Prosecution and convictions in the wake of Guatemala’s decades-long “dirty war” continue. They are raising questions about the Cold War that the Right will have to answer.
Ah, the 1980s, the decade that taste forgot (which used to be the ’70s, until that became chic). It was an era of leg warmers, neon pink and dirty wars in Latin America. For decades, the US had run the region as its own fiefdom, crushing any attempt by locals to gain even moderate representation in trade unions or popular political parties. The juntas and the dictators were largely defunded after the end of the Cold War, at which point they collapsed, after which the era was forgotten, in a world consumed in globalisation, and then the war on terror.
But not in the place itself, which now elects the leftist governments they always would have, had they been allowed. And in Guatemala, one of the most obscure yet significant places in the region, memory is clawing its way out of the shallow earth, and walking around. And it’s not stopping at the border.
Thus, in a California court recently, a would-be US citizen Jorge Vinico Sosa Orantes has been convicted of falsifying information while trying to gain citizenship. Orantes is now facing 15 years’ imprisonment for this otherwise minor crime, because the lie concerns his membership of the Guatemalan army in 1982, and his participation of a massacre in Dos Erres, where up to 200 villagers were killed after the army raided the village looking for stolen weapons. Killed doesn’t really cover it — Guatemalan “Kaibile” special forces raped and murdered the villagers over two days, separating the children and killing them with hammers, cutting open pregnant women, and keeping teenage girls alive for days of rape before strangling them.
The event has suddenly become known in the US media as the Dos Erres massacre as if it were as singular and famous as My Lai. It is simply one of the better documented, with four soldiers and officers involved sentenced in 2012 to die in jail serving their terms of thousands of years. In fact it was simply one of hundreds of exceptionally brutal massacres conducted by the Guatemalan military in their repression of guerilla campaigns — referred to as a civil war, it was more one-sided than that — over a period from 1960 to a final truce in 1996.
More than 250,000 people were killed in the conflicts, in which a string of US-backed dictators and fraudulent presidents forced people towards armed struggle for basic rights, and then reigned brutal repression on whole regions. Ninety per cent of the dead were killed by the military, and 90% of those were civilians, many of them indigenous people.
The military relied on US arms and funds, which only paused — partially — during the Carter era, and were expanded to include helicopters and air-to-ground missiles during the Reagan era. Barely covered in the Western media, the years of repression — initially at the behest of local landowners and the United Fruit Company, and then for military and oil interests — made the country about as lethal for its benighted population as anywhere on Earth.
The Guatemalans never forgot, obviously, and many of the years since have been consumed with investigation and reconciliation. In May this year, former president Rios Montt was convicted of genocide, though it was sent for re-hearing by a (politicised) court of appeal. Montt was leader in 1982-1983, when the Reagan administration supplied hardware that allowed Montt to turn low-level reprisals into systematic massacres of whole areas, taking the death toll into the tens-of-thousands per quarter — overwhelmingly, the dead were Mayan-descended people in the north of the country. Indeed, it was in this period that the country was flooded with CIA advisors and trainers — including for the Kaibilie forces — playing an active and knowing role in the killings.
The massacre at Dos Erres occurred on his watch. But it was only one of more than 1100 documented massacres, in a country roughly the size of Tasmania. Such reminders of another era will continue to come out of the ground. And they pose a challenge to the received wisdom of the era — that such dictatorships, however brutal, were not of the same order as the Communist dictators of eastern Europe at the same time. Principally, they pose a historical challenge to the anti-communist movement in the US, Australia and elsewhere, in the judgements it made and the priorities they chose.
“… teams of forensic archaeologists work over the dusty hills, disinterring and distinguishing skulls and bones centuries old, from those only decades old.”
By the 1960s, conditions in the eastern bloc countries that the anti-communist focused on substantially, were no picnic — but nor were they anything like the charnel house that a place like Guatemala had become. The same goes for other slaughters such as the wholesale evisceration of Vietnam, neutral Cambodia, and the 1965 massacres in Indonesia. Indeed, the killings had much in common with the genuinely atrocious communist killings of the time. In Guatemala, the CIA-trained death squads sought out teachers, graduates, anyone capable of organizing literacy, union representation or similar. Eventually, they arrived at the simple expedience of killing anyone wearing glasses (when they were not massacring villages tout court). Sound familiar?
Yet such events gained either no criticism, or actual approval, from the anti-communist movement. Comparison of life in, say, Poland in the 1970s and Guatemala, shows that many of the moral priorities of anti-communists were simply grotesque. Yet a movement founded overwhelmingly by European exiles could not free its moral focus from a personal and historical focus, which saw the sufferings of white Europe as meaningful, in a way that the mere killings of brown people elsewhere could not be. Nor do they have much defense in the claim that they did not really know what was going on. Simply, they should have looked harder. The documentation was plentiful, far in excess of that available on Stalin’s USSR in the 1930s.
The Latin American front touches every aspect of the Cold War and anti-communism. In 2004, with the revelations of US torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the world became aware of what anyone paying attention to Latin America knew — that torture has been intrinsic to US operations for a long time. Who was the US ambassador to Iraq in 2004? John Negroponte. And what was his previous experience? US ambassador to Honduras, 1981-1985, enthusiastically directing dirty wars in Central America. Suddenly, Abu Ghraib, a product of indiscriminate arrests, indefinite detention and brutal, racist US soldiers. Quelle surprise.
But it goes further back than that. It was Guatemala where, in 1954, the US had toppled an elected leftist reformist government, led by Jacopo Arbenz, at the behest of United Fruit. Arbenz’s government had drawn hundreds of leftists to Guatemala City, among them Castro and Guevara, and its fate made it clear to them — and to those further afield — that the US would not permit a reformist process in the hemisphere, shaping their strategies accordingly. The coup against Arbenz was organized by CIA director of plans Frank Wisner. Following the coup, Wisner’s agents organised the first death squads within the Guatemalan military, and Wisner ensured they received CIA funds. At the same time, he organized something on the Western front — a group called the Congress for Cultural Freedom (older readers will baulk at my presenting it as obscure; younger readers will never have heard of it).
The CCF was charged with waging cultural war against leftism, sponsoring everything from abstract expressionism painting (as opposed to figurative art, documenting social conditions) to small magazines around the world. The most famous was Encounter. The local one was Quadrant, which swapped CIA funding for Australia Council funding some time ago. Grandees such as Peter Coleman are still around from that era. They like to claim that whatever the shortcomings of CIA involvement in their projects, at least they “chose the right side”. They are yet to acknowledge how fatally and totally entwined were the CIA’s Cold War operations. Quite literally, the cheques that went to support Quadrant and others were signed by the same hand that signed what were effectively death warrants bound for South America.
Rather more has been forgotten than mere taste, especially in the US. But someday there will be a reckoning and a full moral assessment of the era, devoid of propaganda. It is beginning in Guatemala, where teams of forensic archaeologists work over the dusty hills, disinterring and distinguishing skulls and bones centuries old, from those only decades old.