The Right, The Left, and The Silent

Guatemala, El Salvador, and the United States all stake different positions concerning the Latin American massacres.

by John Washington 

On this past 14th of January an ex-general of the Guatemalan Army, Otto Pérez Molina, took office as the right-wing, self-proclaimed strong-arm (mano dura) President of Guatemala, promising to get tough on organized crime and drug-trafficking. The new President’s message, however, comes with baggage: Guatemalan Army’s recent and sordid history. The 36-year Civil War in the country, in which the Army committed systematic and ethnically-targeted massacres and razing, ended only fifteen years ago, in 1996. But the distaste in some for the new President comes not only from implication by association, that is, that he was simply part of an organization responsible for atrocities. Pérez himself has been openly and repeatedly accused of direct involvement in tortures and massacres. It has also been repeatedly claimed that Pérez Molina was on the CIA payroll and, according to the website, SOA Watch, that he was a graduate of the infamous School of Americas. Though Pérez claims to support “a military deactivation” in the country, how can Guatemalan citizens, especially those who suffered 36-plus years of abuse at the hands of the military, trust an ex-general who also proclaims to be willing to “use all the necessary military force” to ensure internal security? The message that Pérez sends is contradictory and, despite his dubious proclamation of “military deactivation,” undeniably militant, threatening to Calderón (President of Mexico whose drug-war crackdown has driven the country to the precipice of what some are calling a failed state) an already torn social fabric.

Pérez Molina has also admitted to making “a special call” to the United States government for help in combating drug trafficking and organized crime. Given the United States invasion of the country, its overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, and then the sparking of and participation in a genocidal civil war which claimed over 200,000 lives, calling on the United States for help is another step towards re-militarizing and potentially brutalizing (literally and psychologically) the country. Pérez Molina, in this vulgar act of political amnesia, is thus taking a sharp turn from former President Álvaro Colom, who last autumn for the first time publically apologized to the legacy of the overthrown Arbenz.

The contradictions (in the shift from Presidents Colom to Pérez and between Pérez’ violent past and his dubious promise of peace) within Guatemala are even further confounded in relation to the country’s southern neighbor, El Salvador.

On the 16th of January, in “an unprecedented act,” according to a report by Mexico’s El Universal, the President of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, publically apologized for El Mozote massacre, in which around one thousand persons (half of them minors) were tortured, raped and killed by U.S. trained El Salvadoran soldiers of the Atlacatl Special Forces. Funes himself actually broke down and cried during the apology. But he also went beyond both the important public acknowledgment and the necessary spectacle of regret. He named not only the direct and indirect victims of the massacre, but he also publically named, for the first time, the perpetrators of the massacre, including the three commanders: Domingo Monterrosa, José Armando Amitia Melera and Natividad de Jesús Cáceres Cabrera. In President Funes’ tribute and condemnation, he ordered the El Salvadoran Army, in which Monterrosa has been until now considered a hero, to make a “revision of its interpretation of history.”

Guatemala and El Salvador, though neighbors, are looking at history through different lenses. The United States, despite the fact that Hilary Clinton last autumn apologized for experimenting with human subjects in Guatemala, in which the U.S. government intentionally infected at least 1600 people with STD’s, seems to be taking a different tack altogether. Clinton’s apology was a safe political move. Nobody, or very few people, on the left or the right, would quibble with the immorality of human experiment. It was right and it was easy to apologize for infecting thousands of people with STD’s. And yet the ideologically motivated genocidal U.S. involvement in Guatemala and El Salvador (among other Latin American countries) has never been apologized for. Concerning Central America, the United States seems not to be looking at history through any lens at all.

While El Salvador is lamenting the horrors rendered by the Atlacatl Special Forces, Guatemala is silent about Operation Cleanup, a nefarious CIA project initiated in 1965 in which the murderers of thousands were armed and trained. Operation Cleanup (a name that, along with the operation WASHTUB which overthrew Arbenz in 1954, goes to the extreme of euphemism), within its first three months, according to prominent Latin American Studies author Greg Grandin, “had conducted over eighty raids and multiple extrajudicial assassinations, including an action that during four days in March (1965) captured, tortured, and executed more than thirty prominent left opposition leaders.” The difference in rhetoric between the two countries is not surprising. The President of Guatemala was part of the very Army that committed, according to the Commission for Historical Clarification, 95% of the massacres of the Guatemalan Civil War. It would be a shock if Pérez were to denounce himself, especially after just taking the presidential reigns. Admission of wrongdoing is a lot easier when the finger doesn’t have to point to yourself.

Likewise, it isn’t surprising, but is both sad and frightening, that in the United States there continues to be silence on the government’s behalf for its involvement in the wars in Latin American. But the inculcating finger in the U.S. would be pointing more at past than current administrations, so, if Clinton were able to apologize for the Syphilis and Gonorrhea experiments of the Truman administration, why can’t she, or President Obama, apologize for grave misdeeds committed in El Salvador and Guatemala from the 1950’s to the 90’s?

The answer, perhaps, is the still-thriving white-knuckled mentality of American Exceptionalism. For to admit a wrong is to admit fallibility. And if some still believe (as does potential Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, author of No Apology: The Case for American Greatness) that the United States is an exception, they leave little room to admit mistakes. But if we are to have any hope of avoiding similar genocidal “mistakes” in the future, we must own up to our own wicked past.

John Washington is a Fulbright Fellow living in Mexico City. He has published on, and in Voices of Mexico, among others. One of his essays was recently selected as a Notable Work for 2011’s Best American Travel Writing.

One thought on “The Right, The Left, and The Silent”

  1. This seems to me to be a central observation, and one which explains the psychology behind much of US foreign policy :
    “The answer, perhaps, is the still-thriving white-knuckled mentality of American Exceptionalism. For to admit a wrong is to admit fallibility.”

    Remember that the US has offered no formal apology (to my knowledge) for basically destroying South Vietnam and large parts of Cambodia and Laos ; regarding this fact, one internet commenter responded to me once with the quip :
    “Being an empire means never having to say you’re sorry”
    Of course, it makes perfect sense, for to admit fallibility invariably leads one to the conclusion that one is perhaps not uniquely qualified to engage in imperial behavior and the world policing which goes along with it. This in turn leads to the conclusion that not everything which was done was justified, and opens the door to all sorts of self-questioning, leading to the conclusion that a change in course or behavior is warranted – it’s better to avoid this.

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