The commission called in by President Obama to investigate American involvement in the deliberate infection of Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases has reported its interim findings. The case concerns 5,500 Guatemalans who were the subject of «medical research» that took place with US collaboration between 1946 and 1948: 1,300 were deliberately exposed to sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhoea or chancroid.
Dr Amy Gutmann, a US university president who led the investigation, said some of the staff involved were «grievously wrong» and «morally culpable to various degrees». I note however that the implication that some were not «grievously wrong» and others were only partially guilty.
To be frank, the labours of President Obama’s commission and Dr Gutmann’s carefully nuanced statement would be laughable if they were not so insulting. They appear a sort of political legerdemain that, by offering a confession to one crime, is seeking to divert attention and escape responsibility for an infinitely greater one.
What happened with the syphilitic atrocity between 1946 and 1948 was as nothing when compared with the US involvement in cataclysmic genocide of 200,000 people visited on Guatemala – and particularly on the Mayans and other indigenous peoples – when that country was under the heel of military dictatorships fostered, encouraged and supported by Washington.
According to the report of the commission for historical clarification (CHC), set up under the Oslo accord on Guatemala in 1994 with the involvement of the EU, Mexico and the US to investigate – but not to judge – the atrocities, this was rooted in the overthrow of the constitutionally elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz by conservative military in 1954.
The coup d’etat enjoyed the active and now fully acknowledged co-operation of the CIA. Washington was engaged in the cold war, and US anti-communism, backed by a misnamed «national security doctrine», received firm support from the Guatemalan right-wing. This took the form of «reinforcing the national intelligence apparatus and … training the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques, key factors which had significant bearing on human rights violations during the armed confrontation». It was mixed up with «anti-reformist, then anti-democratic policies, culminating in criminal counterinsurgency».
The Guatemalan military then waged a war of annihilation against those they considered enemies whom they termed «insurgents», a term that has reappeared in the context of the western invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The CHC found that insurgent actions produced a mere 3% of the human rights violations and acts of violence perpetrated against men, women and children, including 5% of the arbitrary executions and 2% of forced disappearances. It was the western-supported military who bathed in the blood of fellow citizens.
The memories of the 1954 coup d’etat against Arbenz are becoming blurred: the events of the syphilitic atrocity between 1946 and 1948 even more so. But sadly the mindset of the American establishment, particularly towards central America, has not blurred at all and is unchanged, even during the Obama presidency.
One has to look no further than the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya, the constitutionally elected president of Honduras – Guatemala’s neighbour – in 2009, and Hillary Clinton’s dogged defence of the present illegitimate regime of Porfirio Lobo, to see that Washington is still practicing its old bad – no, murderous – habits in the isthmus.
By Hugh O’Shaughnessy, a prize-winning journalist who has written on Latin America for over 40 years.