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Is Mr. Bush turning a blind eye
to killings in Guatemala?




August 15, 2001

LONDON - Proportional to its population more people were killed and tortured for their beliefs during the 1970s and 1980s in Guatemala than any other country in the world. Over the last decade it had seemed to many that the situation was slowly, but cumulatively improving. But the last twelve months or so it has started in some respects to worsen again.

While the country still remains democratic if imperfectly so, while some judges are slowly gaining a measure of independence and confidence (but a few live in fear of their lives), while the army - the main perpetrator of human rights abuses - has been shrunk in size, and while the press, always prepared to criticize the government and the political order, becomes even stronger and more independent, it is clear that all is not well in Guatemala. Some would put it stronger than that and say that powerful elements in the army are re-engaging their old habits of intimidating and often killing their habitual critics.

Some, indeed, would go so far to say that the rise in human rights abuse could be correlated with the winding down of the Clinton Administration and the changing of the guard in Washington - as when Ronald Reagan's new Administration came into office in 1981 it was the cue for human rights abuses in Guatemala to take off towards the stratosphere. Reagan made it abundantly clear he was far more concerned with the advance of communism than he was with reigning in the Guatemalan army. The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, David Chaplin, regularly prompted his Washington superiors as to what was going on in the country, but it fell on deaf ears. In February 1984, only a day after he had sent one of his revealing cables to Washington, he was taken aback to hear that the Assistant Secretary of State for human rights, Elliott Abrams, had signed off on a secret report to Congress in which he had argued that human rights were improving in Guatemala and that Congress should no longer be inhibited about the resumption of U.S. security assistance. No wonder that when the new president of Guatemala, General Efrain Rios Montt, visited Washington he could dare to say in his public speech, "We have no scorched earth in Guatemala, only scorched communists."

Thus today it rather looks as if the new nominations to high office of Reagan's Central American appointees, including Elliott Abrams and John Negroponte, are sending a silent signal, intentional or not, to the Guatemalan old guard that Washington will look the other way.

In a new report Amnesty International says "human rights organisations and advocates are increasingly being targeted….. The prevailing impunity gives a clear signal that perpetrators can literally continue to get away with murder. Amnesty is concerned that the Guatemalan government is in fact encouraging attacks through ill-considered public statements that have periodically accused human rights defenders and other activists of seeking to destabilise the country".

It's just over twenty years since Amnesty issued one of its most outspoken reports in which it accused the government of running " a deliberate and longstanding programme" of torture and murder. It was this report that drew the world's attention for the first time to the particular horror of Guatemala. The massacres and murder were not the work of independent right-wing death squads as had been maintained but, as Amnesty correctly said, of special units of the army itself, receiving their orders directly from the president's office. All through the Reagan years this was denied, or at least minimised.

When George Bush senior took over he did move to use his authority to wind down the killings, although it seems from recent evidence that American clandestine military support did continue. Only under the administration of Bill Clinton was the UN encouraged to investigate past abuses and came up with conclusions that read like a reprint of the Amnesty report of 1981.

In 1999 on a visit to Guatemala City Mr Clinton made a public mea culpa, saying, "For the United States it is important that I state clearly that [American] support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and wide-spread repression was wrong." And the Washington Post editorialised: "We Americans need our own truth commission."

It is only five weeks ago that President Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala met President George Bush. But was anything made clear about America's intolerance for winding the clock back? Was anything said to disillusion the Guatemalans that the appointments of Negroponte and Abrams don't mean that this Administration will tolerate what the highly regarded (in Republican circles) Reagan administration did.

Judging from the record, if anything on these lines was said you would have needed sophisticated listening equipment to have heard it. This is not to say that Mr Bush is about to re-engage in Central America in a reprise of the advocacy of Mr Reagan that communism had to be stopped however it were done. The stakes are just not that high today. But, without a doubt, under Mr Bush there is a profound sense of benign neglect. Left to its own devises, without pressure from outside, Guatemala looks to be in danger of sliding back into its murderous old habits.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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