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Guatemala offers a bit of history we dare not forget

As the United States, in its military campaigns against countries such as Iraq and Yugoslavia, tries to position itself as moral arbiter for the post-Cold War world, a pesky bit of history keeps nipping at its heels.

News from Guatemala keeps threatening to drag us down from the moral heights with memories of that cold war when, in the name of fighting communism, the United States engaged in some reprehensible behavior.

First came the April 1998 report compiled by the Catholic church’s three-year “Interdiocesan Project to Recover the Historic Memory.” Titled “Guatemala: Never Again,” the report blamed the Guatemalan military for the bulk of the violence during the country’s 36-year civil war that ended with the signing of peace accords in December 1996 (NCR, Feb. 13 and May 8, 1998).

The church report was followed by a United Nations-sponsored truth report released in February of this year that described the actions of the Guatemalan government during the 36-year civil war as genocide. The report also held the United States responsible for supporting a succession of brutal military dictators, for using the Central Intelligence Agency to aid the Guatemalan military and for training Guatemalan army officials in counterinsurgency tactics that resulted in widespread torture and death (NCR, March 12).

The information in those reports was gathered through extensive interviews and painstaking work that involved exhuming bodies from mass, secret graves.

Now comes a report from inside the government and military structure detailing the army’s intent, a gruesome logbook containing photographs and coded references to executions of 183 victims.

It is the only known record of its kind.

The revelation of the logbook has brought some measure of comfort to Guatemalan families who at least now know the ultimate fate of loved ones who have been disappeared for years.

But it ought to make U.S. officials increasingly uneasy. The United States has never adequately dealt with this sinister piece of history and its involvement in it.

It also complicates U.S. concern over refugees and oppressed people elsewhere when it keeps coming out that this country was complicit in atrocities that are strikingly similar to the gruesome deeds of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosovec and his thugs.

The numbers may have been smaller, but in those 36 civil war years, 200,000 people were killed, mostly Mayans, and hundreds of thousands more became refugees, some wandering inside Guatemala and many trying to escape.

Unlike the attention given Kosovar refugees, no cameras concentrated for countless days on the Guatemalan’s perilous trek into Mexico or their dangerous attempts to make it to the United States. And those who made it here were not greeted by legions of humanitarian workers and worldwide concern. They had to seek sanctuary because the United States deemed them economic, not political refugees. How could they be political refugees from a regime the United States was supporting?

This logbook revelation will not be the last.

It is time for the United States to come clean on its long involvement in Guatemala, no matter how embarrassing.

If there is any consistency to President Clinton’s concern for oppressed cultures and exploited refugees, he should open the considerable U.S. archives on the period and allow the story to be told in full.

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999