Guatemalan Nobel winner runs for office

February 23, 2007|By Hector Tobar | Hector Tobar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MEXICO CITY -- Rigoberta Menchu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Maya Indian who has long been a symbol of indigenous pride and defiance, has announced her candidacy in Guatemala's presidential election.

Menchu, 48, made the announcement after meeting late Wednesday with Nineth Montenegro, a respected human-rights activist and leader of the Encounter for Guatemala political party. Menchu will be the party's candidate in the September vote.

Seen by many in Guatemala as a polarizing figure, Menchu told reporters she will run as a candidate of reconciliation and unity in a country where political and ethnic divisions have often played out violently.

"I am a woman of peace," she said. "We should understand that extremism kills hope."

Political analysts say Menchu will face an uphill battle in a campaign against at least seven opponents. She will be the candidate of a new party that has no previous electoral experience and only an incipient political apparatus.

"Rigoberta will be a key political figure in the next elections, but it will be difficult for her to surpass the other candidates," said Luis Ochoa of the National Institute for Political Studies in Guatemala City. "Her chances for victory are minimal."

Other analysts point out that Menchu could benefit from her status as the consummate outsider of Guatemalan political life. She could benefit also from a wave of dissatisfaction with the crime that has dogged Guatemala since its civil war ended in 1996.

"The vote of undecided and frustrated voters could make an important difference," said Rigoberto Queme, an anthropologist and political analyst in Guatemala.

No matter how Menchu fares in September, her candidacy will carry important historic and cultural overtones. Indigenous people make up about half of Guatemala's population but have been excluded from power and marginalized since Spain conquered the Maya in the 16th century.

No woman or indigenous person has ever been elected Guatemala's president.

Menchu was born in 1959 to a peasant family in western Guatemala. Her parents and several other relatives were killed by security forces in Guatemala's civil war in the 1970s and '80s.

The Guatemalan army was then waging a scorched-earth campaign against insurgents in which tens of thousands of people were killed. Menchu fled to exile in Mexico and recounted her family's story in a 1983 book, I, Rigoberta Menchu, that made her an international spokeswoman for the Guatemalan left.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992.

Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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