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Interview with Rigoberta Menchu Tum

1992 Interview with Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Mayan

refugee from Guatemala, shortly before she received the Nobel Peace Prize; by Commission for Human Rights in Central America

"For me, to celebrate the twelfth of October is the absolute expression of triumphism, occupation and presumptuousness, and I think that history will remember those that celebrate it.

"The struggle of the indigenous did not begin in 1992, and it will not end in 1992; it is simply an occasion to take advantage of the international attention.

"We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.

"It is said that our indigenous ancestors, Mayas and Aztecs, made human sacrifices to their gods. It occurs to me to ask: How many humans have been sacrificed to the gods of Capital in the last five hundred years?"

The Guatemalan indigenous woman, Rigoberta Menchu, lowers her eyes and continues, pausing often, in the same ironic tone:

"Today the governments of Latin America should be ashamed of not having exterminated the indigenous, at the end of the twentieth century, because we exist at the end of this century. We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism."

It is September, 1992. Five hundred years after the immense sailing ships of Christopher Colombus cut through the waters between America and Europe. Five hundred years of butchery. Five hundred years of extermination and complete marginalization.

The bad conscience of the white man may be seen now more than ever. Everything seems to indicate that he is going to take advantage of this occasion to put some salve on the open wound.

On October 16, 1992, the Committee of the Nobel Peace Prize will reveal whether, for the first time in its history, it will grant the Prize to an indigenous candidate. An indigenous woman, whos eyes have born witness to cruelest actions in human memory. At twenty years of age, Rigoberta Menchu had already lost her father, her mother and a brother as a result of the indiscriminate violence exercised by the armed forces of Guatemala. Her father, Vicente Menchu, along with other indigenous, was burned alive by the army when he participated in the peaceful takeover of the Spanish embassy. The embassy was taken over in hopes of calling attention to the plundering of land suffered by the indigenous and to the military presence in the community.

A few months later, her mother became yet another victim of the repression. She was kidnapped, raped, tortured for several days and exhibited publicly in her community.

Rigoberta was seventeen years old when she decided to learn to speak Spanish. Since then, words have been her weapon in the untiring defense of the rights of her people. The extent of the love that the indigenous, victims of repression, terror and war, have for her is equaled only by the hate of the government and the army, to whom she has always been a thorn in the side.

For two hours, the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America, (CODEHUCA) had the chance to carry out an interview with the 33 year old candidate, Rigoberta Menchu. In a frank conversation with our journalist, Anders Riis-Hansen, she spoke of the 500th anniversary and of her country, where military dictatorships and repression have kept her from living since 1981. Guatemala, with nine million inhabitants, is a nation that has not yet felt the soft breezes of peace that have touched other countries of the Central American region. It is a country in which the extermination of the indigenous peoples continues to be a reality.

During the last thirty years, this country has been torn by a civil war that, to date, has left more than 100,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. The vast majority of these victims have been indigenous peasants.

Different military dictators and civilian governments have carried out a military campaign against the guerrilla, resulting in militarization without precedent on the American continent. More than half a million men from the civilian population are now under arms in the so-called Civil Defense Patrols. These are patrols organized by the armed forces. According to Castro's spokesmen, participation in the patrols is voluntary. However, human rights organizations have provided numerous testimonies and proofs that the indigenous are obliged to participate and to carry out army orders. Thousands of Rigoberta Menchu's countrymen are buried in clandestine graves, executed without trial by the Civil Patrols.

Anders Riis-Hansen: What began your struggle for the defense of the indigenous and human rights?

Rigoberta Menchu: I was born in a family where Papa struggled for 22 years for the piece of land where we were born. Mama, as a midwife, attended 90% of the pregnant women, sick people and malnourished children.

Because of her role as a healer and a midwife, she believed in our Mayan gods. I would trade any prize in the world to know that my Papa and mother had returned. They helped me to determine my life In addition, I have a brother in a clandestine cemetary with his three children and his wife. Someday, I would like him to have a dignified grave in the land where Papa dreamed that we would be buried.

Moreover, I have met so many people that are not alive today; it is in their memory that one lives.

Q: There is a great difference between the hard and humble life that you lived in Guatemala and the life that you live now, visiting presidents and famous governors. Are you afraid that you will lose your link to the people of Guatemala?

