The US Involvement in the Genocide
I’m sitting in a large stone courtroom with vaulting, sky-lit ceilings in the middle of Guatemala City six hours into expert testimony in a genocide trial. Thirty feet away is an old man wearing glasses, his head seemingly tiny beneath the giant headphones he is wearing to listen to the proceedings. He leans forward, arms resting on the table in front of him, poised. To his right is an army of attorneys in black suits and striped ties. Behind his frail form are armed guards with automatic weapons, cropped hair and blank faces. I’m staring a hole in this man’s forehead and thinking “war criminal.” I’m having the sudden urge to throw spit wads at him, and I almost laugh at the thought of something so trivial in a place so serious. This is General Rios Montt, perpetrator of Genocide. The Big Bad Wolf.
I’m not Guatemalan. In fact, at this point I’m not even an attorney. I’m a gringa of Eastern European descent whose conversational Spanish is a little rusty after two years of law school and after six hours of sleep. Six hours into this testimony I’m straining to understand the expert witness’s military Spanish. I’m also probably not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be at home in Virginia, studying, because my final exams are in three weeks and everyone I know is locked in a library, panicked. People keep asking me what on earth I’m thinking hopping a plane to go to Guatemala in the last weeks of school to watch, of all things, a genocide trial.
The short answer is this: I am here because I am a US citizen, and because the truth is that this is my trial too. I’m here in this courtroom in a sea of brown faces and bright colors because when I hear testimony about the massacres, the rapes, the death of children and ‘draining the sea from the fish’ I look down at my pale white hands and I see blood. I’m here because as a US Citizen, my government was instrumental in these atrocities. Sitting up next to Montt is the ghost of Ronald Reagan. I have benefitted from these atrocities in my daily life through my privilege, and I owe it to the Guatemalan people to recognize this. Being part of this delegation is my way of taking ownership of that history, and my way of seeking to make amends.
Most people in the United States don’t know much about Latin America outside of what we hear on television through anti-immigrant and racist messages, or through our short vacations to resort locations in warmer climes. Most of us don’t realize that during the Cold War much of the Southern Hemisphere was rocked with levels of violence we will fortunately never have to face. Entire generations eliminated at the hands of State forces, the collective memory of a continent aching with the heartbreak of families lost, homes destroyed, identities crushed. Guatemala shares this memory as a result of its 36 year civil war- and the wounds are just healing over, the scars still shiny on the face of this beautiful nation.
As important as the realization that our neighbors to the south have had to carry this tremendous burden is the recognition that this burden is ours, America’s, to share. During the Cold War the United States government was responsible for supporting the military dictatorships that committed atrocities across Latin America, including Guatemala. The Reagan Administration had a policy-known as the Reagan Doctrine- of training and funding oppressive regimes that fought guerilla uprisings in the global south. This was seen as a tactic against communism- the justification being that if any state “fell” to communism, it would have a domino effect and would spark communist revolutions across the continent. Better to quash any insurgency by any means necessary than risk the spread of Soviet, and subsequently anti-US, support.
The Reagan Administration provided arms, training, tactical and financial support for dictatorships across Latin America, including Rios Montt. The US had a strong CIA and military intelligence presence in Guatemala and was cognizant of the massacres taking place in indigenous areas at the hands of the Guatemalan military. Despite this, the US government provided millions of dollars of military aid and weaponry to the Guatemalan army in the 1980s at the peak of the dirty war. Among rising international concerns about the atrocities, the US provided justification for the violence by siding with the Montt regime, blaming the massacres on guerilla groups even though the CIA had direct knowledge of the military’s involvement.
Acting as an atrocity-apologist, Reagan rejected the image of Montt’s repression that was being unveiled by international human rights organizations. In December of 1982, he met with Montt and claimed that the human rights groups were giving him a “bum rap.” The following year he lifted an arms ban to Guatemala, and authorized the sale of $6 million in military equipment. The same year, Americas Watch issued a scathing report condemning the Guatemalan Army for human rights atrocities committed against the indigenous populations.
The Reagan Administration had well-oiled publicity campaign that helped prevent US involvement in the violence, and the severity of the violence itself, from coming to light. The Administration called this deception of the America public “perception management”. In addition to public denial of US involvement in the region and falsification of the historical record, Reagan attacked human rights activists for implicating the United States in the violence. Years later, in 1999, the Guatemalan Truth Commission would issue a report on the staggering levels of violence during the civil war and the role of the Reagan Administration in aiding, abetting and concealing these crimes.
As I sit in this courtroom today, I am painfully aware of the fact that no members of the United States government have been, or ever will be, held responsible for their involvement in the deaths of displacement of hundreds of thousands of indigenous civilians in Guatemala. To me this feels a little like heartbreak, and a lot like shame. When I first learned about US intervention in Latin America as a young idealistic undergraduate, I had this inescapable urge to travel to these places, hold out my hands to strangers and say “I’m sorry. What can I do?” Now, as a soon-to-be human rights attorney and dedicated activist, my approach to reconciliation is more nuanced, but the weight of responsibility has not been eased.
Being from the United States means that, if we choose, we can go our whole lives benefitting from the pain of others and never having to look it in the face. We have the comfort of distance and ignorance. But while ignoring the US role in these atrocities may be comfortable, it is not just. We all have a stake in the outcome of this trial. I sincerely hope that we as North Americans can have the courage to appreciate the role that our government played in this tragedy. If that’s not a reason to be here today, I don’t know what is.