In 1992, I visited Guatemala on a United Nations-sponsored mission to assess the health situation of Central American refugees and displaced people in Central America. I was in Quetzaltenango, home to many indigenous Mayans. There, I learned a lesson.
I had gone to visit the town’s historic cathedral when I saw an old Mayan woman dressed beautifully, kneeling and praying on the steps in front of the church. I instinctively grabbed my camera and was ready to shoot when the woman turned towards me and said, “One dollar!”
Although initially I refused to pay her for the photo, I realized it was her right to demand compensation for something that would benefit me. Unintentionally, I had wanted to take advantage of this woman, something that the Mayans had been used to for centuries following the Spanish conquest of the country.
It was only in 1951, when the Mayans had the opportunity to redress their poor health situation and standard of living with the democratic election of President Jacobo Arbenz. He instituted a series of dramatic reforms to improve their situation, and strengthen democracy in the country. When Arbenz took office, 2 percent of the population owned 70 percent of the land.
The focus of his policy was a comprehensive agrarian reform law. It transferred uncultivated land from large landowners to their poor workers, allowing them to start a farm of their own. One of the motivations for the passage of that law -which benefitted approximately 500,000 mostly indigenous peasants- was to generate enough capital to fund his public infrastructure projects around the country. Arbenz also instituted near-universal suffrage and a minimum wage.
In the process, Arbenz had alienated many powerful landowners, notably the United Fruit Company (UFC), which felt particularly targeted by Arbenz’s reforms. The company owned 220,000 hectares, only 15 percent of which were cultivated. The fallow land fell under the scope of the agrarian reform law.
The response of the UFC was predictable. It started an intensive lobbying campaign aimed at overthrowing the Arbenz government. The company had powerful allies in the U.S. government, notably John Foster Dulles, the U.S Secretary of State and his brother Allen Dulles, the CIA director, who was on the company’s board of directors.
In August 1953, President Eisenhower authorized Operation PBSuccess aimed at overthrowing President Arbenz. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was chosen to lead the coup which included psychological tactics. Lacking the Guatemalan army support, on June 27, 1954, Jacobo Arbenz resigned and received political asylum at the Mexican Embassy. It was the loss of one of the most important opportunities to create a successful democracy in Central America.
The fall of Arbenz inaugurated an almost uninterrupted series of corrupt and authoritarian governments that have ruled Guatemala. They conducted systematic abuses against the indigenous population which explains, to a large extent, the massive migrations towards the U.S.
A brutal civil war started in 1960 ended with peace accords in 1996. But more than 200,000 people -mostly indigenous Mayan- were killed, in a regime of terror where at least 100,000 women were raped, over one and a half a million people were displaced from their homes, and their basic infrastructure for survival was destroyed. Most of those guilty of crimes against humanity have gone unpunished.
In 1999, Bill Clinton took the unprecedented step of apologizing for the U.S. role in supporting the war that caused havoc in Guatemala’s social structure. His apology came shortly after an independent Historical Clarification Commission concluded that the U.S. was largely responsible for most of the human rights abuses committed during that bloody war.
President Clinton said, “It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong. And the United States must not repeat that mistake.” That mistake included support for the criminal regimes in El Salvador, Nicaragua Honduras and El Salvador.
Can we be surprised when tens of thousands of people try to leave their countries in Central America in search of a better life? The U.S. is not responsible for all the ills that affect the Central American countries, but it is a duty of the U.S. to improve the situation of migrants seeking safety, and treat them with care and respect to compensate for the tragic circumstances we helped create.
Last year, after visiting Guatemala to join the Global Justice Fellowship and learn about the consequences of that country’s civil war, rabbi Suzanne Singer wrote, “As a rabbi, I believe in teshuvah -repentance. We owe it to Guatemalans to repair the tragic circumstances we helped to instigate.”