Guatemala's controversial Nobel Peace winner Rigoberta Menchú, never far from the spotlight
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Guatemala's controversial Nobel Peace winner Rigoberta Menchú, never far from the spotlight

The Nobel Peace Prize is no stranger to controversy. Since its inception more than 100 years ago, the $1.2 million accolade has sparked debate and criticism throughout the world.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize for his work to conclude the Vietnam War, but was later accused of war crimes and conducting a secret war in Cambodia. When Yasser Arafat stepped forward to receive the award in 1994, his opponents called him an “unrepentant terrorist with a long legacy of promoting violence,” and the day before Wangari Maathai was due to collect the prize a Kenyan newspaper claimed she said HIV/AIDS was originally developed by the West to depopulate Africa.

When a former coffee-picker became the first Guatemalan to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, a light was momentarily cast upon indigenous people throughout the world. However, shortly afterwards the decision became clouded in controversy once again.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who was living in self-imposed exile at the time, was awarded the accolade in recognition of her work highlighting the exploitation and persecution of her country’s indigenous people during its brutal 36-year civil war.

She had risen to fame a decade earlier for her ghost-written autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, but fell from grace in 1999 when she was later accused of fabricating and exaggerating parts of it.

Ever a controversial figure, Menchú has remained in the limelight for the past 20 years. With two unsuccessful presidential campaigns under her belt, where she failed on both occasions to garner more than three percent of the vote, it may seem like her work has done little to enhance the lives of Guatemala’s native peoples. However, her success may be larger than the polls suggest.

“I’ve really enjoyed the last two elections,” says Menchú. “I haven’t reached 30 percent of the vote, but I’ve reached 95 percent of the country.”

In 2007, the Mayan activist became the first indigenous person to run for Guatemala’s top position and four years later founded the country’s first Mayan political party, WINAQ.

“We were never interested in winning the elections. You can’t win without money and no multimillionaire would support us,” she says.

Recounting an anecdote from her last campaign, she describes addressing a rural town when an opposition party’s bus drove by announcing it was giving away packets of rice, and her audience disappeared.

“Elections here are a carnival, they’re not democratic. Parties use poverty: giving the poor hope by handing them food.”

Despite the irony that the majority of the people she campaigns for do not vote for her, Menchú considers her political career a great success.

“I’ve opened a door to Mayans and to women. Not only do we now have a party, but we also have one person in congress,” she says, referring to Mayan lawyer Amilcar Pop.

But it’s not all politics.

In the same year she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the indigenous activist founded the self-titled Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation, dedicated to the pursuit of peace and promotion of indigenous people’s rights.

Over the past two decades the organization has campaigned for justice for the victims of the war: exhuming mass graves, legislating new crimes, fighting for usurped ancestral lands to be returned to Mayan communities and legally documenting around 36,000 women. Menchú herself even traveled to Spain to bring genocide cases against Guatemala’s war criminals and recently attended the trial of an ex-police chief accused of murder and crimes against humanity during the 1980 burning of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, in which her own father was killed.

Read more: Guatemala Spanish Embassy fire trial begins

For the moment, Menchú continues to devote herself to her original cause: the plight of the people she represented in Oslo twenty years ago. But maybe next year she will try to represent them again on the national stage in Guatemala’s 2015 general elections.