I, David Stoll, Liar.

Sam Pawlett rsp at SPAMuniserve.com
Thu Oct 28 16:18:34 MDT 1999

David Stoll. Occupation:Debunker.

by David Stoll Westview Press,1999,336pgs.

"White people have been writing our history for 500 years. No white
anthropologist is going to tell me what I experienced in my own flesh."
—Rigoberta Menchu, 1995.

   Students of Latin America may be familiar with David Stoll's earlier
effort *Is Latin America Turning Protestant?* where he argues that the
Protestant sects have succeeded where the left has failed. The left and
left oriented Catholicism demands too much of people,  seeking salvation
through collective action and effort on this earth whereas the
Protestants have completely given up on this world and instead seek
salvation through individual submission to God. As a result, the
Protestants have been more successful in attracting converts and
enlarging their flock.
   In this controversial new book, Stoll again presents himself as the
ruthless pursuer of the truth shattering yet another myth, this time the
story of the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize and Guatemalan
Indigenous campesina leader Rigoberta Menchu. The target of Stoll's
attack is not so much Rigoberta Menchu– Stoll's investigations largely
confirm her story presented in *I,Rigoberta Menchu* -- but the
Guatemalan left and their supporters throughout the world. Stoll
believes that *I,Rigoberta Menchu* justifies guerrilla warfare and class
struggle (p216,231,278) and to undermine class struggle and guerilla
warfare one must undermine *I,Rigoberta Menchu*.(282) As Stoll says

"Facing the limitations of *I,Rigoberta Menchu* will, I hope, help the
Latin America left and its foreign supporters escape from the captivity
of Guevarismo. At bottom rural guerrilla strategies are an urban
romance, a myth propounded by middle class radicals who dream of finding
true solidarity in the countryside."(p282).

Elsewhere (p137ff), Stoll faults the URNG for practicing "foquismo"
which led the guerrillas to defeat. But what the URNG practiced and
preached as well as what is described in *I,Rigoberta Menchu* is the
farthest thing from foquismo.(see George Black p79ff.)
 Stoll seeks to establish a number of theses in his book:

1) The Guatemalan guerrillas ,specifically the EGP (Guatemalan Army of
the Poor), were not and are not representative of indigenous peasants.
The guerrilla struggle did not correspond to the needs and aspirations
of the peasant highland communities.

2) The URNG's (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity– comprised of
four groups; EGP, FAR [Rebel Armed Forces], OPRA [Revolutionary
Organization of the People in Arms] and PGT [Guatemalan Workers Party])
version of history is false. The revolution and its ideology was not
grassroots and did not arise out of popular struggles from the bottom
up. The guerrillas Marxist-Leninist ideology was not native to the
inhabitants of El Quiche and Huehuetenango but rather imposed from the
outside by middle class intellectuals and students. This ideology thus
does not correspond to the reality of the highland peasant.

3) The pre-revolutionary situation in the highlands was essentially
peaceful, class struggle was absent and the main conflicts occurred
between poor peasants (e.g. family/village feuds) and not between

4) The main locus of oppression was ethnicity (ladinos&whites vs.
indigenous) and not class.

5) Menchu's story was told to conform to what the western left expects
of indigenous peoples i.e. class struggle leading to socialist
revolution. She thus abrogated her claim to speak on behalf of all poor

6) Peasants joined the guerrillas because they has no choice believing
the guerrillas would defend them from the army and the ruling class not
because of ideology.

7) The guerrillas did not give an adequate account of ethnicity and the
indigenous peasantry thus making serious flaws in their organizing,
actions and expectations. The guerrillas did not put indigenous peoples
in leadership positions.

8) Guerrillism is risky and is doomed to failure as a mode of social

9) The URNG failed to protect their constituents from the army's
brutality and underestimated the brutality of the military and
paramilitary forces in quelling the insurgency.

10) The revolution was not brought about by economic pressure on the

11) Many of the civil patrols formed in the highland were formed by
peasants trying to protect themselves from the  military.

    None of these claims are new, they are all staples of
counter-insurgency literature and the right wing armchair reactionaries
that grace the op-ed pages of North American newspapers as well as the
pseudo intellectual groveling that takes place in pulp fiction magazines
like New Republic and National Review.

     However, Stoll  in his investigations comes up with some new
evidence that ,as he admits, corroborates Rigoberta's story or otherwise
gives good excuses for the actual inaccuracies that occur in it(p9).
*I, Rigoberta Menchu* was published in 1983, the Guatemalan military and
death squads were still murdering anyone who expressed even the
mildest resistance to the status quo. Rigoberta sought to protect the
identity of the figures who appear in her story(p191.) This is where
Stoll's book is most valuable, for he presents a story that damns the
Guatemalan military and establishment as strong as Rigoberta's does. He
even manages to debunk some common right wing claims e.g. that the Rios
Montt regime stopped the death squads and halted extra-judicial
political murder.

