Strike, Camera, Action: Woman Gets Results

IN a quest to find her husband, a captured guerrilla leader, Jennifer Harbury staked out a spot on the steps of Guatemala's National Palace and stopped eating.

But not without first contacting the media.

Ms. Harbury, an American lawyer educated at Harvard University, began her hunger strike on Oct. 11 in Guatemala City. Across the US, family, grass-roots groups, public-relations firms, and the media began letting people know.

Within a week Harbury became a media star. Outlets as varied as the New York Times, People Magazine, and the Internet picked up the tale of her marriage to a Mayan Indian that was cut short when he disappeared in early 1992.

``It's just a great story. There's mystery, romance,'' says Beth Bogart of Fenton Communications in Washington, who volunteered as Harbury's promoter. ``I have never in my life gotten more than a dozen calls for the film rights.''

Harbury, who made many contacts during a book tour across the US a year ago, was able to easily rally grass-roots support from Vermont to California, says Pat Davis of the Washington-based Guatemala Human Rights Commission.

``I was surprised and delighted,'' Harbury said, referring to the attention she received, in a phone interview from Washington.

Before she left for Guatemala, Harbury contacted dozens of groups with a list of suggested actions to help spotlight her hunger strike.

One spinoff of her promotion was a hurried trip by a delegation from Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School Human Rights Program to ``indicate to the government of Guatemala that the international community is aware and concerned,'' says Makau wa Mutua, projects director for the Harvard group.

A coordinated phone-in campaign resulted in the White House receiving about 30 calls a day during the strike, Ms. Davis says.

Harbury's public-relations skills - and 32 days of consuming only water and electrolyte solution - paid off. She ended her strike last week when she was promised a meeting with top White House officials, and the Guatemalan Supreme Court called for a search for her husband.

She credits the television magazine show 60 Minutes for one major breakthrough. After the show's Nov. 6 airing, the US Embassy in Guatemala announced they had evidence that Harbury's husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, had been captured alive, giving her evidence to press charges in Guatemala against the Army.

Ms. Bogart says the hunger strike was a last resort for Harbury. ``She tried to play the good girl for two years,'' Bogart says. ``She went to the UN, Congress .... She really tried to do all the right steps, but it just wasn't working.''

But Harbury rejects the idea that people see her as a hero. ``It seems to me that what people are relating to is how horrible it would be to have a family member [in this situation],'' she says.

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