Telling the Truth About Guatemala — And U.S. Foreign Policy

March 04, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, March 4, 1999

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, March 1, 1999
The Montreal Gazette
, March 10, 1999 


The report of an independent truth commission in Guatemala made the front page of the New York Times last Friday, but few Americans will understand what happened there or why it should matter to them. That’s because our government really doesn’t want them to know.
And no wonder. The Commission found compelling evidence of U.S. complicity in the reign of terror that it chronicled.
How deeply was the United States involved? Declassified documents from the CIA include transcripts of interrogation sessions where victims were tortured, in the presence of people who were co-operating with U.S. intelligence. Other documents show that our government had extensive and up-to-date knowledge of massacres and other atrocities, while they maintained a close working relationship with the Guatemalan military at all levels. The United States supplied weapons, training, and other aid to the military throughout most of thirty-four year period (1962-96).
Through some of the worst periods of killings, our government provided crucial political support, to keep the Guatemalan government from being isolated by the rest of the world. In the early eighties, when the army was murdering whole villages-and our government was fully aware of the
details– President Reagan repeatedly told Congress that Guatemala was improving its human rights record.
These are some of the worst crimes committed by any state since Hitler’s Germany, and the Commission estimated that some 200,000 people were killed. In the majority of the 626 massacres committed by the military and their allies, the Commission found “evidence of multiple acts of savagery, . . . such as the killing of defenseless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in gasoline and burning them alive; the
extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts. . . the rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice.”
Furthermore, the Commission found that these “were not isolated acts or excesses committed by soldiers who were out of control, nor were they the result of possible improvisation by mid-level Army command.” Rather, they were part of a “higher, strategically planned policy.”
It is common to excuse American complicity in these crimes as a product of the Cold War, as though our government was merely tolerating some excesses by allies in a worldwide struggle against the Soviet Union. But this is overly apologetic, and misleading. First, there is a pattern to U.S. foreign policy in this region (as well as elsewhere), and it has little to do with the Soviet Union or Cuba — Fidel Castro was in prison in Batista’s Cuba when the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected government in 1954. This coup ensured that the nation’s poor would have no choice but to take up arms against a succession of military governments backed by the United States.   
In fact, the Guatemalan guerrillas (and their counterparts in El Salvador) would have gladly laid down their arms at any number of points if they had been allowed to pursue their goals of economic and social reform through the ballot instead of the bullet. But our government would not seriously consider such a settlement until the 1990s, after most of the political leadership that could participate in a democratic contest-and indeed tens of thousands of their supporters-had been systematically murdered.    

Aside from the evidence of U.S. complicity, the most politically important finding of the Commission was that the military and its allies committed genocide against the Mayan Indian population, as well as other crimes against humanity. This means that the amnesty granted to the perpetrators of these crimes cannot hold, under international law. Like Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in London last October, they can now, at least potentially, be prosecuted.    

Unfortunately, this chapter of American foreign policy is far from over. Columbia is now one of the world’s largest recipients of U.S. aid, thanks to the more than $300 million going to its military and police forces. Death squads attached to the military regularly murder civilians, as in Central America in the 1980s. Fighting communism is no longer a marketable pretext, so the policy is sold to the American public as “anti-drug operations.”
As the Washington Post noted in its editorial on the Guatemalan report, “we need our own truth commission.”

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