Thursday, March 29, 2007

Menchú plots Guatemala's way out of 'darkness'

By Adam Thomson in Guatemala City

In a middle-class home in Guatemala City, and surrounded by five hyperactive puppies and a bodyguard carrying two sub-machine guns, Rigoberta Menchú is mapping out a campaign that she hopes will culminate in victory in September's presidential election.

Dressed in a traditional multicoloured dress and headband, the 48-year-old indigenous leader and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 adopts mystical tones when she begins to describe the problems Guatemala faces. "We are in a time of darkness," she tells the FT. "It is a time of no time. We cannot see the path because it is still dark."

Such ways of seeing and describing the world are a new concept in Guatemalan politics, which, since independence in 1821, has been dominated by a small and overwhelmingly light-skinned elite.

But while these Mayan musings may not fit easily in the western mind, she believes they will be easily understood by the country's majority indigenous population and stir a traditionally apathetic segment of the country to vote for her. If she succeeds, she would become Guatemala's first indigenous president.

She would also follow the example of Evo Morales, the indigenous Bolivian head of state who, since assuming power in January 2006, has courted controversy with his brand of leftwing rhetoric and strengthened political and trade ties with Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's oil-rich president and self-proclaimed socialist.

Ms Menchú, a diminutive figure with a bright smile and a round face that hides her years, speaks fondly of Mr Morales, whom she describes as "a great brother and friend". "Bolivia is a country that is building its future," she says.

Yet she adopts a more cautious tone when asked whether her policy proposals could be seen as leftwing. "Concepts of left and right cannot be applied to what we stand for," she says. "I am a Mayan and that makes me different."

Some of her proposals – or at least the way she describes them – do set her apart from her competitors. For example, while Álvaro Colom, a runner-up in the 2003 presidential election and the leading centre-left candidate for the September election, advocates simple "rural development", Ms Menchú talks of promoting national agriculture to cement traditional Mayan produce as the cornerstone of the nation's diet.

She also says she would open a national debate on whether Cafta, the 2004 trade agreement between Central America and the US, truly benefits Guatemala. Central America's most populous country ratified the agreement in July and while the effects of the agreement are still unclear, it has met with strong opposition in some particularly sensitive sectors, such as agriculture.

On other issues, however, Ms Menchú's proposals echo those of the mainstream opposition. She talks of the need to make government spending more efficient and transparent, make Congress more accountable and raise Guatemala's pitiful tax take to help resolve poverty, which affects more than 50 per cent of the roughly 12m inhabitants.

Like the other candidates, she says purging and improving the national police force is a priority. The subject has become a principal theme in Guatemala since the apparent discovery of death squads operating within the force, after four policemen were accused of slaying three congressmen from neighbouring El Salvador along with their driver last month.

The incident, which this week produced the resignation of Carlos Vielmann, the interior minister, acquired an even more sinister air when the arrested policemen were found murdered in their cells several days later.

Despite the fanfare that greeted the announcement of her candidacy, most political analysts in Guatemala believe her chances are slim. They admit her fame is a strong asset in an electoral system where personality often counts for more than policy.

But they also point out the indigenous movement is fragmented and that she does not enjoy the support from the indigenous community that she might. According to a recent poll, she only has 19 per cent of the vote compared with more than 38 per cent for Mr Colom.

But sitting in her garden, where two oil drums stand next to a pen containing yet another dog, Ms Menchú dismisses the scepticism.

She leans across and points to a thick column of ants scaling a wall and says: "That is what my campaign is about. It is a campaign of the poor but, above all, about collective action."