1 October 2010

US Sorry for Medical Experiments in Guatemala - Will US Apologize for 60,000 plus Civilian Deaths?

Today's announcement that the US is "sorry" for conducting medical experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s, where prisoners were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), is undoubtedly a welcome acknowledgement.

But let's face it. It's a bit rich.

And it begs the question. Will the US come clean, and wholeheartedly apologize, and give reparations, for the tens of thousands of innocent civilians slaughtered by right-wing death squads sponsored by an illegitimate US-installed and sponsored Guatemalan regime?

The 1940s experiments in Guatemala were part of a wider, now well-documented, pattern of US imperial interference that escalated in the context of the 1994 democratic revolution that brought the Arbenz government to power. US official attitudes to the democratization of Guatemala were candidly described in a variety of now declassified internal documents I discuss in this paper.

In 1952, US intelligence noted the rise of “militant advocacy of social reforms and nationalistic policies identified with the Guatemalan revolution of 1944”, resulting in 10 years of democracy - before the US intervened directly to secure strategic interests. “The radical and nationalistic policies” included “the persecution of foreign economic interests, especially the United Fruit Company”, and had won “the support or acquiescence of almost all Guatemalans.” The government had generated “mass support for the present regime”, proceeding “to mobilize the hitherto politically inert peasantry” via agrarian reform and labour organization, undermining the hegemony of large foreign landowners. But democracy was not to be lauded - it was a serious problem: “Guatemalan official propaganda, with its emphasis on conflict between democracy and dictatorship and between national independence and ‘economic imperialism’, is a disturbing factor in the Caribbean area”, the US concluded.

In other documents, the US noted that the democratic revolution of 1944 had contributed to “a strong national movement to free Guatemala from the military dictatorship, social backwardness, and ‘economic colonialism’, which had been the pattern of the past”. The “social and economic programs of the elected government met the aspirations” of the impoverished, and “inspired the loyalty and conformed to the self-interest of most political conscious Guatemalans.” Hence, “neither the landholders nor the [United] Fruit Company can expect any sympathy in Guatemalan public opinion.” Worse still, the government’s “agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbours where similar conditions prevail.”

Cold War 'Domino theory' was not seriously concerned by the threat of 'international communism' per se. It was more worried about the danger that a whole region might be inspired by a successful model of nationalist economic independence. So something had to be done. In the words of a 1949 CIA assessment, this programme was “distinctly unfriendly to US business interests”. Similarly, the US State Department acknowledged that such policies constituted a threat to Guatemala as “a place for capital investment”. (See Mark Curtis' Ambiguities of Power, Zed, 1995 p. 152)

So in 1954, the US and British teamed up to violently overthrow Arbenz's reformist democratic administration, and installed Col. Castillo Armas. To keep the new, illegitimate, counter-democratic dictatorship in power required extensive 'force projection', in particular the creation and support of a lethal network of government-backed right-wing death squads whose sole task was to slaughter peasants into submission.

Amnesty International (AI) reported at the time that “tortures and murders... are part of a deliberate and long-standing program of the Guatemalan Government” and that the “selection of targets for detention and murder, and the deployment of official forces for extra-legal operations can be pin-pointed to secret offices in an annex of Guatemala’s National Palace, under the direct control of the President of the Republic.” Upwards of 60,000 people were killed by the 1980s. Further tens of thousands were killed after, and untold hundreds of thousands throughout this process were displaced in a conflict that spanned decades.

One report from Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Global in 1980 says it all. Kinzer cites a report from the National Council of the Jesuit Order in Guatemala as follows: “... it is only necessary to open one’s eyes to realize that here we are ruled by a system of anti-Christian power which destroys life and persecutes those who fight for life... This anguishing situation is being maintained with a repression among the most severe in Guatemala’s recent history. A regime of unjust force is trying to prevent the working people from reclaiming their just rights.” The Council reported over three thousand killings in the first ten months of 1979 alone, by government-backed death squads acting “with total impunity. It is axiomatic that in Guatemala there are no political prisoners, only the dead and disappeared."

This kind of analysis could go on ad nauseum. The history is well-documented.

So the question remains. Will the US say "sorry" for the destruction of democracy in Guatemala, for the hundreds of thousands lives lost, for the millions repressed?

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