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A U.S. Protégé Is Forced to Face the Past

Rios Montt on Trial for Genocide

by NICK ALEXANDROV

Efraín Rios Montt, Guatemala’s former dictator, may yet face the consequences of his actions.  Last Monday, Judge Miguel Angel Gálvez announced that both Montt, 86, and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, another former general, must “stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity,” Elisabeth Malkin wrote in the New York Times.  Her article, in accordance with Times standards, left a few things out, among them the fact that Montt completed coursework at the School of the Americas (SOA) three decades before taking power.  (The school is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, but “there are no substantive changes besides the name,” one of its former instructors testified shortly after the rebranding.)  His 14 months in charge were brutal, even by the standards SOA grads have set: “an estimated 70,000 unarmed civilians were killed or ‘disappeared;’ hundreds of thousands were internally displaced,” according to Amnesty International.  And his “Operation Sofia” was “aimed at massacring thousands of indigenous peasants,” the National Security Archive website explains—and was quite successful, given the 600 Mayan villages it destroyed.

The National Security Archive is housed at George Washington University, which is worth bearing in mind.  That a prominent university could name itself after the man the Iroquois dubbed “Town Destroyer” in the 1770s reveals much about this country’s prevailing intellectual culture, and its sense of history.  Seneca Chief Cornplanter explained that, whenever someone mentioned that Founding Father’s name, “our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers.”  Washington was hardly an innovator in this regard, and similar to the man who, centuries earlier, “set forth across the countryside, tearing into assembled masses of sick and unarmed native people, slaughtering them by the thousands.”  That was Columbus’ March 1495 rampage across Hispaniola, as described by historian David Stannard.  Montt was a worthy heir to this Western barbarism.

And his policies were right in line with Washington’s goals for the region.  As World War II drew to a close, U.S. State Department planners wrote of the “problem,” as they saw it, with “the other American republics,” which were “manifesting an increasingly strong spirit of independence and jealous insistence on complete sovereignty.”  This nuisance presented difficulties in light of Washington’s efforts to secure “long-term rights for the use…of certain naval and air bases,” and its wish “to maintain the economies” of Latin American nations in accordance with its principles—“quite apart from equity, it is to the selfish interest of the United States” to do so, planners emphasized.

These statements appear in documents from 1943-44, indicating Washington’s ensuing support for dictatorships had little to do with a “Cold War climate” warping the otherwise good intentions of U.S. officials.  From the perspective of these men, Guatemala entered a decade-long crisis as WWII drew to a close.  In 1944, a popular revolt brought down Jorge Ubico, the dictator Washington supported.  His successor, Juan José Arévalo, won overwhelmingly in the election held that December; he started democratizing the country while in office.  In 1951, voters elected Jacobo Árbenz, whose Agrarian Reform Law was part of a broader strategy to limit the power of major corporations.  Under Ubico, Susanne Jonas explains, the government was “active…in protecting and subsidizing (but never regulating or restricting) private enterprise;” it also repressed most of the population, keeping workers poor, terrified, and atomized—and profits high.

But ultimately it was Guatemala’s “increasingly strong spirit of independence” under Árbenz, more so than any specific policies limiting, say, United Fruit’s ability to operate, that led to his downfall in the 1954 CIA coup.  That ouster was one of the CIA’s earliest, though not without its difficulties: one official, as former CIA staff historian Nick Cullather revealed, “rallied his dispirited troops with a reminder that ‘the morale of the Nazis in the winter of 1932, just before their seizure of power in Spring 1933, was at an all-time low ebb.’”  Once Árbenz was out of the picture, the Guatemalan government acted on U.S. Embassy instructions, hunting down thousands of perceived subversives and torturing many of them in an effort to terrorize the population back into submission.  Under these conditions, the public could do little to protest, say, the 1955 Petroleum Code, which Jonas notes was written in English and a “giveaway measure” for foreign companies.

Washington’s 1960s restructuring of the security forces followed, doubling the army’s size and creating the Mobile Military Police, which expanded the state’s reach into rural regions.  These changes coincided with U.S. training for counterinsurgency units, both at the SOA and in-country, as when Colonel John D. Webber traveled to Guatemala in 1966 to monitor the new squadrons’ instruction.  Despite official rhetoric to the contrary, government repression was “totally disproportionate to the military force of the insurgency,” according to authors of the 1999 UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission—it was state terror, in plain terms, due to which perhaps 8,000 paid the ultimate price between 1966 and 1968.  But things weren’t all bad.  In 1962, a Chase Manhattan Bank report noted “the more favorable business climate” of the post-Árbenz era, in which its authors were confident foreign investment would “begin to pick up.”

Efforts to crush even the slightest trace of progressive politics intensified in the following years, and were pursued with utter ferocity in the 1980s.  The 1981-1983 period was the one in which “agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations”—developed with Washington’s help, it cannot be overemphasized—“committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people,” according to the 1999 truth commission.  Rios Montt was running the show by this point, with the help of his cabinet, two-thirds of which—like the dictator himself—had studied at the SOA.  These were the men who unleashed “Operation Sofia” on the Mayan communities: documents on the National Security Archive’s website demonstrate that the highest levels of Guatemala’s government were involved in its planning and direction.

Another human rights report, compiled by the Guatemalan Archdiocese’s Human Rights Office, gives a sense of what this “more favorable business climate” was like.  One testimony recalls “burned corpses, women impaled and buried as if they were animals ready for the spit, all doubled up, and children massacred and carved up with machetes.”  A second described how soldiers tied up a family inside a house, and then torched it; a two-year-old was among those burned to death.  Yet another tells how a pregnant woman “in her eighth month” came face-to-face with counterinsurgency forces: “they cut her belly, and they took out the little one, and they tossed it around like a ball.”  And in 1980, after shooting a woman lame, a group of soldiers “left their packs and dragged her like a dog to the riverbank.  They raped and killed her.”

These are just four examples of thousands, and part of the broader policy of brutalization for which, in particular, Defense Minister Héctor Gramajo Morales bore major responsibility.  U.S. officials honored him for his efforts at the SOA’s December 1991 commencement exercises in Fort Benning, GA, after which Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government awarded him a Mason fellowship.  Samantha Power, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Problem from Hell” never mentions Guatemala, taught at the Kennedy School before Obama tapped her for his National Security Council, confirming Harvard’s status as a safe haven for contributors to the cause of Guatemalan genocide denial.  But in civilized arenas, it seems more difficult to get away with overseeing the slaughter of thousands—one of several reasons why close attention should be paid to Rios Montt’s trial as it unfolds.

Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com.