National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 16, 2003

‘We have not been honest with ourselves’

The travails of Guatemala may seem insignificant compared to events in Iraq and the Middle East.

It is a Central American country, heavily Roman Catholic, that not many take notice of, but it has endured hideous violence at the hands of a string of vicious military rulers. The massive waves of violence, of genocidal killing of the rural Mayan population and intimidation of mainstream institutions subsided with the signing of a peace accord in 1996. By then, according to the United Nations and church human rights experts, more than 200,000 people had died or disappeared over the course of a 36-year civil war.

Much of the killing, according to human rights records, was preceded by horrific torture. Murderous campaigns were conducted under the banner of fighting communism.

What happens in Guatemala as it tries to move toward the future is significant for several reasons. First, it is, at least nominally, a Catholic country and what the church has done to oppose the violence in recent years and to document its effects is important.

Second, the church is leading efforts among some segments of the country to confront the horrors of the past and to face the truth before moving on. No effort is more important than that started by Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was brutally murdered in 1998 because he was trying to tell the truth. It is encouraging that people involved in that initial effort seem to be reviving Gerardi’s dream (see story Page 12).

Third, what happens in Guatemala is also significant to U.S. citizens because our government -- our intervention, our money, our training and our interests -- has been intricately tied up with the period of the civil war. If U.S. efforts against terror and the brutal methods of dictators in other parts of the world are to have credibility, then we have to find a way to acknowledge our role in countries such as Guatemala and to help them rebuild a sane society.

No one would suggest a direct comparison between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and what the United States did in Guatemala. We did not, ultimately, have control over the killing apparatus. Nor did we have direct control over the machinery of government. Indeed, during a period of the Carter administration, we ceased all military aid to Guatemala because of its human rights abuses.

But the record also demonstrates that we knew a great deal about what was happening in a country where the political situation was sent into a tailspin by the CIA coup in 1954 that ended Guatemala’s “Decade of Spring” experience of democracy. It was one of the first adventures of the CIA after its formation in the wake of World War II. That coup overthrew a duly elected president and set in place the first in a string of brutal military rulers.

According to Gerardi, the prime ingredient for reconciliation was truth. In a speech April 24, 1998, two days before he was killed and while presenting the report of the church’s human rights office, he said: “Years of terror and death have displaced and reduced the majority of Guatemalans to fear and silence. Truth is the first word, the serious and mature action that makes it possible for us to break this cycle of violence and death, and open ourselves to a future of hope and light for all.”

Except for a brief apology by President Clinton, the United States has never admitted any wrongdoing in Guatemala and has been largely in denial about its role there. It has never acknowledged the U.N. Truth Commission report, which followed the church’s report. The Truth Commission document stated that “the United States government and U.S. private companies exercised pressure to maintain the country’s archaic and unjust socioeconomic structure,” and that the CIA and other U.S. agencies “lent direct and indirect support to some illegal state operations.”

One U.S. document unearthed by the Truth Commission and included in the nine-volume, 3,500-page report says it well. It was written on March 29, 1968, by Peter Vaky, the second-highest U.S. diplomat in Guatemala at the time. “The official squads are guilty of atrocities,” Vaky wrote. “Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated.”

In the Vaky memo, which was addressed to State Department officials in Washington but was quickly classified at the time, Vaky worried that the image of the United States in Latin America was being tarnished by its support for repressive governments. “This leads me to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all -- that we have not been honest with ourselves. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness. … Murder, torture and mutilation are all right if our side is doing it and the victims are communists.”

In Guatemala and elsewhere around the globe, it is time to be honest with ourselves.

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2003

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