RETHINKING FOREIGN POLICY : Lessons from Latin America

By White, Robert E. | Commonweal, June 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

RETHINKING FOREIGN POLICY : Lessons from Latin America


White, Robert E., Commonweal


The reports of the Central American truth commissions are not just about events that took place against the backdrop of the cold war. They are about the United States today, and the role we intend to play in the world.

In early March, President Bill Clinton visited Central America to call attention to the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. In Guatemala City, the focus of the presidential visit shifted suddenly away from the random violence of nature to the purposeful violence of men. On the eve of Clinton's visit, the United Nations-sponsored Guatemalan truth commission, known as the Commission for Historical Clarification, went public with its report which lays bare the savagery of the Guatemalan military.

President Clinton deserves high marks for his comments on the report of the truth commission. He did not vacillate, he did not equivocate; he stated that the United States had been wrong to support Guatemalan "military forces and intelligence units engaged in widespread repression," and he added, "We are determined to remember our past but never repeat it." Had Clinton ignored our government's heavy responsibility for the Guatemalan tragedy he would have strengthened the hand of the still-powerful militarists and undercut struggling democratic forces not only in Guatemala but in all of Central America.

If we had to choose one place and time where U.S. policy toward Latin America went wrong, the date would be 1954 and the place Guatemala. Confronted with the elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, one that was less than subservient to U.S. pressures, the Eisenhower administration gave the green light to the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the constitutional order and install a military government, thereby igniting widespread rebellion. Over the next thirty-five years, the CIA bankrolled a war in which torture, murder, and the firebombing of rural villages resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people, most of them defenseless Mayan Indians. CIA station chiefs, from their secret apartments inside the U.S. embassy, subsidized a war that consisted largely of a mindless series of military massacres. When U.S. policymakers at last lost enthusiasm for this pointless reign of terror, these station chiefs undercut and lied to U.S. ambassadors charged with helping to move the country toward peace.

As the New York Times reported (June 30, 1995), "American and Guatemalan officials, who long denied these links, now acknowledge that the CIA gave the Guatemalan military millions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s, used some of the money as bribes to buy information from high-ranking military intelligence officers, and provided intelligence to the army for its long war against guerrillas, farmers, peasants, and other opponents." In an unusually candid admission, the former inspector- general of the CIA, Fred Hitz, told Clifford Krauss of the New York Times (March 6, 1999), "It's one of the saddest chapters of American relations with Latin America. The United States felt responsible for what it started by removing Arbenz and essentially we were trapped. We started something and didn't know how to get off the train."

During this "noche mas larga" for Latin democracy, the militaries of Central America arrogated to themselves the right to decide with deadly force who could and who could not participate in the political life of the country. In the name of anticommunism, U.S.-supported armies suppressed democracy, free speech, and human rights in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Torture and the assassination of democratic leaders-including presidential candidates, journalists, priests, and union officials-became commonplace.

Official truth commissions have now issued reports on three Central American countries: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The commissions were unanimous in finding the militaries of these countries guilty of a pattern of human-rights abuses in which unarmed civilians died at the hands of those sworn to protect them.

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