Karma has a way of catching up with people but sometimes karma takes its time. This is certainly true in the case of General Efrain Rios Montt, the former military dictator of Guatemala from 1982-96. A man with the blood of tens of thousands (if not over a hundred thousand) of Guatemalan men, women, and children on his hands, he has for years conveniently escaped justice in his country and in other countries. Finally, this past week his trial on charges of genocide against Guatemala's indigenous Mayan people began. Of course, there are many of us who doubt he will ever do prison time but at least trying this bloody murderer is a step toward bringing justice to his many victims and their families.
During Guatemala's long Civil War, that country's army, assisted by unofficial right-wing death squads, murdered, raped, and tortured people. Entire villages, mostly ethnically Mayan, were destroyed and their inhabitants summarily executed. The Guatemalan government always claimed that they were only going after "communist" guerrillas but the bulk of those killed were poor peasants who were merely suspected of having sympathies with guerrillas or even just sympathies with the poor. In fact, of all the butchers who ruled in Latin America since the end of WWII, General Rios Montt was probably the worst and was indeed far worse than even General Pinochet in Chile or General Videla in Argentina.
As is the case in other Central and South American countries, the United States has to take a large share of the blame for these atrocities. As is often the case in this region, the United State supported Guatemala's monied elite in a country with huge gaps between rich and poor in the name of "fighting leftists and communists" but also because our policies toward those countries always supported the interests of powerful American corporations.
During the 1980s, when the atrocities in Guatemala were their most ghastly, General Rios Montt was openly and actively supported by President Ronald Reagan. Rios Montt, unlike most Guatemalans, was not Catholic but instead a militant "born again" Pentecostal. As a result, he received a lot of praise from such right-wing "Christian" televangelists as Dr. Jerry Falwell and Rev. Pat Roberson in their broadcasts. This butcher was portrayed by conservative Evangelicals as a "good christian man" who was just trying to save his country from the "leftists."
American corporate interests in Guatemala go back for decades. At one point, the Boston-based United Fruit Company owned so much land in Guatemala and other Central American countries that they effectively ran the governments there giving these nations the nickname of "banana republics." United Fruit always stood in the way of any meaningful reforms in these countries. Although United Fruit no longer exists due to buyouts, it's "descendant" company is Chiquita. Perhaps things only changed in name; in the last few years there have been disturbing reports that Chiquita has been funding right-wing Columbian death squads and using them to "discourage" union organizing on their banana plantations.
In 1954, the CIA directly organized and participated in a military coup in Guatemala to oust democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz was a socialist but he was accused of being a Communist in league with Moscow. It has been proven, however, that the USSR played virtually no role in Arbenz's government.
One of Arbenz's first acts as Guatemala's president was to take the large amount of unused, uncultivated land owned by United Fruit and redistribute it to poor, landless Guatemalan peasants. Guatemala paid for the land but not enough for United Fruit. For years, United Fruit had been undervaluing the value of its holdings in Guatemala to avoid paying taxes and Arbenz simply paid them what THEY had said the land was worth!
So, the CIA began a covert (and increasingly overt) campaign to get rid of Arbenz. It is certainly not surprising that at the time, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles and his brother Alan who was the director of the CIA, had interests in and connections to United Fruit. When the military coup came, Arbenz was forced into exile but thousands of his supporters or suspected supporters were killed and tortured. One person who barely escaped Guatemala with his life was a young Argentinian doctor named Ernesto "Che" Guevara who later became a leader of the Cuban Revolution and who wanted to expand that revolution to the rest of Latin America. Most historians believe that Che's intense hatred for the United States originated during his Guatemalan experience. Can anyone really blame him?
The United States is a wonderful country with a wonderful history. But, some of that history is dark, especially when it comes to U.S. relations with Central and South American nations. As a nation, we need to get rid of our smugness and admit that part of our history.
Yes, karma has a way of taking its time but for some of us, it is worth the wait!
E. Scott Cracraft