Digging up old bones

AUGUSTO PINOCHET RESIDES COMFORTABLY IN A LONDON HOTEL WAITING TO DISCOVER IF HE WILL HAVE TO STAND TRIAL in Spain for the unpleasantness he orchestrated over two decades ago in Chile. Once the personal embodiment of the malevolence of authoritarian rule, Pinochet, now 83, has become transformed into a decrepit object lesson in the long memory of suffering and the patience of justice.

This appears to be the era of authoritarian atonement. A UN committee recently finished excavating the historical record in Guatemala. The old bones it has been uncovering—literally and figuratively—accuse the Guatemalan military of a Mayan genocide. In its report "Guatemala: Memory of Silence," the UN's Commission for Historical Clarification charges that over 90 percent of the human rights violations in Guatemala were committed by the army or agents of the state.

According to the report, this genocidal campaign had co-conspirators in the United States. Beginning with the CIA's 1954 ouster of President Jacobo Arbenz at the behest of the infamous United Fruit Company, the U.S. has been intimately involved with the authoritarian forces at work in the dark nights of Guatemalan history. The removal of Arbenz initiated more than 30 years of civil war in Guatemala. With training and intelligence assistance from the U.S., Guatemalan military and paramilitary forces have shown unspeakable brutality to Guatemala's indigenous people.

According to the report, "The Army's perception of Mayan communities as natural allies of the guerrillas contributed to . . . human rights violations perpetrated against them, demonstrating an aggressive racist component of extreme cruelty that led to the extermination en masse, of defenseless Mayan communities . . . including children, women and the elderly—through methods whose cruelty has outraged the moral conscience of the civilized world.

"These massacres and the [state's] so-called scorched earth operations . . . resulted in the complete extermination of many Mayan communities." The commission notes: "particularly serious cruelty in many acts committed by agents of the State, especially members of the Army, in their operations against Mayan communities . . . . Acts such as the killing of defenseless children . . . the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims . . . the extraction . . . of the viscera of victims who were still alive . . . were not only actions of extreme cruelty against the victims, but also morally degraded the perpetrators and those who inspired, ordered or tolerated these actions."

The report proceeds to document the use of rape, arbitrary executions, and the haunting disappearances that typified the counter-insurgency campaigns over the past 30 years in Guatemala. These so-called military campaigns in the end claimed perhaps 200,000 lives and drove thousands more into exile. They reached a horrific peak in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration chased its own ghosts in Central America.

Recently declassified CIA and diplomatic cables from Guatemala between 1966 and 1996 suggest occasional uneasiness among U.S. authorities after particularly savage escapades. That queasiness, however, was not enough to overcome official U.S. political dogma that dictated that, however poorly the Guatemalan military behaved, the social order they defended—one of extreme deprivation for the many and extreme comfort for a few—was somehow still preferable to a purported communist ascendancy in the region.

Such was the gruesome myopia of the Cold War. In this new era, the U.S. is to be credited for helping see this commission's work through. Soon after its release, President Clinton even offered an apology of sorts to the people of Guatemala for U.S. complicity in their long suffering. Setting the historical record straight, accounting at least in spirit for the many disappeared, makes a good start in the process of historical atonement for Cold War crimes in Central America.

And just as Pinochet and other policy warriors of the Cold War are now called to make atonement, so must the United States stand ready to make amends for its historical sins. In efforts to thwart whatever communist threat lived in Central America or in the minds of U.S. strategists, billions were invested in campaigns of unspeakable violence. A step toward our national penance now in Central America would be to offer at least as generous a commitment to peace.

Kevin Clarke is the Managing Editor of Online Products for Claretian Publications and a Contributing Editor to U.S. Catholic.

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