Clinton's Apology to Guatemala is a Necessary First Step

March 15, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, March 15, 1999

President Clinton made the most important policy statement of his career last week when he apologized to Guatemala for the United States’ role in the genocide there, in which 200,000 people were killed over the last few decades.

“For the United States,” he said, “it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”

It was an unusually frank pronouncement, perhaps unprecedented for a sitting President. Abraham Lincoln denounced the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846, but he was only a Congressman at the time.

Most of those who were outraged by the remarks were smart enough keep quiet and wait for them to disappear into America’s vast memory hole.

Others accepted the statement but did not seem to understand its significance. The Washington Post argued that Guatemala was, “if not a special case, a rare one,” and that our government typically acted to broaden “freedom, choice, and truth.”

Nothing could be further from reality. Our government’s role in Guatemala was very similar to its role throughout the region. In fact, the U.S. was even more directly involved with the death squads and military of El Salvador, as they systematically slaughtered tens of thousands of political opponents. In Nicaragua, hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars funded similar crimes designed to overthrow the legitimate government of Nicaragua.

In the rest of the world, U.S. support for some of the longest-running dictatorships was decisive: Suharto in Indonesia, Mobutu in Zaire, Marcos in the Philippines. According to some estimates, the US bombing of Cambodia may have killed as many people there as the regime of Pol Pot, as well as creating the conditions that allowed such a barbaric regime to come to power. And then there was Vietnam, whose people never asked to have their country invaded and nearly destroyed by the most powerful military on Earth.

If we ever begin to apologize to all the countries our government has wronged, the State Department may find it easier to make a short list of the ones who haven’t been.

Many of these interventions involve, as in Guatemala, crimes against humanity and cannot be condoned under any circumstances. But it is nonetheless vitally important for Americans to understand why they occurred.

Political violence is, as the saying goes, the extension of politics by other means. Our foreign policy establishment polices a vast empire outside our borders, in collusion with foreign leaders of all types. Most of the time, America’s enormous economic and political power, along with its control of multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is enough to keep these countries in line. But there are times when these weapons are not sufficient, and that is when we discover that we are involved in a violent struggle about “freedom” in some previously obscure region.

It is easy to lose track of this connecting thread, especially in America, where so few are willing to speak honestly about our foreign policy, and where nothing is older than yesterday’s newspaper. If one takes a snapshot of the world, it appears as if most suffering and injustice is caused by corrupt and repressive governments, ethnic or religious conflict, or even ignorance. And there is of course some truth to these common perceptions.

But if one takes a more historical view, it is clear that in many countries there have been turning points where ordinary people have come together to try to improve their condition. Sometimes they have organized political parties, unions, and other associations. In other times and places, as in Central America, they had no choice but to also take up arms against military-controlled governments. It is at these crucial junctures that our government has powerfully shaped the world we see today, by intervening against these movements for democracy, the alleviation of poverty, and most consistently, against assertions of national economic sovereignty.

Will the President’s apology lead to any substantive changes? Representative Chris Smith, a conservative Republican who chairs the human rights subcommittee of the House Committee on International Relations, has apparently agreed to calls for an investigation.

This would certainly be a big job, especially if extended to other, related crimes. But it would be well worth it. Just as an individual who suffers from a drug addiction cannot recover until he admits he has a problem, America’s foreign policy will not change until our government does likewise. Humanity can only hope that President Clinton’s statement is the first small step down this road.

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