Guatemala Offers Model for Facing Harsh Truths

By Bell, Malcolm | National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Guatemala Offers Model for Facing Harsh Truths


Bell, Malcolm, National Catholic Reporter


Guatemala, which has about the area and population of Ohio and was until recently a military dictatorship, may seem an unlikely country to set the United States an example of how to face a dark history. Yet if democracy requires citizens to know how their government does their business, then we Americans need to heed this example and face some dark history of our own.

On April 24 the Guatemala City archdiocese presented its "Report of the Interdiocesan Project to Recover the Historic Memory," known by its Spanish acronym REMHI, (NCR, Feb. 13, May 8). The report analyzes 55,000 human rights violations, including 25,000 of the 150,000 murders committed during the 36-year civil war. It attributes nearly 80 percent of them to the military and fewer than 10 percent to the guerrillas. It names the names of principal perpetrators. Out of 422 massacres, it blames the military for 401 and the guerrillas for 16, leaving 5 unattributed. Children were 10 percent of the victims. Soldiers often tortured them in front of their parents.

The 3,000 people who filled the Metropolitan Cathedral for the presentation of the report were festive, almost jubilant, despite its grim subject. After decades of silence enforced by terror, they were free at last to know and speak the truth -- or so they thought. Citing Jesus (John 8:32), Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, who had charge of making the report, told the crowd, "The essential objective that has motivated the REMHI project during its three years of work is to know the truth that will make us all free."

In Guatemala the truth can also make you dead. We who sat listening to the bishop knew his courage. We could not know that two days later he would join the thousands of Guatemalans slain for seeking and speaking the truth. Thanks to his vision and sacrifice, Guatemalans now know more than we Americans do about the roles of our respective governments in torture, kidnapping, gang rape and murder in that lovely, riven land.

Knowing about these atrocities is our business since our officials abetted them. President Eisenhower approved and the CIA engineered the violent overthrow of the elected government in 1954, ushering in the reign of terror. Throughout most of it we armed, trained, advised, supplied and otherwise supported the chief perpetrators. U.S. support ended under President Carter over the issue of human rights, but in 1981 President Reagan resumed it, and the military rampaged. Eighty percent of the cases in the report arose during 1980-83. Seventy percent of the massacres were in 1981 and 1982.

Guatemala is not alone. The United States has also installed, maintained or otherwise abetted mass torturers and murderers in Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, El Salvador, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, the Congo and many other countries.

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