Nobel Peace Prize Strengthens Voice Of Guatemala Indians

BY awarding Guatemalan human rights campaigner Rigoberta Menchu the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Institute intends to focus international attention on the longest-running civil war in Central America, analysts say.

For more than a decade, Ms. Menchu has lived in exile from her homeland. The brutal conflict in Guatemala that has taken more than 120,000 lives rages on. Indeed, Menchu is not even participating in the stagnated peace talks between the government and leftist insurgents.

But Menchu, a Quiche Indian, has been a ceaseless campaigner in international forums for indigenous American rights. Her 1983 book "I, Rigoberta," has been translated into 11 languages and recounts her life of persecution.

"Rigoberta Menchu stands out as a vivid symbol of peace and reconciliation across ethnic, cultural, and social dividing lines," the Nobel Committee said in announcing the $1.2 million prize.

In Guatemala on Saturday, the day after receiving the award, Menchu told a crowd of supporters that "peace is not signed on paper. It must be cultivated, formed in people's hearts."

At the root of the brutal war in Guatemala, analysts say, are the poverty and human rights violations suffered primarily by the indigenous population, comprises more than half of the country's 9 million inhabitants.

"By bringing the spotlight of world attention and enlightened opinion to the situation in Guatemala, one would hope this would be an impetus to the peace process," says William LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist at Washington University.

Professor LeoGrande likens the award to the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize won by Oscar Arias Sanchez, who was then Costa Rica's president. That award bolstered a regional peace plan that eventually brought an end to the war in Nicaragua.

The Guatemalan peace talks, begun in April 1991, are gridlocked over the issue of human rights, which is only the first item on an 11-point negotiating agenda. Guatemala has one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere. The leftist Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) is trying to negotiate substantial changes in Guatemala's judicial, electoral, and economic systems, similar to the accords reached earlier this year in El Salvador. It also wants a commission to investigate Army human r ights abuses. The Army, which wields considerable power, is opposed to such a commission. And the government, which feels it has the guerrilla movement on the ropes, is not inclined to give much ground.

Thus, Menchs award is a bitter pill for the Guatemalan government. Many of her views parallel those of the URNG. Her father, mother, and a brother were killed by the military. While Menchu is not a member of the URNG, nor has she openly supported the rebel army, two of her sisters have joined the insurgents.

In 1980, when Menchu was 21, her father was burned to death by the Army while peacefully occupying the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala with 38 other protestors. Her mother and younger brother were kidnapped and tortured to death shortly thereafter.

On Friday, Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano Elias offered written congratulations. "With this distinction she will be able to use the influence and authority that the award brings ... in search of a peaceful solution." President Serrano is expected to meet with Menchu today. But Guatemala's foreign minister and the chief military spokesman criticize the award, claiming Menchu is linked to forces that have "endangered Guatemala."

This is not the first time the Nobel Committee has appeared to favor one side in a conflict. Last year, Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won the prize for her fight for democracy. And the Chinese government was enraged when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, won in 1989.

"Recognition of what has been done is the most important part of the prize," Nobel Institute director Rier Lundestad said. "But if the prize can influence future developments, so much the better."

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