THE NEWS out of Guatemala has been causing me twinges of self-reproach. Not because what I have written about Guatemala has proved to be wrong. But because I have never written about Guatemala.
Last month an independent truth commission released a nine-volume report on the massive human rights violations that bloodied Guatemala during its decades-long civil war. The death toll on all sides is estimated at more than 200,000, but of the killings that the commission was able to document, more than 90 percent, it said, were committed by the government and the military. To much of this bloodshed, the United States was an accessory. The report notes that Washington turned a blind eye to the government's slaughter of the Marxist rebels and their presumed supporters. Worse, the United States helped fund and train the Guatemalan military.
"We did not wish to say that the US government bears direct responsibility for any act of genocide," the commission's chairman said. But "the United States knew perfectly well what was going on. It raised no objection and it continued its support for the Guatemalan Army." In Guatemala last week, President Clinton formally acknowledged the American role.
Over the years I have occasionally been challenged by readers to write about Guatemala and the atrocities of its right-wing government. I never did. The subject never interested me. I never started a "Guatemala" file to go along with my bulging "Nicaragua," "El Salvador," and "Cuba" files. Of course no columnist writes about everything. But in more than 11 years of opining in print, I've taken up subjects ranging from Dean Martin to bankruptcy law to slavery in Sudan. Yet I never felt the urge to take up Guatemala, where hundreds of thousands of people were dying in a brutal civil war.
I think I was not atypical of the conservative commentariat. I'm sure some pundits and journals on the right wrote about Guatemala's agony, but offhand I don't recall any. Certainly it was not a subject that triggered in conservatives the passion that the crises in Nicaragua or Afghanistan did.
Why was that? Could it be – here are those reproachful twinges – that journalists and opinionizers who tilt rightward are as guilty of double standards as our ideological opponents on the left? They could generally be relied on to downplay or ignore the crimes of Fidel Castro or the Sandinistas – or, for that matter, of the Khmer Rouge or the Kremlin. Have we conservatives, I've been wondering, been similarly guilty of overlooking the evils committed by anticommunist regimes like the ones in Guatemala or Chile?
My tentative answer:
Conservatives are not immune to mortal failings and temptations, including the failing of being inconsistent and the temptation to go easy on the enemy of one's enemy. If one regards armed Marxist insurgents as a dire threat to human life, liberty, and happiness, one is likely to make allowances for a government under siege by Marxists guerrillas.
A double standard? Yes. But all double standards are not created equal. During World War II, the United States addressed one totalitarian empire – Nazi Germany – as a mortal enemy, while making another – Soviet Russia – our ally. Who wants to argue that we should have treated them the same? The USSR was ruled by a monster who slaughtered innocents mercilessly. So was Germany. But Germany, at that hour, represented a danger to Western civilization itself.
At the level of flesh and blood, every torture victim is equal, a human being in agony. At the level of geostrategy, however, it matters greatly whether the torturer is a Soviet proxy in a Sandinista uniform or a Hutu thug in Rwanda. During the Cold War, policymakers and analysts on the right engaged in a kind of triage, focusing attention on places where the Soviets were trying to brew revolution and plant the Leninist flag. Conservatives paid scant attention to Afghanistan, for example, until the Red Army invaded in 1979. Then they paid enormous attention – because the stakes were no longer the welfare of individual Afghans, but whether the world's most formidable enemy of freedom would advance or recede. Likewise Latin America. Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were priorities in the '70s and '80s. Guatemala wasn't.
If it is true that CIA officers were in the room as Guatemalan operatives planned illegal killings, or that US agencies knew of wholesale massacres of Mayan villages but said nothing, condemnation should have come as forcefully from the right as from the left. Yet if conservatives failed to condemn such crimes, at least they never denied them, never covered them up, and never made the criminals out to be heroes.
It is not a small point. The worst that can be said of most conservatives is that they were not aggressive enough in denouncing right-wing villains -- the Argentinian junta, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, or the Guatemalan strongman, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt. By contrast, leftists openly cheered the Sandinista junta and the FMLN, El Salvador's Marxist rebels. To this day, many liberals regard Castro – a cruel tyrant – with admiration.
There was a story to tell in Guatemala, and conservative journalists were not zealous enough in telling it. That was a sin of omission – less grave than the sins of commission perpetrated by journalists on the left, but a sin nonetheless.
I still won't be able to write about every topic readers suggest. But my "Guatemala" file is now open.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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