   Stoll relies on anecdotal evidence –a handful of interviews with
campesinos conducted in 1995– to establish the tensions and inaccuracies
in Rigoberta's story and the version of Guatemalan history presented by
the URNG. To his credit, Stoll does not rely exclusively on government –
both U.S. and Guatemalan– for his information, he to some extent, lets
the peasants speak for themselves. He can be faulted on many accounts.
It is easy to criticize a failed revolution after the fact.  Most of the
revolutionaries and their sympathizers are either dead, in jail, in
exile or frightened to speak to anyone about politics. His interviews
are not representative of the population but feature people he claims
are missing
from the left and right wing accounts of Guatemalan history. These are
the people
who supported neither the military nor the guerrillas. Stoll supposes
this faction is quite large though it is impossible to know. Further as
Rigoberta says "If they are now collaborating with the army why believe

   Stoll tries to establish that it was the guerrillas who provoked the
military in its genocidal campaign in the Guatemalan highlands, thus
closing off any possibility of peaceful social change.
Yet clearly, state repression and massacres pre-date the appearance of
the EGP and the other armed groups. Guatemala was after all under a
military dictatorship from 1954. Many people consider it legitimate to
use violence against an unconstitutional military regime regardless of
the merits of doing so.

 Stoll likes to pick apart the publications of people struggling for
social change, so lets pick him apart. Despite his own self-professed
sensitivity to racial dynamics, Stoll is not beyond engaging  in racial
stereotyping of his own. For example we are told "International
adulation for Rigoberta has brought out the Guatemalan penchant for
backbiting."(p275.)  Well, perhaps Stoll's "Ixil sources"(p8). are just
engaging in traditional Guatemalan backbiting when they denounce the
revolutionary movement as the aggressors in the civil war?

   Stoll claims that "although a large majority of their(the URNG-SP)
fighters came to be indigenas, their leadership continued to be
completely ladino above the level of the columns."(p204) This is false.
A man
named Efrain Bamuca , a full blooded indigena came to be a Commandante
in the OPRA and later married U.S. activist Jennifer Harbury and was
subsequently tortured to death by the military. But then as Stoll says
"For an audience uncomfortable with its middle class privileges and the
U.S. record in Guatemala, Rigoberta's story of oppression is analogous
to a preacher reminding listeners that they are sinners. Then her story
of joining the left and learning that not all outsiders are evil makes
it possible for the audience to be on her side, providing a sense of
absolution."p243. So , Bamaquez was really just providing Harbury with a
relief for her middle class guilt, so that doesn't count.

   One of Stoll's techniques common to all counter-insurgency
literature  is to set
up a false dichotomy between peasants and guerrillas reducing mass
struggle to armed struggle. However, the two forms are interrelated,
villagers and peasants joined or supported the guerrilla struggle as the
ruling class repressed violently all social and nationalist movements
for social change. The guerrilla movement was a defensive responses to
the elite violence and an attempt to address the basic social demands of
the majority. The peasants were not conceptually or practically distinct
from the guerrillas, only under the most severe conditions of inhuman
repression and intimidation by the capitalist State did the guerrillas
and the communities become separated when the army massacred whole
villages forcing the peasant and Indian guerrillas into the mountains
and jungles.

   Stoll maintains that the guerrillas precipitated the violence, that
guerrilla violence was present in El Quiche  before the military started
kidnaping, murdering civilians and burning down whole villages.. Yet his
statements to this effect are wildly inconsistent. For instance:

"The EGP's role in setting off political violence was the central
problem...it would become apparent that the bloodshed had been
precipitated by the EGP's decision to turn her area(Rigoberta's S.P.)
into a battleground."p193

"By the time the guerrillas arrived in Uspantan (Rigoberta's hometown),
the army was an experienced killing machine, all too ready to retaliate
against possible civilian collaborators because it knew that was the way
to defeat the guerrillas themselves." p155

"Army kidnappings began not in reaction to peaceful efforts by Ixils to
improve their lot but to guerrilla organizing and ambushes. If anyone
ignited violence in Ixil country it was the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.
Only then had the security forces militarized the area turned it into a
killing ground."p9

"By 1981 southern Quiche was in a state of rebellion. ANGERED BY
GOVERNMENT KILLINGS, most of the population seemed to support the
Guerrilla Army of the Poor. According to one source, over a thousand
people from the municipio of Santa Cruz alone joined the guerrilla
forces. Organized by CUC (Committee for Campesino Unity– peasant union
that joined the URNG in 1979-SP.)

