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New, hopeful symbols in Chile and Guatemala

When Alfonso Portillo took the presidential oath of office Jan. 14, not many Guatemalans were prepared for the strong commitment he made to human rights and to uphold the cause of hundreds of thousands brutally tortured and murdered during the country’s recently ended civil war.

Portillo specifically mentioned the two reports published during the past two years -- one by the Catholic church in Guatemala and the other by the United Nations -- detailing the country’s gruesome history of the past three decades.

Both reports place the blame for most of the torture and killing on the military and its agents.

He promised that the reports “will be converted into commitments of the government and the state.” Portillo added, “To dig up the truth, recognize our errors, ask forgiveness, provide justice, dignify the memory of the victims and take measures of just reparation are opportunities that the reports present to us.”

Those are stunning words from a man who cut his political teeth working for one of the most notorious leaders -- former dictator and retired Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt -- of Guatemala’s bloody political right.

Those are stunning words from anyone elected to lead this broken country, where human rights groups continue to unearth mass graves and where horrible stories of torture and repression have not yet had time to filter through the distance of even a single generation.

Two days after Portillo gave his speech, Ricardo Lagos, the newly elected leader of Chile, which has seen its share of bloodshed under repressive dictators, gave further witness to the changes that seem to be taking hold in the region.

“A new spirit is spreading across our territory,” said Lagos. “I want to resolve the pains of our past. There is space here for everyone. I haven’t forgotten the past, but my eyes are open to the future.”

Just as remarkable were the words of Lagos’ opponent, Joaquín Lavin, a former aide to former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested on a Spanish warrant in 1998 while in a London hospital. Pinochet’s fate since then has been uncertain. He has been fighting extradition to Spain to face charges stemming from widespread human rights abuses during his rule in Chile.

In conceding defeat, Lavin announced, “I will always be with Ricardo Lagos and with Chile … I am at his disposal to help unify Chile.”

A close associate of Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a violent coup in 1973, Lagos helped lead the fight against the Pinochet regime in the 1980s.

It is too early to predict how deep and enduring are the changes apparent in these two elections. On the face of it, they are remarkable departures from past practice and hold great promise for healing deeply scarred cultures.

If these changes are to endure, however, it will not be without a deeper understanding of the forgiveness, reconciliation and pursuit of justice implied in the ceremonies held in both countries.

Chileans and Guatemalans, each in their own ways, have already gone a significant distance down the painful road of confronting historic evils and figuring a way through those evils to the future.

Glaringly absent from the process is the utter lack of accountability of the United States for the considerable role it played in creating and abetting the horror in those two countries.

The details of U.S. involvement in Chile, Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America have been retold time and again on these pages. Still, that involvement remains a story that escapes wide public notice. No one in authority is demanding a truth commission for the United States. No one is demanding the indictment of those who aided the powers responsible for crushing so many innocent people.

Our publications and television outlets rail against the atrocities in Eastern Europe but barely turn their eyes to the torture chambers, mass graves and waves of internal refugees just a quick plane ride to the south.

Chile and Guatemala seem to be turning a corner in their respective struggles toward social order. It is inevitable that, somewhere in the national introspection that accompanies such journeys, the United States will be drawn, unwittingly, into the process. Will we be as eager to tell the truth and aid the healers as we were to help the generals?

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000