Sunday, January 07, 2007

History in a Blender

For another installment in its counterinsurgency marketing campaign (click on "counterinsugency" label below), NPR revisits one of the United States' model counterinsurgency campaigns of the 20th century - the tragedy of Guatemala. As if to head off any doubts about counterinsurgency that might result if the Guatemala nightmare is brought up, Linda Wertheimer cuts and pastes the history of Guatemala from 1954 to 1996 so as to downplay the US responsibilities there.

A strange pastiche emerges. Wertheimer gets off to a pretty good start. "The war started in opposition to state-sponsored terror against political enemies, but eventually turned into what some have called a genocidal campaign against native Mayans. Paramilitary groups fought the government for 36 years. It’s estimated that more than 200,000 civilians were killed." To her credit she notes the origin of the war as a struggle against "state-sponsored terror." Of course the state sponsoring that terror was none other than the United States, a role that she minimizes by saying, "We should note that the United States supplied the Guatemalan military with arms and training during the civil war which I assume has had some kind of lingering effect." Well yes, and what is not said is that the Guatemalan government, military, strategy, tactics and outlook was the proud offspring of the United States government - born with the US orchestrated coup of 1954. She also fails to mention that the report published by UN Historical Clarification Commission found that the Guatemalan Army was responsible for 93% of the 200,000 murders.

NPR's Guatemala piece is also odd for the guest expert that NPR turns to - Dennis Smith "a missionary for the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala City." (One might expect a Catholic activist, Indigenous rights campaigner, or a human rights worker instead). Looking at an article by Smith, he seems humane and in opposition to the rightwing Protestant backers of military terror in Guatemala, but his comments that get aired on NPR confuse the terms of the discussion and downplay the horrors of US policy. For example, Wertheimer describes the guerillas fighting against the Guatemalan government as "paramilitaries" a term that really should be applied to the Government death squads, and Smith then uses it to describe the current violence in Guatemala, saying, "we still have a significant presence of paramilitary forces throughout the country." An uniformed listener would assume that these current paramilitaries are remnants of the guerilla forces mentioned earlier (a huge distortion). Also, immediately after Wertheimer mentions the US aid and training to the Guatemalan military, Smith says, "I think it’s important to recognize that the United States has been among the international actors that has been helping Guatemala to address the problems of building a civil society and also strengthening the court system and the rule of law. " I hope the CIA sends him a thank you note!

As someone who followed the little US shop of horrors in Guatemala and visited that torture state in the 80s, Smith's lack of revulsion and outrage - and quickness to defend the US role in Guatemala - befit a sociopath like Negroponte, not a humane missionary. Smith's comments on this NPR piece are disingenuous at best (though perhaps they are the result of an editing chop job).

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