Guatemala: Bill Clinton's Latest Damn-Near Apology

Also: What Monica's Story left out

| Tue Mar. 16, 1999 1:00 AM PST

"If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so."
   -- Guatemalan President Carlos Arana, 1971

"The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea."
   -- Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt, 1982

"United States... support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression... was wrong."
   -- United States President Bill Clinton, last Wednesday

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So President Clinton finally damn-near apologized for America's role in almost a half-century of repression in Guatemala.

Clinton was forced into this damn-near apology after the U.N.'s independent Historical Clarification Commission issued a nine-volume report called "Guatemala: Memory Of Silence."

Created as part of the 1996 peace accord that ended Guatemala's civil war, the Commission and its 272 staff members interviewed combatants on both sides of the conflict, gathered news reports and eyewitness accounts from across the country, and extensively examined declassified U.S. government documents.

The result?

The U.N.'s Commission concludes that for decades, the United States knowingly gave money, training, and other vital support to a military regime that committed atrocities as a matter of policy, and even "acts of genocide" against the Mayan people.

Thus Clinton's latest appalling damn-near apology.

It's a common rationalization that in a civil war, both sides commit atrocities in roughly equal amounts. But the Commission examined 42,275 separate human-rights violations -- torture, executions, systematic rape, and so on, including 626 documented incidents the Commission could only describe as "massacres." The final score:

93% were committed by U.S.-supported government paramilitary forces.
4% cannot be attributed with certainty.
3% were committed by rebels.

And worse, as Amnesty International and other independent observers have reported for years, the vast majority of victims were non-combatant civilians.

Merely trying to form an opposition political party was reason enough to be killed. So was being a trade unionist, a student or professor, a journalist, a church official, a child or elderly person from the same village as a suspected rebel, a doctor who merely treated another victim, or even a widow of one of the disappeared simply asking for the body.

But most of the casualties were Mayan Indians. Since the rebels didn't have the military strength to be able to hold cities, they hid in rural areas populated primarily by Mayans. So the Guatemalan government simply slaughtered entire villages, engaging in "the massive extermination of defenseless Mayan communities."

200,000 people died.

The Commission also concludes that massacres -- which rose to the level of "genocide" during the war's peak years in the early 1980s -- were not random acts of field commanders beyond government control. The genocide was deliberate policy. And U.S. support and training of the paramilitary was crucial, having "a significant bearing on human-rights violations."

Unfortunately, the report doesn't name specific officers and government officials responsible. But that's not terribly surprising: last year, Roman Catholic bishop Juan Jose Gerardi issued a report on wartime atrocities that did just that.

A few days later, Father Gerardi was bludgeoned to death with a concrete block.

This is the country Bill Clinton now lauds as "a battlefield of ideology [that] has been transformed into a marketplace of ideas."

Some marketplace. Ca-chunk. Thank you, come again.

Thing is, the Commission's findings aren't really news at all. What's new here is the depth of documentation, and that the information is coming from an official source.

That the Guatemalan military committed genocide and widespread atrocities has been widely known for many years. That the U.S. supported and trained the Guatemalan military, along with repressive security forces in numerous other countries, is a matter of public record.

In September 1996, the U.S. Department of Defense admitted that manuals used until recently to train Latin American soldiers included numerous illegal practices, including summary execution. And in January of 1997, two CIA manuals on interrogation were declassified that contained plain references to electrical and chemical torture.

(One of the CIA's manuals, prepared for their 1954 covert war in Guatemala, is a 21-page "Study of Assassination" which admits that murder "is not morally justifiable" -- and then explains how to kill by whopping someone with "a hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker, kitchen knife, lamp stand, or anything hard, heavy, and handy." Which presumably includes concrete blocks. Yeesh. Scans of a few of the more bizarre pages and the complete text of the assassination manual will be posted on my Web site, www.bobharris.com, by the end of this week.)

However, the Pentagon's Inspector General characterized the manuals as simply "mistakes."

Yuh-huh. Sure.

The IG did not go on to specify just who made the mistakes or how, or why at least a thousand copies of the "mistakes" were distributed to police and military agencies around the world. And since the "mistakes" were made public, not a single American officer has been disciplined, reassigned, or even retrained.

In truth, the manuals can actually be traced to Project X, a 1965 Army program to train military, police, and paramilitary forces throughout Southeast Asia and Latin America. Project X was a direct precursor to Operation Phoenix in Vietnam and Operation Condor in South America, notorious programs that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousand of civilians. Project X was halted under the Carter administration, but its essentials were reinstated in 1982 under President Ronald Reagan.

