The Central American Saddam Hussein
Why Won't Bush Condemn Rios Montt, the 'Central American Saddam Hussein'?
Commentary, Roberto Lovato, Pacific News Service, Aug 12, 2003
Editor's Note: The Guatemalan Constitutional Court has recently cleared the way for Efrian Rios Montt, responsible for mass killing in Guatemala in the 1980s, to run for president. The writer explores why the U.S. barely denounces Rios Montt while it condemns Saddam Hussein daily. Traducción al español.
We don't need to spend $4 billion a month to bring a genocidal dictator to justice. Not a single drop of American or non-combatant blood needs to spill in order to punish someone universally acknowledged in the early 1980s to have gassed, tortured and killed as many people as Saddam Hussein.
Instead of sending out several naval fleets to pursue justice, all that's needed are a few airline tickets -- to Guatemala.
U.S. marshals then can simply go to the Guatemalan Congress and arrest the current head of that body, former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. But instead of pursuing justice against the 77-year-old retired brigadier general whom some call the "Guatemalan Saddam Hussein," the interventionist Bush administration responds to Montt's potential return to power with laissez-faire human rights policy.
Lack of U.S. government condemnation of the former dictator places the United States in an untenable moral position and endangers the peace and people of Guatemala.
Following a decision on July 30, 2004, by Guatemala's Constitutional Court clearing the way for a Rios Montt candidacy, Guatemalans and human rights activist are on red alert for the renewed possibility of terrorist attacks -- by their own government. During his 17 months as Guatemala's president, Rios Montt presided over a military responsible for almost half of all atrocities committed in Guatemala over the past 30 years. But as human rights activists like Rosalina Tuyuc wasted little time warning of another potential "genocidio," the Bush administration weakly responded to the possibility of a Rios Montt presidency, calling it "problematic."
Why the fuzziness about the man in the Americas who most embodies Bush administration descriptions of "evil"? Steady, daily denunciations of Saddam Hussein over the last 23 months contrast staggeringly with the deadly silence around Rios Montt. It's hardly the response we've come to expect from an administration bent on redefining the moral discourse of the world.
So why is Washington being evasive?
Some observers believe that lack of resources like oil in Guatemala condemns it, and, for that matter, the entire Central American region, to perpetual neglect. Others think that former President Ronald Reagan's influence on the Bush administration guarantees that the mass graves of Guatemala will not see the light of CNN, though such sites were being uncovered at about the same time as those in Iraq.
Declassified State Department documents released by the Clinton administration in 1999 reveal that high-level U.S. officials knew that Guatemala's mass graves were created after "executions ordered by armed services officers close to President Rios Montt." On Dec. 4, 1982, President Reagan visited Central America and met with Rios Montt, whom he described as a "man of great personal integrity and commitment" who had been "getting a bum rap." Forensic anthropologists later found that three days after the meeting, Rios Montt's military slaughtered more than 300 villagers in the hamlet of Dos Erres.
A month after the massacre, Reagan managed to free military aid to Guatemala that had been frozen in Congress because of human rights concerns.
Many of the same people who crafted Reagan's policies and pronouncements in Central America now shape Bush policy in Iraq. The high moral tone of current Bush administration discourse has its roots in Central America policy by way of high-level policymakers such as former Reagan administration assistant secretary of state Elliot Abrams, who was largely responsible for U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s. Abrams is now senior adviser on the Middle East at the National Security Council.
The re-emergence of Rios Montt puts the Bush administration in a quandary. Silence in the face of his past crimes looks bad. But bringing attention to Rios Montt's legacy risks the exposure of decades of U.S. support for genocide in Central America.
Human rights advocates continue efforts to put Rios Montt on trial for crimes against humanity in Nuremberg-style proceedings. Bush must call on Montt to withdraw his candidacy and submit himself to international tribunals or face arrest. Rios Montt and his cronies threaten a peace already paid for with the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents in Guatemala.
PNS commentator Roberto Lovato (email@example.com) is the former head of the Central American Studies program at California State University, Northridge.