How the NYT Solved the New Guatemala Problem
One problem for the paper was to explain and justify U.S. complicity in light of this country's definitionally good and benevolent qualities. Sometimes this problem has been eased by discrediting the source, and in fact the Times did that just a few weeks previously in giving uncritical front page attention to Stoll's effort to discredit Rigoberto Menchu's testimony. But the authorship and character of the Historical Clarification Commission's report made it difficult to treat the document in this manner, at least on short notice. The Times was forced to bite the bullet, acknowledging on its front page that the army had done most of the killing and that the United States was complicit (Feb. 26, 1999). The news report did play a little dumb, citing one "anonymous aide" who confided that the Commission "found evidence that the United States had knowledge of genocide and still supported the Guatemalan military." As the article admitted that U.S. training of the army was a key factor "with significant bearing on human rights violations," that the U.S. "knew" what was going on is more than obvious. The article also failed to mention that the state terror increased in severity in direct relation to U.S. aid and training.
The news article traced the origin of the war to 1960, when "a rightist military-controlled Government [was pitted] against a classic Latin American left-wing insurgency." This is Times history, not real history: the war is traceable to the U.S. overthrow of an elected government in 1954 and installation of the "rightist military-controlled government" that responded to mass demands exclusively by force. (In one of those marvelous Orwellisms that so enrich U.S. imperial history, Richard Nixon stated that "This is the first instance in history where a Communist government has been replaced by a free one.") Furthermore, the insurgency began from within the military establishment, not among the peasants, although the conditions created under the regime of terror made peasant recruitment easy. Many officers resented the U.S. use of Guatemalan territory to train the Bay of Pigs invaders, and they staged an uprising in 1960 that was crushed with U.S. help. Some of the officers fled to the hills and began organizing an insurgency. A top rebel, Luis Turcios Lima, who had been trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, claimed to be motivated by the puppet character of the Guatemalan government and with the aim "to clean up the government, not to destroy capitalism." In short, this was not a "classic Latin-American left-wing insurgency" and the U.S. role in creating it was fundamental.
The Times editorial on "Guatemala's Nightmare Past" (February 28, 1999), while acknowledging the terror and U.S. involvement, eventually featured the fact that the United States "has helped uncover its complicity" and has "given important files to Guatemala." The sole Op Ed column dealing with this issue also featured "Helping Guatemala Find the Truth" (Kate Doyle, March 1, 1999), and concluded that in helping the truth commission "the administration has made an "important gesture of atonement." By this apologetic route, the paper evades key questions: Why was the United States complicit with a system of outlandish terror for decades? Where was the Times's and media's reporting and indignation at this genocide in our backyard, the absence of which made its long murderous duration possible? If the United States can actively support such a regime for decades, does it not disqualify itself as a judge capable of unbiased decision-making on global human rights abuses?
These questions cannot even be raised in the Times--this writer's letter putting them forward was, as expected, unpublishable. But in a sense they were answered by the single editorial and Op Ed column--the United States has changed course, and is now more sensitive to these matters, as evidenced by its cooperation with the truth commission and its readiness to bomb Serbia (if not Turkey and Saudi Arabia)!
Edward Herman is a Professor Emeritus of Finance, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and author of Triumph of the Market (South End, 1995) and The Global Media (with Robert McChesney, Cassell, 1997), among other books._