And this just in: documents released last Wednesday, the same day Clinton wobbled through his damn-near apology, indicate that the U.S. was more intimately involved with the Guatemalan paramilitary than even the Commission report indicates.

(This new batch of documents was obtained by the National Security Archive, a non-profit bunch of truthseekers who do tremendous work obtaining and analyzing the internal records of things we weren't supposed to know. You can find many of their most intense findings posted on their Web site, www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive/.)

Thanks to last week's releases, it's now indisputable that as early as 1966, officials from the U.S. State Department, far from opposing the torturers, set up a "safe house" for security forces in Guatemala's presidential palace, which eventually became the headquarters for "kidnapping, torture... bombings, street assassinations, and executions of real or alleged communists." CIA documents also prove that from the get-go, U.S. intelligence was fully aware that "disappearances" were actually kidnappings followed by summary executions. Rather than act to stop the slaughter, however, the State Department continued to provide tens of millions of dollars in aid.

The flow of cash stopped briefly in 1977 when the Carter Administration made further aid dependent on improved human rights. However, once Reagan was elected, covert money and support for the Guatemalan dictatorship increased to new heights, as did the atrocities.

A newly-declassified Defense Intelligence Agency report states that, as was done by CIA-supported security forces in Argentina, the bodies of victims both dead and alive were routinely hurled out of aircraft into the ocean, removing "the evidence showing that the prisoners were tortured."

Still, aid to the Guatemalan government continued through the Bush years, even though CIA cables reported as late as 1992 on the continuing destruction of entire Indian villages, killing "combatants and noncombatants alike."

"Counterinsurgency" aid to Guatemala continued until 1995, when Clinton finally pulled the plug after American lawyer Jennifer Harbury was able to generate a small amount of public outrage over the torture and murder of her Guatemalan husband by a CIA informant.

Unfortunately, CIA "anti-drug" money continues to flow into Guatemala to this day. Not that it's serving any visible anti-drug function: as of this writing, Guatemala trails only Mexico as a transshipment point for Columbian drugs entering the U.S., and many of the same CIA-supported military officers suspected of human-rights abuses are also considered to be major drug traffickers.

The State Department knows full well that at least 250 tons of cocaine pass through Guatemala each year. And the DEA reportedly has the goods on over 30 Guatemalan military officers. But so far, for some reason, prosecutions still aren't happening. Gee, I wonder why...

Your tax dollars at work.

The 1954 coup destroyed Guatemala's democratic institutions and established a brutal military dictatorship as the nation's supreme power. And almost half a century of CIA-supported repression, torture, and murder later, an American president is barely able to mutter a damn-near apology.

And people actually complain that Clinton isn't sorry enough about Monica.



Speaking of which...

If you believe ABC, almost one quarter of the entire United States sat down the other night and watched Barbara Walters make Monica Lewinsky weep.

This skillful extraction of bodily fluids in extreme close-up for public titillation is, of course, what Barbara Walters does for a living. Watching her manipulate the guest into crying is the highlight -- the money shot -- of every interview Walters does.

Barbara Walters is the Jenna Jameson of the tear duct.

And none of this is news.

Afterwards, every media outlet from Nightline to frat boys writing words in the snow from hotel balconies opined about Monica's clothes, hair, and lip liner. Body language was analyzed. People on the street were interviewed. Poll numbers were compiled. Sides were chosen.

And none of this is news.

(Incidentally, several of my best friends and I discussed what we would honestly do if any of us were President of the United States, and Monica Lewinsky had suddenly dropped trou, exposed her great white caudal fin, and snapped a mercenary thong in our direction. And we all agreed, sincerely, on exactly what we would do next: call security.)

As to what Clinton did that night, all you probably heard was that he ducked out to New Jersey. Commentators speculated he was trying not to be asked about the blubberfest. The wire services noted that he was seen singing along with Gloria Gaynor's rendition of "I Will Survive."

And not one minute of any of this is news.

What Clinton was actually doing in New Jersey was news: attending a fundraiser for Senator Bob Torricelli that pulled in two million dollars in a single night.

And this is money for a guy who isn't even up for reelection until 2002.

That that's normal now -- that's news.

That just for a shot at some Senate seats you gotta raise over ten thousand dollars a day, seven days a week, for the whole six years you're in office -- that's news.

And that the news media doesn't even think it's unusual enough to bother reporting -- that's news.

Too bad Monica didn't mention it, so it might have gotten on TV.


Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and humorist who has spoken at almost 300 colleges nationwide.

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