Born in January 1959, Rigoberta Menchu is a Quiche Mayan from Guatemala. Her autobiography catapulted her to international fame, won her the Nobel Peace Prize, and made her an international emblem of the dispossessed indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere and their attempt to rebel against the oppression of European conquerors, has been exposed as one of the greatest intellectual and academic hoaxes of the Twentieth Century.
During the 1980s, Rigoberta Menchu had become a leading icon of the university culture. In a celebrated demonstration of left-wing faculty and students at Stanford University, Jesse Jackson led the marchers in chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” The target of the chant was Stanford’s required curriculum in Western civilization. University officials quickly caved before the demonstrators, and the course title was changed simply to “CIV.” Works by “Third World” (mainly Marxist) authors previously “excluded” were now introduced into the canon of great books as required reading. Chief among these was an autobiography by an indigenous Guatemalan and sometime revolutionary, I, Rigoberta Menchu, which now took its place beside Aristotle, Dante, and Shakespeare as the Stanford students’ introduction to the world.
Published in 1982, I, Rigoberta Menchu was actually written by a French leftist, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, wife of the Marxist, Regis Debray, who provided the “foco strategy” for Che Guevara‘s failed effort to foment a guerilla war in Bolivia in the 1960s. The idea of the foco was that urban intellectuals could insert a military front inside a system of social oppression, and provide the catalyst for revolutionary change.
As recounted in this autobiography, the story of Rigoberta Menchu is the stuff of classic Marxist myth. The Menchus were a poor Mayan family, living on the margins of a country from which they had been dispossessed by Spanish conquistadors. Their descendants, known as ladinos, try to drive the Menchus and other Indian peasants off unclaimed land that they had cultivated. As she tells her story, Rigoberta is illiterate and kept from getting an education by her peasant father, Vicente. He refuses to send her to school because he needs her to work in the fields, and because he is afraid that the school will turn his daughter against him. So poor is the Menchu family, because of their lack of land, that Rigoberta has to watch her younger brother die of starvation. Meanwhile, Vicente is engaged in a heroic but ultimately hopeless battle with the ladino masters of the land for a plot to cultivate. Finally, Vicente organizes a resistance movement called the Committee for Campesino Unity to advance the land claims of the indigenas against the ladino masters. Rigoberta becomes a political organizer too.
Enter the Guevara-Debrayist guerrilla foco. The indigenous resistance movement organized by Rigoberta’s peasant father links up with an armed revolutionary force, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (ERG). Now the peasants have a fighting chance. But the ladino descendants of the conquistadors call on the brutal Guatemalan security forces to crush the rebellion and preserve the status quo of social injustice. Vicente Menchu is killed. The surviving family is forced to watch Rigoberta’s brother burned alive. Rigoberta’s mother is raped and killed.
As told by Rigoberta, the tragedy of the Menchus is “the story of all Guatemala’s poor.” The author of I, Rigoberta Menchu makes this linkage explicit: “My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.” It is a call to people of good will all over the world to help the noble but powerless indigenous peoples of Guatemala and other Third World countries to gain their rightful inheritance. Made internationally famous by the success of her book, and by the Nobel Prize she was awarded in 1992, Rigoberta is now head of the Rigoberta Menchu Túm Foundation for Human Rights and a spokesperson for the cause of “social justice and peace.”
But virtually everything that Rigoberta Menchu has written is a lie. These lies, moreover, are neither incidental nor accidental. They are lies about the central events and facts of her story, and they have been deliberately concocted to shape its political content and to create a specific political myth. This myth begins on the very first page of Menchu’s text:
“When I was older, my father regretted my not going to school, as I was a girl able to learn many things. But he always said: Unfortunately, if I put you in school, they’ll make you forget your class; they’ll turn you into a ladino. I don’t want that for you and that’s why I don’t send you. He might have had the chance to put me in school when I was about fourteen or fifteen but he couldn’t do it because he knew what the consequences would be: the ideas that they would give me.”