A: Of course, for a woman who never spoke Spanish and never had the opportunity to do more than cut cotton on the large plantations, there are definitely many moments when one feels strange. But lose the links, no. I think that if one's role doesn't correspond to what one says, if one's life doesn't correspond to what one preaches, if one is not true to one's people, someone else will come as a substitute.

Q: On the twelfth of October, a great number of countries will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. Do you see this as an insult to the indigenous people?

A: We have seen repeated occupations of our land, long lines of colonists have arrived, and they remain today. For me, to celebrate the twelfth of October is the absolute expression of triumphism, occupation and presumptuousness, and I think that anyone who has mature and responsible politics should not celebrate it. History will remember those that celebrate it.

On the other hand, the 500th anniversary has opened a lot of space in international forums. With respect to this, I am deeply gladdened that 1993 has been delcared the International Year of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations. It is the first year we have had in five hundred years. This is thanks to the struggle of many untitled, unnamed indigenous brothers who, without understanding international law, patiently walked the corridors asking for some time. Thanks to them this international year has been declared.

In addition, I think that the current situation has generated an understanding of the cultural diversity of America. We were the first to talk about cultural diversity, the need to respect the Maya and the environment.

Q: What do you think the indigenous should do to commemorate the twelfth of October?

A: Why only the indigenous? It is a date that represents the cultural plurality in America. It is an issue of indigenous, blacks, mestizos,all the races of the continent. Our struggle should not be one of races. If it were, we would continue to be racist. These are very backward ideas of humanity.

Now, the twelfth of October is a special date, but I don't be- lieve that it will change the situation very much. The struggle of the indigenous didn't begin in 1992, and it will not end in 1992; it is simply an occasion to take advantage of the international attention.

Q: The last country of the continent abolished slavery more than one hundred years ago. How is repression and racism expressed today?

A: For example, in the case of my country, Guatemala, 65% of the inhabitants are indigenous. The constitution speaks of protection for the indigenous. Who authorized a minority to protect an immense majority? It is not only political, cultural and economic marginalization, it is an attempt against the dignity of the majority of the population. The human being is to be respected and defended, not protected like a bird or a river.

Racism in our countries is a fact in that the indian is not allowed to be a politician or aspire to being head of state. It has reached the point that 99% of the indigenous women have not gone to school. The indigenous are condemned to live in a situation designed to exterminate them. They receive a pittance of a salary, they neither speak nor write the language, politics dictates their situation. Is this slavery? I don't know what it's called. It is not the same as before because we are in modern times.

Q: Do you personally feel the effects of racism?

A: Definitely. During the last summit in San Jose in Portugal, with all the Central American Presidents present, the Guatemalan delegation threatened to leave the summit if I entered the main session to present a document on the development of Guatemala.

It was inconceivable to them that an indigenous woman, self taught, born to a humble family in the mountains, who ate roots and leaves, didn't go to school and who has no professional title would appear there. It was the greatest shame. The racists won't stand for the presence of a person who is not of their race and convictions.

Q: The whole region has seen a pacification process in the last few years. However, in Guatemala the internal war continues. Why has the situation been prolonged in your country?

A: In my opinion, peace has not come to America, to Nicaragua, or to El Salvador. A hungry people is a people without peace. If the demands of the people are not met, what kind of peace are we talking about?

Q: At least a certain amount of demilitarization has been achieved in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but the war and the strong military presence is still going on in Guatemala. Why?

A: On the one hand, because the problems in America have developed differently in the past five hundred years.

On the other hand, because the indigenous in Guatemala were never taken into account, despite the fact that 80% of the victims of repression and impunity are indigenous people. In addition, it is a country with 23 different languages, plus Spanish.

Q: How do you explain the fact that the war in Guatemala has never gotten the same amount of attention as the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua?

A: One of the reasons is racism itself. We don't have means of communication in our hands. The media and politics have never allo- wed our people to speak through them. The absolute marginalization of the indigenous peoples is a fact, as is sophisticated militarization. These have been the most significant ingredients in the silent war.

Q: What is the greatest obstacle to achieving peace in Guatemala?

A: The problem in Guatemala is that there is no solution to the issue of human rights. The problem is militarization, it is the injust distribution of wealth. It is intolerance of the indigenous, it is discrimination and marginalization.

If concrete means to resolve what has been generated by the conflict are not sought, I don't think that the war will end.

