Time for a U.S. Truth Commission

September 25, 2007

This past February, the UN Commission for Historical Clarification published an extensive report on human rights violations committed during the course of Guatemala's 36-year civil war. It documented, in clear and precise language, the central role of the Guatemalan army in the violence, and named army policy for what it was: genocide. And it did not hesitate to directly indict the U.S. government for its role in ushering in, supporting, and—at times—directing the genocidal regimes that have governed Guatemala since 1954.

Two weeks after the report's release, President Clinton visited Central America. During his stop in Guatemala, he had little choice but to address the UN report and its findings. "For the United States," he 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. The United States must not repeat that mistake."

To some, Clinton's remarks were too little, too late. But others welcomed the fact that the highest official of the U.S. government acknowledged the sinister role played by Washington in the violence which has engulfed Guatemala since the 1954 U.S.-sponsored coup which overthrew the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz. For many, Clinton's remarks were particularly welcome given the fact that Guatemala's President, Alvaro Arzú, had yet to make any public remarks whatsoever about the UN Commission's findings and recommendations. It was another two weeks before Arzú publicly referred to the Commission, praising the report but stressing that he would not implement its recommendations, calling them divisive.

Key to the UN Commission's ability to uncover the depths of the U.S. role in Guatemala was the work of Kate Doyle at the National Security Archive. Doyle successfully petitioned for the declassification of hundreds of U.S. government documents revealing Washington's moral and material support for the Guatemalan army and its genocidal policies.

Among the mounds of documents is a 1968 State Department memo from Peter Vaky, the second-ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, condemning Wash- ington's tolerance of state-sponsored terrorism. "[A]re we so obsessed with insurgency," Vaky wrote in his memo, "that we are prepared to rationalize murder as an acceptable counterinsurgency weapon?" Other documents show that in the late 1960s U.S. officials played a key role centralizing the command structures and communication networks of agencies that carried out death-squad killings well into the 1980s, even placing a CIA officer in the room where Guatemala intelligence officers planned covert death-squad operations in 1965. They also show that the CIA station in Guatemala knew that the Guatemalan army was massacring entire Mayan villages while Reagan Administration officials publicly lauded the military regime's human rights record.

Declassification is an important step in uncovering the truth about the U.S. role in Latin America during the Cold War. Doyle has argued that this should be part of a larger process: the creation of an official truth commission to examine U.S. criminal activities in Central and South America. After all, she says, if countries like Guatemala and El Salvador are prepared to go through this painful process of looking at their recent past and examining the state structures put in place to engage in violence against their own populations, should not the U.S. government—which often sponsored these repressive state structures—do the same?

Last fall, progressives came very close to winning one important battle in the struggle to uncover the truth about U.S. involvement in Latin America. The Human Rights Information Act, which would have mandated declassification, was defeated in the Senate by a mere seven votes. The pressure brought to bear by human rights groups did, however, oblige President Clinton to pass an Executive Order in February to declassify a large number of heretofore unseen government documents that will surely reveal a great deal about the nature and extent of U.S. covert operations in the region.

Examining the past can also help us understand the present U.S. role in Latin America. As NACLA has extensively documented in recent issues, that role has changed precious little. Today, Washington finances the brutal military and paramilitary units of Colombia and Mexico; has requested that Congress resume full military assistance to Guatemala despite the fact that there have been no purges of rights abusers or any major internal restructuring of the institution or its mission; and is promoting a more active role for the military in internal security, dangerously building up the very militaries the U.S. rhetoric on democracy alleges should be kept out of politics.

Now that Guatemala and other Latin American countries have aired their dirty laundry, it is time for the U.S. government to establish a truth commission to examine its own misdeeds in Latin America. It is time for full disclosure on U.S. policy in Latin America—past and present.

Jo-Marie Burt is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.