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Guatemala report: meaning for U.S.

It would be impossible to overstate the significance of the Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification on the 36 years of civil war in Guatemala.

For a country that has seen so much bloodshed and indescribably brutal torture to manage a bit of truth in any form is remarkable. In the 3,500-page report detailing the roots of the violence, the aid from outside forces and the flaws in Guatemalan society that fueled the violence, Guatemala has taken an important first step toward normality.

The summary of that report (see story) makes clear the long and difficult road Guatemala faces if it ever is to achieve reconciliation on a national scale. Any lasting fix will require profound changes in the political, military and judicial spheres and a fundamental conversion of much of the society away from the long-standing racism that made the Mayan population a target of genocide.

If the task facing Guatemala is clear, that facing the United States is not so apparent. What do we do as a culture with the information that we armed, trained and aided a government in carrying out one of the bloodiest episodes in modern history in this hemisphere?

How do we grab hold of the significance for us?

Guatemala stands as a deeply disturbing reminder of what was wrought by the excesses of anti-communist fervor.

It would be dangerous, however, to placate ourselves by consigning the episode to another era. For there will always be new enemies, new reasons to hedge on our convictions about human rights, new causes that call for blinding fervor. Yesterday’s communist threat could easily become today’s threat to “our” markets, “our” products, what’s good for “our” business.

In fact, such an enemy was part of the mix when first we sent our CIA into Guatemala in 1954. The United Fruit Co. felt threatened by a left-leaning Guatemalan president who intended to nationalize some of his country’s land, and Washington responded.

We overthrew a duly elected government, an act that inspired the birth of the guerrilla movement in Guatemala. We started the whole mess, and we’ve been largely on the wrong side of things ever since.

One of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala’s war occurred during the tenure of Gen. Efraín Rios Montt, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian who had gained the presidency through a coup that deposed an equally bloody character named Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia. Rios Montt loved to wave his Bible. And he also loved to kill Indians.

His troops massacred thousands. He was a darling of the Reagan-Bush team.

And he was a darling of evangelicals here. Pat Robertson and his sidekick one evening in the early ’80s stood before the television cameras, deep in prayer, raising up this man of God. Our thinking got twisted in so many ways.

In a reply to a reporter’s question about the killing of Mayans, Rios Montt once said that “the Indians were subversives. ... Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then it would be said you were killing innocent people.”

How do we clean our hands of such associations?

The degree to which our thinking can be deformed is evident in the comments of Elliott Abrams, who as a state department official during the Reagan and Bush era, was one of those who shaped our policy on human rights and Latin America.

He was critical of news agencies that highlighted the U.S. role in recent Guatemalan history and commented, “My understanding is that it is a report about what Guatemalans did to each other.”

If only Guatemala had allowed a greater U.S. role, things would not have been so bloody, he said. But it was the presidents he served who lifted earlier human rights restrictions on aid to Guatemala.

The comments ring with an arrogance of the powerful who think themselves invincible. Such arrogance propels a pattern of behavior.

The U.S. invasion of Grenada under Reagan was condemned by the Organization of American States by a vote of 108-9. During that armed attack on a tiny nation, the United States mistakenly bombed a hospital for the mentally impaired. The heirs of the dozens killed sued in the Inter-American Court in Costa Rica. The United States is the only major nation in North and South America that does not grant jurisdiction to that tribunal. No significant damages were ever paid to the victims.

In another case, the United States was caught in an illegal mining of Nicaragua’s harbors. When the World Court at The Hague found America guilty and was about to levy a fine for damages, the United States denied that the World Court had any jurisdiction and asserted that it would use its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to reject any charge of liability.

America has a penchant for walking out on its commitments under world law. It refused to submit to the U.N. Treaty of the Law of the Sea, the world’s plan to curb global-warming, humanity’s rejection of land mines and the U.N. covenants on the rights of women and children.

Call it a streak of lawlessness. Perhaps such a tendency is present in every person or nation that possesses immense power. But it is shocking in a country that self-righteously proclaims its devotion to the rule of law. That moral concept implies that the powerful and the powerless obey the same laws.

No international forum exists for holding the United States accountable for its role in Guatemala. At the same time, no culture can be complicit, as we were, in the horrors that occurred in Guatemala and come away untainted. Who knows how it manifests itself? But as the commission wrote, the extreme cruelty occurred not just against the victims, “but also morally degraded the perpetrators and those who inspired, ordered or tolerated these actions.” And certainly also those who armed and trained the perpetrators and stood by silently as the acts occurred.

The Guatemalan truth commission recommends that its conclusions and recommendations be widely disseminated. For our own sakes, that would not be a bad strategy for the United States. For we, with the Guatemalans, must ask how “these acts of outrageous brutality” could take place. Because we must not allow it to happen again.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999