Guatemala’s impossible candidate

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On Sunday Guatemala will vote to decide who will be its next president. Here Jo Barrett profiles human rights campaigner Rigoberta Menchú Tum – an indigenous woman who is one of the candidates

In the closing hours of Guatemala’s presidential general election campaign spare a thought for Rigoberta Menchú Tum. The Quiché Mayan woman who is vying to become the country’s first ever indigenous leader has run out of money and now looks set for defeat in the polls.

But the fact that she’s come this far is a milestone in Guatemala’s turbulent political history and a sign that indigenous pride is still gaining momentum across Latin America.

It is nearly two years since Bolivia elected its first indigenous leader, former coca farmer, Evo Morales. He joined Mexico’s Juarez, Peru’s Toledo and Venezuela’s Chávez to become Latin America’s fourth native president since the Spanish set sail.

And last year, Michelle Bachelet was sworn in as Chile’s first female leader – only the third woman to preside over a Latin American country.

Add to this a possible job for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who may perhaps take the reins from her husband when Argentina go to the polls in October, and it seems the Latin American political spectrum, long associated with white middle class males, might just be starting to shift.

But Rigoberta Menchú, a 48 year-old Nobel Prize winner and human rights activist, is a long way from joining either camp of Latin American leaders – the indigenous or the female. Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre this week announced she had slipped into sixth position in the race for the presidential palace and isn’t likely to take more than 2% of the 5.9 million strong vote.

However Menchú’s supporters say the newly created ‘Winaq’ movement – which joined forces with centre-left party Encounter for Guatemala to allow her to run in this year’s presidential race – has gained the backing of large numbers of the country’s indigenous population which officially stands at 40%.

Though many of the country’s indigenous peoples – who are largely concentrated in 11 of the country’s 22 departments – survive on less than $2 a day, they have seldom had a voice in Guatemala’s political arena.

In a statement to Prensa Latina, Menchú said: “I dream of a Guatemala for all, in which nobody excludes anyone else on account of language, dress or social position. I would like to see everyone taking part in a new dawn for this country”. So where has she gone wrong?

Critics have been quick to point out Menchú’s flaws. Though celebrated for her campaigning role against violations committed by the country’s armed forces during years of bloody conflict, she is primarily viewed as an activist with little political experience. According to Washington’s Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), many Guatemalans refer to her simply as ‘Nobel prize’.

Guatemalan blogger Rudy Girón, who described Menchú’s candidacy as “impossible” back in July, says her lack of support is partly to do with the country’s “backwardness” when it comes to ensuring the well-being of its people.

“In terms of social, political [and] educational advances…Guatemala is a century behind”, writes Girón, echoing the views of those who say a strong manifesto packed with substance is what impoverished Guatemalans are really looking for.

But the fact that Menchú is standing at all is momentous. “It’s important to recognise that this is a historic candidacy”, says Sue Kuyper of the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), though she warns against simplified comparisons between Menchú and other indigenous leaders in the region.

For Guatemala, it seems the time is not yet right for what Girón calls a ‘female-indigenous-left wing’ trifecta. Polls suggest most will place their trust in Otto Pérez Molina, a former army commander who leads the right-wing Patriotic Party.

Flawed though it might be, Menchú’s campaign is certainly a step in the right direction. At the very least, says Luis Solano, a prominent Guatemalan journalist based in California, she has managed to set the country on the path towards greater indigenous representation.

“It’s a very, very slow change”, says Solano. “But it’s still a change. What we need now is a lot more Rigoberta Menchús”.