Neglecting to Forget: Lessons from Guatemala

On Friday, May 10, 2013, José Efraín Ríos Montt became the first head of state to be tried in their own country for genocide and found guilty. It was a hard-won battle to bring a modicum of justice in a country still divided along racial lines, still separated into the very poor rural indigenous class and the wealthy and powerful white privileged class.
This outcome heralds a warning to the most powerful war criminals in the world, that impunity cannot withstand the patient perseverance of the truth that they try so hard to suppress. And it is a commanding message, as even Ríos Montt’s “scorched-earth” policy of destroying entire villages suspected of supporting Marxist guerillas and blaming the violence on the guerillas, themselves, could not obliterate all of the truth. Even his campaign of horrifying terror could not silence the few surviving victims, once they were convinced that their voices could make a difference. Nor could it annihilate the pangs of conscience that haunted a few of the soldiers who participated in the horrors.
This earth-trembling outcome – a magnitude 5.1 earthquake was felt in the courtroom just before the verdict was handed down – is the result of decades of dedication on the part of numerous courageous human-rights activists who would allow neither the wall of lies and obstruction nor the onslaught of threats and intimidation to stop them. In 2001, human-rights defenders presented a case to the Guatemalan Public Ministry to investigate and prosecute the top commanders during the most brutal years of the conflict, 1982-83. The trial opened March 19, 2013.
The germination of a genocide
After the democratically elected president of Guatemala was overthrown in a United-Fruit-Company-encouraged, CIA-orchestrated coup d’état in 1954, the corruption and ineptitude of the installed junta led to instability and a cascade of military coups before 1960, when the Guatemalan Civil War began. For 36 excruciating years, the U.S.-backed governments fought left-wing guerilla insurgents. The military increasingly infiltrated the Guatemalan government, and by the late-1970s, its repression of Social and Christian Democrats, indigenous activists, labor unionists, university professors and students, and the Catholic Church had swelled the insurgency’s ranks. In March 1982, another military coup brought to power Ríos Montt, who was determined to eliminate the left-wing threat without generating further radicalization by identifying and targeting entire villages suspected of supporting the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, (FAR). During the Guatemalan Civil War, an estimated 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, and it was during his 16 months in power when the worst violence occurred.
The Kirkpatrick Doctrine
In 1982 in the United States, Ronald Reagan was president and U.S. foreign policy of supporting anti-communist dictatorships followed the Kirkpatrick Doctrine. It was based on the articleDictatorships & Double Standards, in which she presents as “facts” the theory “that traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies, that they are more susceptible of liberalization, and that they are more compatible with U.S. interests.”
History has, of course, proven all but the last part of Jean Kirkpatrick’s theory to be wrong, and the Reagan administration’s need to lie and cover up the truth speaks volumes about how the loathing of communism could lead the administration to going far beyond spin and contrivances to carry out an illegal drug-dealing and gun-running scheme that makes a joke of the supposed Obama administration conspiracies that have been conjured up out of thin air. Robert Parry presents the authoritative report in his recent article, Ronald Reagan: Accessory to Genocide, which details, backed by documents from the National Security Archive, how the state department played up that Ríos Montt was “an avowed fundamentalist Christian” and misdirected the public as to who was responsible for the escalation in atrocities:
“Reagan personally joined this P.R. spin seeking to discredit human rights investigators and others who were reporting accurately about massacres that the administration knew were true. On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting with Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as ‘totally dedicated to democracy’ and added that Rios Montt’s government had been ‘getting a bum rap’ on human rights. Reagan discounted the mounting reports of hundreds of Mayan villages being eradicated.”
The swiftboating of Rigoberta Menchú
Rigoberta Menchú, a K’iche’ woman from the Western Highlands of Guatemala whose family was murdered during the war, was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her work supporting indigenous rights. Her moving personal story was published in 1983 as the book I, Rigoberta Menchú. The contortion of its reality by right-wing zealots is described by the knowledgeable Greg Gandin in his essay from 2010 titled It Was Heaven That They Burned: Who is Rigoberta Menchú? In it, he explains how a narrative about resilience in the face of hardship akin to Anne Frank’s diary is turned into “one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century” at the hands of David Horowitz. In his version of reality, “the source of the violence and ensuing misery that Rigoberta Menchú describes in her destructive little book is the left itself.”
Truth and reconciliation
Truth and reconciliation commissions are often mandated as part of the peace process to resolve conflicts. They tend to focus on discovering and revealing past wrongs by the government and are necessary to prevent historical revisionism and impunity. They are often obscured by powerful forces that remain in government and in the military.
The Oslo Accords that finally brought the Guatemalan Civil War to an end mandated the Commission for Historical Clarification, known as CEH. According to the commission’s final report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence, published in 1999, 48 percent of all reported violations occurred in 1982 alone, the state was responsible for 93 percent of the human rights violations and acts of violence, and the attempt to eliminate entire Mayan villages amounted to genocide. This report was presented at the Ríos Montt trial along with declassified documents from the United States and the testimony of more than 90 Ixil Maya victims. The fact that the trial moved forward and ended in a conviction is all the more impressive given the aggressive attempts by the defense to delegitimize the trial and obstruct the proceedings, together with their public campaign on the streets outside the courtroom.
Among the most significant larger points that this conviction makes is the reiteration of the meaning of the CEH report’s title. A memory of silence, called “obligatory silence” by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, is a grave danger to society. It is what allows impunity to reign, as the collective memory, in its state of shock, is written over by the ideology that says that order is far more important than justice, that technological superiority is more “civilized” than enduring cultural systems, or that unity of thought is more important than diversity.
The model of a truth and reconciliation commission that involves study, documentation, and expertise from outside of a conflict is of the utmost importance to healing broken societies, and in today’s globalized world, voices from outside countries that would rather “look forward” than reopen old wounds would do well to learn the lesson of the Guatemalans who understand that such an exercise is done to stop the wound’s festering, not to inflict deeper harm.