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Kearns: Indigenous Menchu has blue-ribbon support

It might be a long shot, but she does have a chance. Rigoberta Menchu's campaign for president of Guatemala involves a Mayan-based political movement, a team of high-caliber indigenous leaders and a strategy that targets local and regional office through the movement's alliance with the strong leftist party, Encounter for Guatemala.

While the polls show a substantial lead for mainstream center-left candidate Alvaro Colom with 32 percent, and Menchu, with 4.4 percent, she will still run a very strong campaign and is optimistic that it's early enough in the contest to gain some ground.

Menchu is internationally known for her 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for activism in defense of indigenous peoples, and for her controversial autobiography, ''I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.'' In the last decade, she has stayed in the public eye by leading calls to indict Guatemalan generals and politicians who committed numerous atrocities during the country's bloody 36-year civil war.

Up until last fall, however, Menchu was not interested in running for office. It was in December that she changed her mind. Leaders of the indigenous Winaq - ''the wholeness of the human'' - movement approached her and convinced her that her participation was crucial for their shared objectives. The Winaq leaders had already developed an organizational presence in at least 12 regions of the country, although they had not yet chosen the name until recently.

The ideas that propelled the movement into being began in 2003. Mayan activist the Rev. Vitalino Similox, a member of Menchu's team, helped lead citizens' rights and indigenous rights workshops at that time. In prior press reports, Similox noted that ''we became Winaq just now, but the ideas began three years ago in 70 different municipalities.''

Menchu's team of leaders and activists participated in the same process and can bring with them connections to different segments of indigenous and non-indigenous Guatemala. They are all heavy-hitters.

The name that usually appears first on the Winaq/Menchu list is Otilia Lux de Coti. Lux is a world-renowned indigenous activist. She has been a member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a permanent representative from Guatemala to UNESCO, a member of the Commission for the Historical Investigation on the Violation of Human Rights and Acts of Violence in Guatemala from 1997 to 1999, the Minister of Culture and Sports from 2000 to 2004 and a board member of the Political Association of Mayan Women. She won the prestigious Bartolome de las Casas award, and in February she was inducted into France's National Legion of Honor for her work as an indigenous activist and educator.

One of the other Mayan activist/professionals is Amilcar Pop, a leader of the Guatemalan Association of Mayan Lawyers, an analyst of indigenous law, and a former member of the Public Prison Defense Institute and of the Presidential Commission against Discrimination and Racism. Pop has recently been making headlines in the struggle to get indigenous representation on the bench; in a country of more than 7 million indigenous people, there are no indigenous judges or magistrates in the higher courts. The activist attorney is also a plaintiff in a series of human rights suits against former military and government leaders.

Another part of the Winaq team is also a high-profile member of the Presidential Commission Against Discrimination and Racism. Ricardo Cajas is an indigenous community leader who served as coordinator general on the commission and testified before the United Nations in 2006 about the extreme racism against indigenous Guatemalans that had contributed to the long civil war.

Cajas' testimony focused on both the history and the current progress being made in the country. He recently was widely quoted in the American press for his stinging critiques of Mel Gibson's latest cinematic bloodfest, ''Apocalypto.'' The film presents the Mayas as barbarians and murderous people that can only be saved by the arrival of the Spaniards, Cajas said. He asserted that the level of bloodshed is historically inaccurate and makes the Mayans seem savage.

Similox, who is also head of the Conference of Evangelical Churches of Guatemala, has worked as an advocate for indigenous rights and has attempted to mobilize religious communities throughout the country in support of human rights initiatives. Similox has been the target of numerous death threats by far-right paramilitary squads. He gained some international fame when Amnesty International publicized one of the times he was threatened in the mid-1990s. He is also a member of the Ecumenical Forum for Peace.

Carmela Curup is a peace activist who has helped negotiate on behalf of Native people in Guatemala and is the first indigenous woman in the country to receive a degree in juridical science. As an activist and an attorney, she has witnessed the continuing problems of racism in the court system and in the laws affecting indigenous communities.

Winaq member Byron Morales has worked on behalf of indigenous and non-indigenous workers as a founder of the Guatemalan Workers Union Syndicate for many years. Morales has served as a leader and representative of other unions within the country and, like some of his fellow Winaq team, has been targeted by far-right death squads for his activism. Morales was among a group of labor leaders that was persecuted in the mid-'90s, which came to the attention of Amnesty International and the United Nations.

Along with her blue-ribbon Winaq team, Menchu will also have the support and already-developed political ties of the Encounter for Guatemala Party, led by the well-respected Nineth Montenegro. Montenegro is a human rights activist and congressman who, like Menchu, was victimized by death squads in the '90s. She lost her parents and siblings in the conflict; state forces kidnapped and then ''disappeared'' Montenegro's husband, Edgar Garcia, a union leader.

Menchu has a solid team and a reputable political party working on her campaign and several local and regional political contests that have yet to be determined. She has also received mostly positive treatment from the international press as well as good wishes from people all over the world. Among her international supporters is Bolivian President Evo Morales, who recently instructed his chancellor to deliver the Aymaran staff of power to Menchu to demonstrate his support.

It is entirely possible that Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan woman with a past full of great suffering, will become South America's second indigenous president.

Rick Kearns is a freelance writer of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.