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No progress in Guatemala, Latin
America's most violent state



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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July 19, 2011 

How many times have we thrown up our hands in despair at Guatemala? From the days of the Eisenhower presidency in the 1950s when the president authorized a US company, United Fruit, to overthrow an elected, socially reforming, government, the country has lived in a dark hole of deathly violence. Civil war raged almost continuously until 1986. An estimated 200,000 people died.

Tomas Hammarberg, the then secretary-general of Amnesty International, told me in the early 1970s that "We have no political prisoners in Guatemala, only political murders". It is no better today. The Indian population has been mercilessly repressed and any well-meaning person who has wanted to help them- human rights activist, social worker, lawyer or priest has been targeted by the death squads. Criminal violence is also one of the highest in the world, fuelled by drug gangs and kidnappers. Despite fairly good economic growth, in the UN’s respected Human Development Index it comes last in Latin America.
Latin America has been consumed by so many violent uprisings and savage army repression that it may seem difficult to single out hell's kitchen. But, undoubtedly, Guatemala is it. The violence there never reached the crescendo as it did in the cities of El Salvador. Nor did as many intellectuals "disappear" as in Chile and Argentina. Nor has civil war gone on for as long as in Colombia. Nor has there been the single-minded control from one man as in Cuba or Venezulea. But no other country can match it for the long term, systematic assassinations and torture practised by its armed forces.
After talking to Hammarberg I decided to visit Guatemala. I traced the source of the political killings to an annex of the presidential palace and compiled a great deal of evidence that the then president, General Garcia Lucas, directed the whole repressive apparatus personally. Most of these murders were most definitely not the result of free lance death squads, as the propaganda of the government - and of a concurring American embassy - suggested.
My findings appeared prominently on the editorial pages of the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. I might as well have published them in my old school magazine. This was the first year in office of President Ronald Reagan and no one, neither in Congress nor in the rest of the media, was much interested. The violence continued to climb.

What I did not know so clearly then was that the U.S. was as much a part of this awful violence as the Guatemalan leadership itself. The Reagan Administration not only gave the Guatemalan government active moral support, as has become clear from de-classified cables, but once it persuaded Congress in 1985 to lift its long-standing ban on military support imposed in 1977, arms and training flowed to the local military. Congress re-imposed its ban in 1990, but clandestine aid continued under presidents George Bush (father) and Bill Clinton until 1995. In March of 1999 we finally got the confirmation of happenings that a few of us belatedly had begun to suspect. President Bill Clinton on his visit to Guatemala City made this apology: "For the US it is important I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong."
Clinton, in fact, was formally putting America's imprimatur on the then just released report of the UN-appointed Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification. The report, besides fingering both the overt and the clandestine U.S. involvement, also confirmed everything I'd learnt 18 years earlier. "The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge and by order of the highest authority in the state" and "the vast majority of the victims of the acts committed by the state were not combatants but civilians". 4% of the acts of violence it attributed to the guerrillas, 93% to the state.

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Guatemala changes at a snail’s pace. Last month the constitutional court dismissed the attorney-general, Conrado Reyes, amid allegations of corruption and links to drug traffickers. This came a few days after the chairman of a UN backed commission, jointly set by the government and the UN, that was working to reform the judiciary said in despair as he resigned "I can do no more".

The International Commission Against Impunity says that an astonishing 98% of crimes go unpunished because the justice system is too weak and corrupt.

Can Guatemala ever become a normal, civilized state? It is difficult to say. Perhaps time and economic development will close the wounds and undermine the violence. One can doubt it. A better future still seems a long way away.


Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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