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Latin America - Guatemala President described Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu "a fabrication"

by María Luisa Rivera for Wikileaks, January 16 2011

Álvaro Colom, the president of Guatemala, described Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu as "a fabrication" rather than an authentic leader representing the interests of indigenous peoples.

Colom made these remarks to U.S. ambassador James M. Derham when the diplomat paid a farewell call on the president in July 2008. The meeting was described in a subsequent cable sent by Derham to Washington.

"Colom said Menchu was a "fabrication" of French anthropologist and author Elizabeth Burgos, who wrote the book, "I, Rigoberta Menchu," that brought Menchu to international attention. Colom said that Menchu is widely disliked by Guatemalan indigenous people, as demonstrated by her poor showing in the 2007 presidential election. He said he was present at a 1997 ceremony at which Mayan leaders formally pardoned Menchu for "betraying her people."

Rigoberta Menchu

Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous K’iche’ woman from the highlands of Guatemala, was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an activist campaigning for the rights of the indigenous peoples. Over the years, Menchu has focused on the human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan armed forces during the country’s civil war as well as the abuses of extractive industries and corporations against indigenous peoples.

Non indigenous politicians and middle class citizens in Guatemala have never liked Menchú because of the threat that she poses to their business interests and it seems that President Colom is no exception. Thus it is not surprising that Colom, in his talks with the U.S. ambassador, was more concerned about how the protests had affected business conditions for investors, rather than the demands of the indigenous communities such as the rejection of the construction of the cement plant in San Juan Sacatepéquez on indigenous lands where the local people cultivate flowers.

"Colom said that former presidential candidate and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchu was at least partly responsible for inciting local opposition to the proposed plant," the ambassador reported back to Washington. "She had told Colom of her involvement and that she would continue to encourage indigenous people to protect their land."

Yes to Venezuelan oil, no to free trade agreement

Even though Colom is opposed to the demands of local communities and progressive organizations, the diplomatic memo makes it clear he did not entirely support Washington’s wishes for the region notably the decade-long campaign against President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Colom told the U.S. ambassador that he would reject the free trade agreement created by Chavez - Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América or ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) - but would have to take part in the PetroCaribe deal to avail of the cheap oil being offered by Venezuela.

In the diplomatic cable uncovered by Wikileaks, Derham reported that President Colom was expecting to sign a deal with Petrocaribe at an upcoming trip to Caracas the following week because Guatemala’s tax reform was widely expected to be rejected by the national Congress and Colom needed to "alleviate rising fuel and food prices" - a claim that other elected officials confirmed to the ambassador.

"He (Colom) said he was surprised that the Guatemalan countryside had not yet "exploded" in protest at recent increases in fuel and food prices, and expressed concern that a popular backlash might not be long in coming. Food and fuel inflation was straining people’s budgets, resulting in increased pressure on the state’s limited social welfare net."

Derham reported that President Colom "defended his decision" to travel to Caracas saying: "We’re Social Democrats, but we’re not fanatics, and we’re aware that radicalism in governance leads to failure."

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