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A Guatemalan court has found former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, for massacres of indigenous Ixil Mayas that took place during his tenure as President in 1982-83. This is the first time a former Guatemalan head of state has been convicted (or even tried) for such violations. Although it remains possible that the conviction could be overturned on appeal, the Guatemalan people (and particularly indigenous Mayas) should celebrate this moment.

efrain rios montt

Ríos Montt seized power when the preceding quasi-democratic, military-dominated government confronted a growing leftist insurgency that was drawing significant support from the Mayan half of the population. The response was a draconian counterinsurgency strategy that aimed to deny the guerrillas sanctuary among the indigenous population. Ríos Montt believed that his predecessor, General Romeo Lucas García, was failing; hence the even more repressive tactics that prevailed under Ríos Montt. Literally tens of thousands of Guatemalans were killed, wounded, or disappeared by the Guatemalan Army under Ríos Montt’s command.

After Ríos Montt, Guatemala began a protracted, hesitant transition to democracy, even while right-wing death squads continued to operate, killing prominent human rights advocates such as the anthropologist Myrna Mack and the Catholic Bishop Juan José Girardi. In 1996, Guatemala became the last Central American country to sign a peace accord between the insurgents and the government. Elections became more competitive and less corrupt, though right-of-center parties retained a predominant position in both the presidency and the congress.

Guatemala’s crisis of the 1980s was part of a regional, Central American crisis that saw Sandinista revolutionaries take power in Nicaragua in 1979, a powerful insurgency in El Salvador, and significant political destabilization in both Honduras and Costa Rica. The United States exercised its traditional hegemony in Central America, under the Reagan administration, by actively supporting Contra rebels in Nicaragua, virtually taking control of the Salvadoran government in order to prevent an insurgent victory there, as well as supporting the Guatemalan repression.

Ending the Central American crisis was the work of the Central Americans, acting against the wishes of both the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush administrations. Oscar Arias, then President of Costa Rica, took the lead in negotiating the principles of a comprehensive peace settlement that then required detailed negotiations between government and insurgents in each country. Nicaragua was the first to compete those negotiations, in 1989; Guatemala was last, in 1996. Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize.

One very delicate issue in all of these peace settlements was how to deal with human rights abuses, the vast majority perpetrated by government forces. Invariably, the armies and their right-wing allies retained enough power to block attempts to bring high-level officials to justice. In the cases of Mack and Gerardi, mentioned previously, the actual perpetrators were found guilty, but not those who ordered the murders.

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The United States bears a major burden of responsibility for Guatemala’s (and Central America’s) dismal history. For over a century we have intervened repeatedly, often militarily, to support elements friendly to US corporations (like United Fruit) in the early years, or to oppose perceived threats of communist subversion during the Cold War. This meant, in 1954, the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the legitimately elected Guatemalan government and the establishment of a long military hegemony that included Ríos Montt.

The transition to democracy, now 30 years old, has passed a major test with the trial and conviction of Ríos Montt. The impediments to full democratization remain huge, but there is still good cause for Guatemalans to celebrate.

Meanwhile, the United States is up to its old tricks in Central America. This time it’s the Obama administration. In 2009, elected President José Manual Zelaya, of Honduras, was ousted by the army in the first successful coup against an elected government in Central America since the transition to democracy that began in the 1980s. While virtually all Latin American and European governments refused to recognize the new government and demanded restoration of Zelaya to power, the Obama policy was to tacitly support the new government, thereby undercutting US professions of unconditional support for democracy in Latin America. Today, this US-sponsored regime is covertly supporting death squads operating out of military and police barracks.

Latin Americans have learned from hard experience that they are better off when the US is distracted, as it has been since September 11, 2001. Obama’s absent-minded support for reactionary forces in Honduras shows that the United States has learned little. Ríos Montt’s conviction shows that Guatemalans have learned a great deal.

john peeler

John Peeler

Tuesday, 14 May 2013