To the trusting reader, this looks like a perfect realization of the Marxist paradigm, in which the ruling ideas become the ideas of the ruling class, which controls the means of education. But contrary to her own assertions, Rigoberta was not uneducated. Nor did her father oppose her education because he feared that the schools would indoctrinate her in the values of the ladino ruling class. According to classmates, teachers, and family members, Vicente Menchu did send Rigoberta to school. In fact, he sent her to two prestigious private boarding schools, operated by Catholic nuns, where she received the equivalent of a middle-school education. (In a telling irony, it is most likely there that she was recruited to the Marxist faith and became a spokesperson for the Communist guerrillas.) Because Rigoberta was indeed away at boarding school for most of her youth, moreover, her detailed accounts of herself laboring eight months a year on coffee and cotton plantations and organizing a political underground are also probably false.
These and other pertinent details have now been established by anthropologist David Stoll, one of the leading academic experts on Guatemala. Stoll interviewed more than 120 Guatemalans, including relatives, friends, neighbors, and former teachers and classmates of Rigoberta Menchu, over a ten-year period, as the basis of his new biography, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. To coincide with the publication of Stoll’s book, the New York Times sent reporter Larry Rohrter to Guatemala to attempt to verify Stoll’s findings, which he was readily able to do.
Perhaps the most salient of Stoll’s findings is the way in which Rigoberta Menchu has distorted the sociology of her family situation, and that of the Mayans in the region of Uspantan, to conform to Marxist precepts. The Menchus were not part of the landless poor, and Rigoberta had no brother who starved to death, at least none that her own family could remember. The ladinos were not a ruling caste in Rigoberta’s town or district, in which there were no large estates, or fincas, as she claims. Far from being a dispossessed peasant, Vicente Menchu had title to 2,753 hectares of land. The 22-year land dispute described by Rigoberta, which is the central event in her book leading to the rebellion and the tragedies that followed was, in fact, over a tiny, but significant, 151-hectare parcel. Most importantly, Vicente Menchu’s “heroic struggle against the landowners who wanted to take our land” was in fact not a dispute with representatives of a European-descended conquistador class, but with his own Mayan relatives, the Tum family, headed by his wife’s uncle.
Vicente Menchu did not organize a peasant resistance called the Committee for Campesino Unity. He was a conservative peasant insofar as he was political at all. Even more importantly, his consuming passion was not any social concern, but the family feud with his in-laws, who were small landowning peasants like himself. It was his involvement in this family feud that caused him to be caught up in the larger political drama enacted by students and professional revolutionaries, that was really irrelevant to his concerns and that ultimately killed him.
At the end of the Seventies, coinciding with a global Soviet offensive, Cuba’s Communist dictator, Fidel Castro, launched a new turn in Cuban foreign policy, sponsoring and arming a series of guerrilla uprisings in Central America. The most significant of these were in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and followed lines that had been laid down by Regis Debray and Che Guevara a decade before. The leaders of these movements were generally not Indian peasants but urban Hispanics, principally the disaffected scions of the middle and upper classes. They were often the graduates of cadre training centers in Moscow and Havana, and of terrorist training camps in Lebanon and East Germany. (The leaders of the Salvadoran guerrillas even included a Lebanese Communist and Shiite Muslim named Shafik Handal.)
One of these forces, Guatemala’s Guerrilla Army of the Poor, showed up in Uspantan, the largest township near Rigoberta’s village of Chimel, on April 29, 1979. According to eyewitnesses, the guerrillas painted everything within reach red, grabbed the tax collectors’ money and threw it in the streets, tore down the jail, released the prisoners, and chanted in the town square, “We’re defenders of the poor,” for fifteen or twenty minutes.
None of the guerrilla intruders was masked, because none of them was local. As strangers, they had no understanding of the situation in Uspantan in which virtually all the land disputes were between the Mayan inhabitants themselves. Instead, they perceived the social problem according to the Marxist textbook version, which has now been perpetuated by Rigoberta and the Nobel Prize committee through Rigoberta’s book. In their first revolutionary act, the guerrillas executed two local ladino landholders.