"And incorporated into the EGP, they mined roads, burned government
vehicles, blew up electrical infrastructure, fired on helicopters
ambushed government patrols and attacked bases. They also practiced
self-defense by setting up warning systems and digging booby traps. But
the insurgents did not have enough firepower to protect themselves from
the army, which was soon burning villages...."p101

"But in Uspantan,.during the entire war it (the EGP S.P.)  attacked the
security forces just once on April 25,1980 when two plainclothes
policmen were
shot near the plaza. The local support the guerrillas won seems to have
been mainly in BESIEGED  villages that were soon destroyed. Survivors
became refugees on the run, most of whom were killed captured, or forced
into submission, leaving only  a handful to flee north to the
Communities of Population in Resistance."p137

Stoll dates the first appearance of the EGP in El Quiche to April 1979.
Yet, officially Quiche had been under a state of siege and occupied by
the military since 1976 (Black p79). The military's strategic hamlet
program began in 1976 as well. Huehuetenago weas occupied by the
military in 1976 when the militant local labour unions went on strike at
the Tum mine. In May 1978, more than 100 Kekchi Indians were massacred
by the army at Panzos while protesting over land rights.

 Stoll then says

"By June 1978 the Catholic diocese counted more than 75 government
kidnappings in Ixil country, plus dozens more in the Ixcan."


"A fertile district of Alta Verapaz where finca owners called in the
army to fend off Quiche Maya peasants challenging their property lines.
On May 29,1978 landowners and soldiers machine gunned a crowd of
demonstrators in the town square. The army had declared open season on
campesinos demanding their rights...As the rebel youth of Nicaragua
demonstrated the potential of street warfare, Guatemalans listened on
their radios and dreamed of liberating their own country."p51.

Stoll shifts between claiming that the army reacted to guerrilla
violence or reacted  to guerilla organizing.

"Accounts like this illustrate how hard it is to define when guerrilla
organizing began. No one except survivors among the first cadre in an
area may know because it was the EGP's policy to infiltrate pre-existing
structures and only gradually disclose its agenda even to the people it
was organizing."p118

    Throughout the book, Stoll keeps asking if the guerrillas had little
support ,as he believes, then why the amount of killing and all the

"The avalanche of violence presented in the previous two chapters has
probably been difficult for readers to comprehend. If Uspanatan was
relatively peaceful how could the execution of two ladinos unleash so
much brutality?"p153

"For the quantity of killing committed by the Guatemalan army, many
observers have assumed that the insurgency was a popular uprising– why
else so much bloodshed?"p137

"What reduced it to the fanatical anticommunism that allowed it to
slaughter so many men, women and children? "P279.

  Stoll cannot answer this question because of the dichotomy he sets up
between the guerrillas the communities. The only the way the army could
stop a revolution among the Indians and peasantry was by massacring them
and instituting a permanent culture of fear. There is no way of
separating the guerrillas from the communities, the Church, unions and
other civil organizations.

   Stoll maintains the revolution had nothing to do with political
economy and economic pressure on the peasantry(p154). He would do well
to consult his mentor Timothy Wickham Crowley:

"Indian settlers and sometimes older Indian villagers in the "Zone of
the Generals" were uprooted from their lands in what soon resembled a
large assault on the peasants very access to land...land grabs occurred
in areas that provided a guerrilla haven.

"Percentages of land poor and landless among the peasantry are almost
surely responsible for the falling levels per capita food consumption
among the peasantry... Using the U.N. minimum of 2,236 calories daily,
45% of the Guatemalan people fell below the subsistence level in 1965, a
proportion that increased sharply in the period under consideration: to
70% below minimum in 1975 and 805 by 1980. Brockett has also linked such
conditions "backward' to decreased peasant access to land and "forward"
to increased levels of malnutrition among the Guatemalan peasantry...
The authors also link the increased level of exploitation to increased
support of the Indian populace for the highlands insurgency."
Wickham-Crowley p239-40.

  These are but a few of the inconsistencies and contradictions in
Stoll's account. No doubt readers will find more. His book is a slapdash
affair full of unsubstantiated assertions and opinions. His evidence
consists of rumors and a handful of conversations with locals made
around 1995. His evidence in no way supports any of his conclusions.
Stoll gets a D for effort and an F for content.

Sam Pawlett


David Stoll. *Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans*

More information about the Marxism mailing list