I deeply believe that the solution to this armed conflict lies in concrete approaches to human rights and the dignity of indigenous peoples. It is the responsibility of all those implicated in Guatemala, perhaps also of the international community. It must be said that the international community has given many blank checks for the killing of our people.

Q: In your opinion, how can the international community contribute to peace in Guatemala?

A: The inaction of the international community towards Guatemala is injustifiable. The community should play an active role with concrete measures and sanctions imposed, as was the case in South Africa, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Haiti. Why for us no? Why legalize death in one place and somewhere else no? This is clear in our memories.

Q: Many of your countrymen speak of a culture of violence and death in Guatemala. Do you share this interpretation?

A: The culture of death is imposed by economic and political interests, the arrogance of power, corruption. I blame the first world for having taken our riches for so many years. I am speaking of the superpowers that dominate the life of the world. More concretely, the World Bank, the IMF. Those that have caused and tolerated the death of our people, those responsible for the plundering of the third world. Silence is also part of repression.

If our people are the issue, tranquility and peace have always been most sacred to us. Violence and repression are so incompatable with the peaceful face of the Guatemalan people that it is a permanent shock to discover the two faces of Guatemala.

Q: What do you think of the guerrilla? Do you defend their goals?

A: If I were a guerrilla, you wouldn't see me in this office. To me, the guerrilla is a reality that faces us. There are confrontations every day. It is a clear fact that, despite the existence of Civil Defense Patrols with 600 or 800 thousand men under arms, the guerrilla exists. I have always said that the dialogue initiated by the guerrilla and the government two years ago in Oslo is the correct path.

Q: The guerrilla of your country is also among the sectors that support your candidacy for the Nobel Prize. Doesn't that compromise your candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize?

A: If the United Nations doesn't lose credibility by negotiating with the Guatemalan revolutionaries and the army, I don't see a contradiction, and I don't see how I could lose credibility. I would be more worried the day that the army supported my candidacy.

Q: The last time you visited Guatemala, in July 1992, there were three attempts on your life. Do you hold Serrano responsible for your security?

A: I hold the whole war responsible. I hold the army and impunity responsible. What has ruled in Guatemala for many years is impunity, which means a lack of initiative by the chief of state to pass sentence on those responsible. I condemn the impunity and the system governed by Serrano. Impunity should be condemned in any corner of the world.

Q: Do you fear for your life when you visit Guatemala?

A: Not only in Guatemala, but everywhere. Our lives are no longer our own; they can take them away any time.

The Mayas, our grandparents, always said; every human being occupies a small piece of time. Time itself is much longer, and because of this they always said that we must care for this earth while we are on it because it will be part of our children and the children of our grandchildren. They know that life is short, that it can end so soon, and that if one gets lost on the way, others will come to take their place.

Q: Do you believe that a Nobel Prize can contribute to peace in Guatemala?

A: I believe that it has already contributed a lot. We have broken the silence around Guatemala. We have entered into the governmental tribune and we have been able to demand that there be no more blank checks for the governments that violate human rights.

I want to make it very clear as well that we can not change our reasoning, nor can we soften the name of the reality which we are living. It would be treasonous to dignity, and it will never happen, prize or no.

The gap between rich and poor must be eliminated, or we will continue to be the example of conflict in America.

This interview was made available on the Internet by Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America (CODEHUCA). It was produced by Silvia Porras (General Coordination) and Anders Riis-Hansen (Journalist). For more information please email Commission for Human Rights in Central America--.

A month after this interview, 33-year-old Mayan Rigoberta Menchu received the Nobel Peace Prize, which carries world prestige and an award of $1.2 million. The Nobel Committee stated:

"Today, Rigoberta Menchu stands out as a vivid symbol of peace and reconcilliation across ethnic, cultural and social dividing lines, in her own country on the American continent and in the world."

Francis Sejerstad, chairman of the committee, said the panel had examined closely Guatemala's bloody conflict, in which the governmental armed forces have been accused of repressing the Mayan Indian population and have killed tens of thousands of people, including all of Rigoberta's family. He said he was confident that Menchu's politics was marked by reconcilliation.

Menchu won international acclaim with the 1983 publication of her book, I, Rigoberta which has been translated into more than 20 languages. She recounts the persecution of Mayan Indians as she was growing up during the civil war. She fled her homeland in 1981 after her father, mother and brothers were killed by Guatemalan government security forces. She now lives in Mexico.

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