With peace, a time for truth


LONDON -- After 100,000 unnecessary deaths, 40,000 "disappearances" and 440 ruined villages, peace formally comes to the last redoubt of the Central American war zone, Guatemala, on Sunday.

It was, with Rwanda, Burundi, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, one of the great killing fields of the "post-war" world. The violence never reached an apex equal to that in neighboring El Salvador, nor did as many people just "disappear" as in Chile and Argentina, nor did the war last so long as it has in Peru or Colombia. But no country in Latin America could match Guatemala for long-term, systematic, assassination and torture.

Before my first trip to this wretched country in 1980, I spoke with the secretary general of Amnesty International, Thomas Hammarberg. "Are you sure you want to go?" he asked. "In Guatemala there are no political prisoners, only political killings."

But I did go, many times, once walking the circumference of Lake Atilan, a massive, silver sheen of wide water lying beneath three extinct, cloud-covered volcanoes, the heartland of one of the major guerrilla groups fighting on behalf of the overcrowded, highland Indian communities.

The three-day hike taught me not just of the hardship and impoverishment of an Indian people barely touched by the advances and conveniences of modern life, but also of brave North American priests who lay down their lives in order to witness massacres and mayhem to the outside world, of incognito human-rights workers who discovered the secret caches of corpses and who identified the victims of guerrillas.

Among the clay pots, the whitewashed churches and the furrowed fields on the slopes of the almighty volcanoes, I kept a lookout for signs of American involvement. Like everyone else, perhaps even the American president himself, I was duped.

Now we know that the last president to tell the truth about U.S.-Guatemalan relations was Dwight Eisenhower, who acknowledged the CIA's role in overthrowing the reformist, democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, in 1954. This act of political vandalism not only stifled Indian hopes for justice, but triggered the Marxist-led guerrilla uprising and emboldened the military to engage in ruthless repression.

Carter's promise

President Jimmy Carter promised that the CIA would never be used for secret counter-insurgency work. Was he duped, too? Or was the policy reversed by Ronald Reagan? Or did the CIA just do its own thing, right up to last week when it stripped Richard Nuccio, a State Department official, of security clearance. Mr. Nuccio was the brave official who last year informed Congress what the CIA knew about two political killings in Guatemala earlier in the decade.

The fact that President Clinton has not intervened to rescue this honest whistle-blower's reputation perhaps bespeaks his own fear of challenging the CIA while his nomination of Anthony Lake to be its director remains pending.

The CIA may not itself have killed in Guatemala, but its operatives provided material and moral support for the activities of the Guatemalan military. And it, along with the U.S. embassy in Guatemala, disseminated the big lie that the death squads were not part of the official apparatus, but rather financed and controlled by secret rightist groups.

After my first trip to Guatemala I reported that the death squads were under the direct authority of the Guatemalan presidential office. There was a deafening silence from Ronald Reagan's Washington and little follow-up from other newspapers.

The president and the press now have a duty to get to the bottom of this story. It is a great stain on America's conscience. Out of a minimal respect for the thousands of murdered innocents the truth finally should be told.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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