America's Dirty Secret

The mainstream American media is finally beginning to acknowledge part of the truth about U.S. foreign policy towards Guatemala: that the brutal death squads terrorizing this nation were sponsored by the C.I.A. and the U.S. military. The media has mainly focussed on two killings, the murder of an American inn-keeper and the murder of a Guatemalan guerrilla leader married to American lawyer Jennifer Harbury. The murders were linked to Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, a Guatemalan officer trained by the U.S. army and paid by the C.I.A. Media attention has extended to the resulting C.I.A. attempt to cover up barbarism it previously endorsed.

The media was unable to ignore Ms. Harbury's hunger strike outside the White House for information about her missing husband. As information began to surface, Congressman Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), helped break the story about the C.I.A.'s relationship to the colonel. President Clinton then authorized a full investigation.

Both the media and U.S. government officials are pretending that the cozy relationships between the C.I.A., U.S. military and Latin American death squads have just been exposed. But the connection between these three groups of sadists has always been painfully obvious to Latin Americans, human rights observers and foreign policy analysts who know better than to parrot State Department pronouncements.

American support for dictators and death squads is not unique to Guatemala. And this support is not passive--death squads are trained and equipped by Americans, and American agents often accompany them on missions. They often commit their most horrible atrocities just after returning from U.S. "refresher" training, and they have not hesitated to kill and torture American citizens. This pattern extends to many Latin American countries that the U.S. influences. Over the last few decades, the C.I.A. has supported the butchers of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama, just to name a few. But there is only space in this column to quickly chronicle the sad tale of Guatemala.

In 1944, a revolution in Guatemala overthrew a dictator and set up a democratic, capitalist government roughly based on the example of American New Deal policies. But the new government made the fatal mistake of opposing economic exploitation by U.S. multinational corporations, such as the United Fruit Company, which has been basically running the country. U.S. business and government leaders were worried that the Guatemalan model of self-determinism might be adopted by neighboring nations.

In 1954, C.I.A. began to plot a coup against the Guatemalan government. It waged a propaganda campaign that slandered the government as communist, then helped military leaders seize power. The country has been a killing field ruled by the military ever since.

Since 1978, the Guatemalan military has killed over 110,000 civilians, including a near-genocidal campaign against Maya Indians, and torture is even more widespread. Murder, rape and torture are used for political coercion. Human rights reports from Guatemala are sickening. Victims are found burned to death or with their genitals cut off and shoved in their mouths.

Throughout the 1980s, Reagan and Bush hailed Guatemala's military as resistors of foreign-sponsored communist aggression, a blatant lie. The guerrillas were neither Soviet not Cuban proxies and probably were never more than 2,000 strong. The military was mainly a threat to Guatemala.

In 1990, the Guatemalan human rights abuses had become too flagrant for even the U.S. to support openly. The State Department cancelled aid to the Guatemalan military (about $3 million a year) but the C.I.A. continued to funnel $5 to $7 million a year to them.

Congress and President Clinton must exert pressure on the military and the C.I.A. to declassify documents dealing with Guatemala. Congress should also hold public hearings to expose the whole truth. The Guatemala killers and the Americans who are complicit in their atrocities must be punished.

David W. Brown's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.