Where are they now? Rigoberta Menchú (New Internationalist)

When a former coffee-picker stepped forward to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, a light was momentarily cast upon the plight of indigenous people throughout the world.

Guatemalan-born Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who was living in self-imposed exile at the time, was awarded the prestigious accolade in recognition of her work: highlighting the exploitation and persecution of her country’s indigenous people during its brutal civil war.

More than twenty years later the war may have ended, but has Menchú’s esteemed prize improved the rights of the people she was fighting for?

With two unsuccessful presidential campaigns under her belt, where she failed on both occasions to garner more than three per cent of the vote, it may seem like her work has done little to enhance the lives of Guatemala’s natives. However, in a country where votes are often bought, not earned, her success is far larger than the polls suggest.

“I’ve really enjoyed the last two elections,” says Menchú. “I haven’t reached a large per cent of the vote, but I’ve reached 95 per cent of the country.”

In 2007, the Mayan activist became the first indigenous person to run for Guatemala’s top position, and four years later founded the country’s first Mayan political party, WINAQ.

“We were never interested in winning the elections. You can’t win without money and no multimillionaire would support us,” she says. Recounting an anecdote from her last campaign, she describes addressing a rural town when an opposition party’s bus drove by announcing it was giving away packets of rice, and her audience disappeared.

“Elections here are a carnival, they’re not democratic. Parties use poverty: giving the poor hope by handing them food.”

Despite the irony that the majority of the people she campaigns for do not vote for her, Menchú considers her political career a great success.

“I’ve opened a door to Mayans and to women. Not only do we now have a party, but we also have one person in congress,” she says, referring to Mayan lawyer, Amilcar Pop.

But it’s not all politics.

In the same year she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the indigenous activist founded the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, dedicated to the pursuit of peace and promotion of indigenous people’s rights.

In the past two decades, the organisation has campaigned for justice for the victims of the war: exhuming mass graves, legislating new crimes, fighting for usurped ancestral lands to be returned to Mayan communities and legally documenting around 36,000 women. Menchú herself even travelled to Spain to bring genocide cases against Guatemala’s war criminals.

The Foundation recently implemented a Multicultural Education programme at the country’s state university. Menchú calls previous syllabuses “racist” and “colonial” and says this degree, with its emphasis on ancestral culture, trains students from rural communities to become teachers.

Although sometimes misunderstood by Guatemala’s non-indigenous population, Menchu remains devoted to her original cause: the plight of her people. However, for their position within society to be significantly enhanced, the government needs to act on the issues that were highlighted in Oslo twenty years ago – many of which are still prevalent today.


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