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Demanding disclosure on a bloody past

In March, a United Nations-sponsored truth report documenting the horrible details of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war was released to the world.

“Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” described the tactics of the Guatemalan government as “genocide” and held the United States responsible for supporting a string of bloody dictators, for training their militaries in vicious counterinsurgency tactics that resulted in widespread torture and death and for using the CIA to aid the cause of the dictators.

For about a week, the report caused a mild stir but it soon sank to the background, silent and hidden, like the long and grisly U.S.-aided siege that ended with 200,000 Guatemalans dead or missing.

The history will remain obscure, the butchers and assassins largely untouched, unless the demand grows for disclosure. About a month after the report was issued, U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., introduced for the second time the Human Rights Information Act, a bill that would declassify the extensive records of the U.S. State Department, CIA and Department of Defense on activities in Guatemala, Honduras and other countries.

The bill, which currently has more than 60 co-sponsors, has been referred again to a subcommittee. Information about the act can be found at www.amnestyusa.org/truthnow/

It is easy to understand the government’s continued reluctance to release the documents. The United States first created the circumstances for revolution in Guatemala with a CIA-engineered coup in 1954 and then was deeply involved through the bloodiest stages of the civil war in the 1980s. During that latter period, tens of thousands of innocent Guatemalans were tortured and slaughtered by regimes that received U.S. support.

It is difficult to imagine what national security concerns would be served by continuing to refuse to open the record to the American public. Those from Guatemala and the United States who have suffered there certainly deserve to know. Just as compelling, however, is the argument that the Guatemalan and U.S. citizenry at large can make for simply knowing how their governments came to visit such horrible abuses against so many innocent people.

The Human Rights Information Act would provide a much clearer and necessary look at that history, and it would help protect against such gross human rights violations in the future.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999