Thinking that this successful violence had established the guerrillas as the power in his region, Vicente Menchu cast his fate with them, providing them with a meeting place and accompanying them on a protest. But Guatemala’s security forces, which had been primed for Castro’s Soviet-backed hemispheric offensive, responded by descending on the region with characteristic brutality. The killings that ensued were abetted by enraged relatives of the murdered ladino peasants seeking revenge on the leftist assassins. The trail of violence left many innocents slaughtered in its wake, including Rigoberta’s parents and a second brother (whose death Rigoberta sensationalizes by falsely claiming that he was burned alive and that she and her parents were forced to witness the act).
The most famous incident in Rigoberta’s book is the January 1980 occupation of the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City by a group of guerrillas and protesting peasants. Vicente Menchu was the peasant spokesman. The occupation itself was led by the Robin Garcia Revolutionary Student Front. A witness described to David Stoll how Vicente Menchu was primed for his role:
“They would tell Don Vicente, ‘Say, The people united will never be defeated,’ and Don Vicente would say, ‘The people united will never be defeated.” They would tell Don Vicente, ‘Raise your left hand when you say it,’ and he would raise his left hand.”
When they had set out on the trip that brought them to the Spanish Embassy, the Uspantan peasants who accompanied the student revolutionaries had no idea where they were going, or what the purpose of the trip actually was. Later, David Stoll interviewed a survivor whose husband had died in the incident. She told him that the journey originated in a wedding party at the Catholic church in Uspantan. Two days after the ceremony, the wedding party moved on to the capital. Once there, the student revolutionaries proceeded with their plan to occupy the embassy and take hostages, with the unsuspecting Mayans ensnared. Although the cause of the tragedy that ensued is in dispute, David Stoll presents persuasive evidence that a Molotov cocktail brought by the students ignited and set the embassy on fire. At least 39 people, including Vicente Menchu, were killed.
As a result of Stoll’s research, Rigoberta Menchu has been exposed as a Communist agent working for terrorists who were ultimately responsible for the death of her own family. So rigid is Rigoberta’s party loyalty to the Castroist cause, that after her book was published and she became an international spokesperson for indigenous peoples, she refused to denounce the Sandinista dictatorship’s genocidal attempt to eliminate its Miskito Indians. She even broke with her own translator, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, over the issue of the Miskitos (Burgos-Debray, along with other prominent French leftists, had protested the Sandinista attacks.)
Rigoberta’s response to this exposure of her lies was, on the one hand, “no comment” and, on the other, to add another lie by denying that she had anything to do with the book that had made her famous. But David Stoll listened to two hours of the tapes she made for Burgos-Debray (which provided the text for the book) and has concluded that the narrative they recorded is identical to the (false) version of the facts in the book itself. Notably, Menchu did not disclaim authorship of the book when she accepted her Nobel Prize.
The fictional life of Rigoberta Menchu is a piece of Communist propaganda designed to incite hatred of Westerners and the societies they have built, and to organize support for Communist and terrorist organizations at war with the democracies of the West. It has also become the single most influential social treatise read by American college students. Over 15,000 theses have been written on Rigoberta Menchu the world over — all accepting her lies as gospel. Rigoberta herself has been the recipient of 14 honorary doctorates at prestigious institutions of higher learning, and the Nobel Prize committee has made Rigoberta an international figure and spokesperson for “social justice and peace.”
Indicative of the enormous cultural power of the Menchu hoax, is the fact that the revelation of Rigoberta’s mendacity changed nothing. The Nobel committee refused to strip her of her prize; thousands of college courses continue to make her book a required text; and the editorial writers of the major press institutions have defended her falsehoods, reasoning that even if she is lying, she is conveying an important message.
On February 12, 2007, Menchu announced that she was forming an indigenous political party called Encuentro por Guatemala and that she would run in the presidential election seven months later. But On September 9, 2007, Menchu received only 3 percent of the vote.
This profile is adapted from the article titled “I, Rigoberta Menchu, Liar,” written by David Horowitz and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on February 26, 1999.