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As Guatemala starts healing, U.S. can't turn away

The acknowledgment, bland as a stock report or weather forecast, was part of nearly every newspaper story about the signing of Guatemala's peace accords: The three and a half bloody decades of civil war began with a CIA-backed coup and continued with U.S. aid and a string of brutal dictators propped up by the United States.

Having done that perfunctory duty vis-a-vis the historical record, the news accounts went on to relate the tensions remaining in Guatemala and the difficulties Guatemalans face in achieving normality following so many years of hatred and extreme violence.

And one is left feeling that this was just another south-of-the-border oddity, a Central American curiosity that, duly noted, can be tucked away until the next historic tremor.

Inevitable as it might be that humans will make war and even eventually grow weary of the violence, the bloody modern history of Central and South America is not something from which North Americans can casually turn away.

Guatemala is an especially poignant case. The stark truth remains that in the interest of U.S. business and under the political guise of fighting Marxism, the United States unleashed an era of vicious rule that has left deep scars in this hemisphere (see related story).

There is no way to overstate the crime here. The record is embarrassingly clear and elaborately detailed in files of the CIA and other government agencies -- many files long ago made public and some of more recent vintage still hidden.

From the overthrow of the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz more than 40 years ago to the more recent rape and torture of U.S. Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz, the United States has been complicit in heinous crimes against countless civilians and courageous religious figures. In the process, we as a nation have consistently trampled our noblest instincts and the highest purposes of our own founding documents.

A component of the post-Cold War world is the wide movement toward democracy, often at great cost to individual heroes and noncombatants. In the wake of such struggles, from Eastern Europe to South Africa to Latin America, populations and cultures are undertaking extremely difficult processes of post-war accounting and reconciliation.

Our political leaders have had much to say about the need for courage and accountability to accompany steps toward reconciliation in other cultures. What has been missing is our own willingness to admit our partnership in the past shames of this hemisphere and an offer to join in the healing process, not as an overlord but as a partner this time of those who have suffered.

Instead, our eagerness for normality is essentially an eagerness for stability in new markets. Economics, not justice, is again the measure of progress.

The mainstream media, in detaching its recitation of data from any sense of outrage, joins in the complicity. But a self-inflicted blindness is no protection from the truth.

The story of U.S. involvement in Guatemala will not be contained in a few throwaway paragraphs. The wounds the U.S. helped inflict are now deeply written into the story of people we call our neighbors.

More than 100,000 people died, some 40,000 disappeared, upwards of a million were displaced and countless numbers were tortured during the decades when blood ran free in this gorgeous country.

Guatemala eventually may find its peace through processes that will allow all to confront the horrors of the recent past. The question facing North America remains: What is the process that will give us peace?

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997