students and local residents about his new book, Rigoberta MenchÃº and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans.
In the book, published last September, Stoll outlines what he says are inconsistencies and larger problems with the widely-read I, Rigoberta MenchÃº, Menchu’s 1982 autobiography.
MenchÃº, a K’iche’ Mayan from Guatemala, paints a picture of the exploitation of and violence against indigenous and poor Ladino Guatemalans. The book mobilized foreign support for the indigenous cause and Guatemalan revolutionary movement by presenting the EGP (Guerrilla Army of the Poor) as having immense popularity among peasants. MenchÃº won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992—the 500th anniversary of Europe’s invasion of the Americas.
Stoll has met with intense criticism from the Guatemalan left and the academic community. His most vocal detractors call Stoll an apologist for the Guatemalan military, an institution that has killed 200,000 of its own people, displaced 1.5 million, and tortured countless others.
“My book did make the wrong people happy,” said Stoll. “They’re telling jokes about Rigoberta MenchÃº in the Guatemalan army. But they were telling jokes about her before I wrote this book.”
Stoll says he knew the book was going to be controversial. After running across a few discrepancies between MenchÃº’s book and his research in Northern Guatemala in the late 1980’s, Stoll proceeded carefully before publishing. Not wanting to take international diplomatic pressure off the Guatemalan military in the middle of the peace process in 1994, Stoll kept his findings to himself. After the army and guerrillas signed tenuous peace accords in 1996, Stoll sent a copy of his manuscript to MenchÃº’s office in New York. MenchÃº, who had earlier refused Stoll an interview, offered no comment.
Six months later MenchÃº released a statement saying, “That is not my book. It is a book by Elisabeth Burgos. It is not my work; it is a work that does not belong to me morally, politically, or economically.” MenchÃº later qualified her statement, explaining that she meant she had not been involved in the editorial process of the final book and that she was not receiving royalties.
A front-page New York Times article in September independently confirmed Stoll’s most basic contention — that I, Rigoberta MenchÃº is not an eyewitness account, creating a nationwide critique of the book and its author.
“The New York Times article really portrayed [Stoll’s book] as a hatchet-job, just ripping apart I, Rigoberta MenchÃº. But, if you read it, there’s more to it than that,” said associate professor of history Roger Kittleson, who organized Stoll’s visit.
Stoll emphasized that the main point of his book is not to refute I, Rigoberta MenchÃº. He repeated that her most important claims – the violent repression of the Guatemalan army and the feelings of most peasants towards the army – are true.
“The issue is not veracity,” said Stoll, “but how to explain a gruesome civil war.”
Stoll said his interviews with peasants in Northern Guatemala suggests that armed struggle was not an inevitable conflict, and that conditions were continually improving for Mayan and Ladino peasants in Guatemala before the guerrillas arrived.
In Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, Stoll wrote that most indÃgenas viewed both the guerrillas and the army equally – as belligerents who brought awesome amounts of death and destruction to uninterested peasants. Stoll blames the EGP for bringing down repression on the heads of the peasants, noting that the guerrillas committed the first political killing in UspantÃ¡n country (where Rigoberta lived). Only then, said Stoll, did the army and its death squads move in and begin kidnapping and massacring townspeople.
The same strategy succeeded in Guatemala two years before when the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979. This time, the tactic of provoked repression forced hundreds of thousands of peasants into the arms of the EGP. An expected arms shipment from Cuba never arrived, and the army subsequent crushed the resistance.
The EGP has survived to this day, with a markedly less powerful political and military base than at its zenith it 1982. Stoll called the guerrilla tactics fatal, and expressed a “hope” that his work will “help the Latin American left and its foreign supporters escape from the captivity of Guevarismo,” referring to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the legendary Argentinian rebel who fought alongside Castro in Cuba and helped spawn Marxist revolutionary movements throughout the third world in the 1960’s. Guevara’s face adorns the EGP flag and is seen today on many posters and shirts, such as those produced by the band Rage Against the Machine.
“The guerrilla has become mystified among some members of the Latin American Left,” said Stoll. “The reason this model is so popular is because it offers student-activists the role of Messiahs.”
One audience member attacked Stoll for being “presumptuous to say that you know, better than the urban left, 20 years later, what is and what is not a good tactic for guerrilla warfare.” Stoll did not respond.
Another audience member said that the EGP’s tactics made sense in their time, after Nicaraguan had just overturned a dictatorship and the U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile demonstrated that democratic socialism could not survive. Stoll agreed, and emphasized that his main focus was on the situations before the war, and whether the EGP had as much real popular support as MenchÃº said.
Stoll sounded very apologetic for some of the effects of his work. “What I’ve done is correctly described as throwing salt on wounds,” he said. But he does not think his book will damage MenchÃº’s chancing at the Guatemalan presidency in the upcoming election.
Stoll, who said he would not vote for MenchÃº but hopes the Left is successful in the next election, said “I, Rigoberta MenchÃº was what the EGP wanted to say to the international left and what the international left wanted to hear – that 500 years of repression had culminated in this Marxist revolutionary in the mountains of Guatemala.”
How much David Stoll will be able to change that belief remains to be seen.