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Gerardi’s death brings moment of clarity

There are moments, too often involving death, that bring a stunning clarity to complex circumstances.

So it is with Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the latest in a long procession of Guatemalans who have lost their lives in the struggle for basic human rights.

In the civil realm, the clarity cuts through all the international intrigue and U.S. State Department double-talk to the heart of the matter. The United States played a distressingly major role during three and a half decades as one of the powerful interests that imposed a violent, crushing repression on Guatemalans, particularly the indigenous Mayan population.

Motivated by both a fear of communist expansion during the 1950s-1970s and by unqualified support and protection of U.S. business interests there, the United States became deeply involved in Guatemala’s internal affairs, propping up a string of violent dictators.

In the religious arena, Gerardi’s death highlights the irrelevance and smallness of the kinds of theological and ecclesial obsessions that seem to preoccupy so many in authority in Rome and elsewhere. What debate can possibly follow from an example so genuinely imitative of Christ’s sacrificial love that one of his flock could exclaim, “He loved us so much, he ended up suffering our fate” (NCR, May 8).

The tragedy, of course, is that so many moments of clarity in Guatemala’s history have gone by without notice. It was all those missed moments -- the collective groaning of a tortured population seeking justice -- that had moved Gerardi to organize the Historic Memory Project that painstakingly detailed, in a 1,400-page, four-volume report, the horrors of Guatemala’s 35-year civil war (NCR, Feb. 13).

In a recent editorial calling for Guatemala to show that things have changed by finding and prosecuting Gerardi’s killers, The New York Times lamented “the thousands of political murders that took place out of the world’s spotlight.”

Who knows if that bit of self-indictment was intentional. The slaughter in Guatemala, however, did occur largely out of the spotlight, and the U.S. press in all of its manifestations shares the blame. The mainstream media in the United States has not done well in telling the tales of slaughter and genocide in this hemisphere. Its lack of attention to the work of Gerardi’s project until his death is but the latest example. Too often in the past the reporting sounded like dispatches from inside the State Department.

If Gerardi is not to end up another silent victim, then the moment of clarity brought about by his death must lead to change. Guatemala, its politics and its judicial system, must change if the peace process is to have any meaning and if the country is ever to approach reconciliation after its long nightmare.

The United States could certainly be a powerful agent of change, not only for Guatemala but for the way we operate at large in this hemisphere. The U.S. government -- the CIA and the State Department, particularly -- undoubtedly possesses data that could shed a telling light on the circumstances in Guatemala during the past 35 years.

Much of the earliest U.S. involvement in the mid-1950s, when the CIA overthrew a legitimately elected government, has been documented by journalists through the Freedom of Information Act. So much more lies hidden, and the Clinton administration could help both the United States and Guatemala to step closer to reconciliation and justice by declassifying the documents that will help tell the full story.

This would ensure that Bishop Gerardi’s death will not be in vain.

National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 1998