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U.S. must face its role in Guatemala’s tragic past

Guatemalan Catholics displayed a faith that was frighteningly courageous during hellish decades of repression and slaughter. Now they have added profound wisdom to that witness by refusing to allow the past to slip, without accounting, into oblivion.

The story as recounted by Paul Jeffrey is at once haunting and life-giving. But a major component of the violence that ripped that society apart for more than 30 years -- U.S. interference in the government of Guatemala and its complicity in the crimes of increasingly brutal regimes -- remains in the shadows.

As a result of the war, Guatemala’s Supreme Court registered more than 35,000 widows and 200,000 orphans due to political violence; more than 440 villages were destroyed; at least 100,000 civilians have died due to political violence since 1954.

There was wanton killing on both sides, but, as was the case in neighboring El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America, the use of mass slaughter, torture and terror was overwhelmingly the domain of the ruling military dictatorship.

In establishing the Project to Recover Historic Memory, Guatemala’s Catholic bishops are applying basic Catholic sacramental theology. And they are doing so against pressure from the government and other religious leaders.

Evangelical Protestant leader Marco Antonio Rodríguez opposes the project. “There needs to be a genuine pardon,” he said, “and that means forgetting.”

Quite the contrary, reply the bishops. “The person who forgets or who pretends to forget doesn’t do away with what happened. You can’t get rid of it,” said Guatemala City Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi. “To pardon really means to create new attitudes, to provoke change inside people and between people, not just to palliate the violence and the hurt that remains.”

The insight is familiar to any Catholic with the most rudimentary instruction about reconciliation: in order for the sin to be forgiven it must be named, and someone must take responsibility for it.

U.S. involvement in Guatemala began with a well-documented, CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, who was replaced with a Guatemalan general.

That action spawned the beginning of the guerrilla movement in Central America and set the stage for the civil war that got underway in earnest in the 1960s.

Through three decades of war, the United States trained Guatemalan troops at the infamous School of the Americas and backed military regimes that were systematically torturing and killing civilians under the guise of battling communism and maintaining a suitable atmosphere for international commerce.

Except for a brief time during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who banned military aid to Guatemala because of human rights violations, we turned our backs on the stories of grotesque and widespread abuses.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president, there was dancing in the streets in the embassy section of Guatemala City. Those in control knew the gloves could come off again -- no inconvenient inquiries into human rights abuses.

During the Reagan era, Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia oversaw a reign of terror that turned the country into an armed camp. The killing ranged widely -- physicians involved with the indigenous in the countryside, priests and lay catechists, community leaders, labor leaders -- until no one was safe.

Garcia was overthrown by another general, Efraín Rios Montt, a self-proclaimed man of God who regularly thumped his Bible and preached capitalism and democracy -- and slaughtered people.

He was welcomed by the Reaganites and celebrated by TV evangelists like Pat Robertson, and all the time Rios Montt was overseeing a massive massacre campaign throughout indigenous villages.

The United States has documents, probably piles of them, relating to the civil war years in Guatemala. We should give them up, come clean, let the world know that our ideals allow us to confront the ugliness, the sin, in our own past.

The Guatemalans deserve at least that consideration from us. Our national soul demands it.