On NY Time's coverage of the
US involvement in
Guatemala's terror campaign.

By Noam Chomsky


Ed Herman's commentary, recently posted (in the ZNet Commentaries Program, that is), seems to me to capture the main points very well. In brief, the Times reporting was carefully crafted so as NOT to "embarrass the state," (or the corporate sector, which was also criticized in the UN report), or the NY Times, which has a shocking record of apologetics for ongoing atrocities in this case. And there was nothing in the reporting about the reasons for the U.S. overthrow of Guatemala's brief democratic experiment, and the (bipartisan) support for massive terror, torture, slaughter and repression since, even though we have a rich record of internal documents explaining the reasons in quite illuminating ways. I'll lift a few examples from things I've written, to illustrate -- skipping here material on the shameful NY Times complicity in the terror, the extraordinary lies of the Reagan administration as it lent its avid support to the atrocities as they reached genocidal levels and the media reaction, etc.

--US intelligence and the State Department warned that the situation in Guatemala is "adverse to US interests" because of the "Communist influence...based on militant advocacy of social reforms and nationalistic policies identified with the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944," which initiated the ten-year democratic interlude terminated by the US-managed coup. Worse yet, the "radical and nationalist policies" of the democratic capitalist government, including the "persecution of foreign economic interests, especially the United Fruit Company," had gained "the support or acquiescence of almost all Guatemalans." The government was proceeding to create "mass support for the present regime" by labor organization and agrarian reform and "to mobilize the hitherto politically inert peasantry" while undermining the power of large landholders. Furthermore, "Guatemalan official propaganda, with its emphasis on conflict between democracy and dictatorship and between national independence and `economic imperialism,' is a disturbing factor in the Caribbean area"; the background for the judgment is Washington's support for dictatorships and its natural fear of&127;independent democratic tendencies. Also disturbing was&127;Guatemalan support for "the `democratic' elements of other&127;Caribbean countries in their struggles against `dictatorship'" (note the scare quotes, indicating the attitude towards the silly notions of "democracy" and "dictatorship"). The 1944 revolution had aroused "a strong national movement to free Guatemala from the military dictatorship, social backwardness, and `economic colonialism' which had been the pattern of the past," and "inspired the loyalty and conformed to the self-interest of most politically conscious Guatemalans." Hence "Neither the landholders nor the [United] Fruit Company can expect any sympathy in Guatemalan public opinion." A "Commie display of strength" at a "gigantic May Day celebration" was particularly distressing, given what intelligence perceived to be their leading role in these ominous developments.

The "social and economic programs of the elected government met&127;the aspirations" of labor and the peasantry, along with "most politically conscious Guatemalans." And, more dangerous still, the government was "preparing to mobilize the hitherto inert peasantry." The threat of democracy was very real. Still worse, Guatemala was becoming what was called a "virus" that might infect others. It was threatening "stability": "Its agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social programme of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbours where similar conditions prevail."

The Cold War was an insignificant factor, as has commonly been the case, though not entirely lacking. Thus, as it prepared to&127;overcome the danger of independent capitalist democracy in&127;Guatemala, the U.S. cut off military aid and threatened attack,&127;so that Guatemala turned to the Soviet bloc for arms, other&127;sources having been barred by U.S. power. Guatemala City Embassy officer John Hill advised that the U.S. could now take steps to&127;bar "movement of arms and agents to Guatemala," stopping ships in international waters "to such an extent that it will disrupt&127;Guatemala"s economy." This will in turn "encourage the Army or&127;some other non-Communist elements to seize power," or else "the&127;Communists will exploit the situation to extend their control,"&127;which would "justify the American community, or if they won"t go&127;along, the U.S. to take strong measures." We thus compel&127;Guatemala to defend itself from our threatened attack, thereby&127;creating a threat to our security which we exploit by destroying&127;the Guatemalan economy so as to provoke a military coup or an&127;actual Communist takeover which will justify our violent response -- in self-defense. Here we see the real meaning of the phrase&127;"security threat," spelled out with some insight.

 Here we have a little taste of what would have been reported in a free press, which was concerned to help readers understand the background for long-term US engagement in shocking atrocities, and media support for them. You can check yourself to see how such matters reached the public. Brian, and several others, on the Report of the UN Commission on Guatemala: "What do you believe the significance of this report will be for the Guatamalan people?"

That's up to them -- which we can't do anything about -- and to us -- which we can do a lot about. The US role has been and remains crucial. To mention merely one aspect of it, the report stated (and the chair of the Commission stressed in presenting it) that the US government and US corporations worked "to maintain the country's archaic and unjust socio-economic structure." True, and central to the whole terrible story. And as if to illustrate the conclusion, just as the report was presented, the Phillips Van Heusen corporation closed the only unionized factory among more than 200 apparel factors in Guatemala, unionized after a bitter 6-year struggle. The President of the (US) textile workers union, which had assisted in this struggle, described the Phillips Van Heusen action as a message to workers in Guatemala: "If you fight for justice, if you fight for a union, we will not honor your contract. We will walk away."

I'm quoting from the Times, Feb. 28, coincident with the UN report. Whether that message stands is up to us.

What about the statement published in a Times op-ed that the US can "take pride in the report...since it would not have been possible without the release of classified information by the CIA and State Department." Not very impressive, in my opinion. There is now important historical work on the complicity of German banks and corporations in the Holocaust. Can they "take pride" in these reports, because they made their archives available (which, incidentally, the US has not done, except very partially)?