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During President Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, he intoned, “In the great tradition of President Jimmy Carter … we are still the world’s leading force for human rights around the world.”

Carter deserves praise for heroic efforts at peacemaking. But if he established a great tradition, it has become a tarnished one.

When I heard Clinton’s bold claim, I couldn’t help thinking of Sr. Dianna Ortiz. Why keep dragging out that story? After all, it happened years ago and bets are that we’ll never find out -- at least not for a long time -- the identity of those who raped and tortured her in Guatemala in 1989.

But Ortiz stands as a symbol for the masses of people tortured and “disappeared” in that country, which itself symbolizes the sinister side of American political and economic pursuits.

In Guatemala, more than 200,000 were killed or disappeared as a result of decades of civil war violence. Most of the horror was generated by the Guatemalan army and much of the violence was aided and abetted by the United States.

None of these cruelties, of course, will make it through the din of conventions or the choreography of the campaign to follow. Not to throw cold water on the party or detract from Carter’s reputation, but noble words are drained of credibility if, as a country, we fail to own up to our responsibility in such matters.

In 1981, at one of the bloodiest periods of the Guatemalan civil war, I accompanied another journalist to Guatemala for a brief time. We conducted clandestine interviews throughout the country. The thread that bound them together was the insistent plea to “tell our story.”

I promised I would.

Ten years later I returned. And though things had changed and a peace had been declared, the refrain was the same. This time, it was to tell the story of the mass graves that groups of brave women were beginning to unearth. They are still performing that grim task.

A 1999 U.N.- sponsored truth commission report calls what happened in Guatemala “genocide.” The report holds the United States responsible for supporting brutal military dictators, for using the CIA to aid the Guatemalan military and for training Guatemalan army officials in counterinsurgency tactics that resulted in widespread torture and death.

The report is titled, “Guatemala: Memory of Silence.” Though the United States points to awful killings and genocides in other parts of the world and demands that people be held accountable, the silence on the genocide in our own hemisphere continues. U.S. intelligence agencies know the details. They have refused to release the full record.

We won’t forget. Nor will we be complicit in the silence.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is robertstw@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000