Saturday, February 28, 2009

All Too Familiar Valleys 

"But the path back from the dark side may lead us down some unfamiliar valleys of remorse and repugnance before we can return to the light."

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), February 25, 2009:
The Bush Administration left our country deeply in debt, bleeding jobs overseas, our financial institutions rotten and weakened, an economy in free fall. This is the wreckage we see everywhere, in shuttered plants - as my colleague from Pennsylvania sees at home so cruelly - in long lines, and in worried faces.

But there is also damage that we cannot see so well, the damage below the waterline of our democracy - damage caused, I believe, by a systematic effort to twist policy to suit political ends; to substitute ideology for science, fact, and law; and to misuse instruments of power.


If an administration descended to interrogation techniques of the Inquisition, of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge - descended to techniques that we have prosecuted as crimes in military tribunals and in federal courts;


If the purpose of government became no longer to solve problems, but simply to work them for political advantage, and a bodyguard of lies, jargon, and propaganda were emitted to fool and beguile the American people...

Well, something very serious would have gone wrong in our country - and such damage must be repaired. I submit that as we begin the task of rebuilding this nation, we have a duty to our country to determine how great that damage is.

Democracy is not a static institution, it is a living education - an ongoing education in freedom of a people. As Harry Truman said addressing a joint session of Congress back in 1947, "One of the chief virtues of a democracy is that its defects are always visible, and under democratic processes can be pointed out and corrected." We have to learn the lessons from this past carnival of folly, greed, lies, and wrongdoing, so that the damage can, under democratic processes, be pointed out and corrected.

If we blind ourselves to this history, we deny ourselves its lessons - lessons that came at too painful a cost to ignore. Those lessons merit disclosure and discussion. Indeed, disclosure and discussion make the difference between this history being a valuable lesson for the bright and upward forces of our democracy, or a blueprint for those darker forces to return and someday do it all over again.


We also have to brace ourselves for the realistic possibility that as some of this conduct is exposed, we and the world will find it shameful, revolting. We may have to face the prospect of looking with horror at our own country's deeds. We are optimists, we Americans; we are proud of our country. Contrition comes hard to us.

But the path back from the dark side may lead us down some unfamiliar valleys of remorse and repugnance before we can return to the light. We may have to face our fellow Americans saying to us, "No, please, tell us that we did not do that, tell us that Americans did not do that" - and we will have to explain, somehow. This is no small thing, and not easy; this will not be comfortable or proud; but somehow it must be done.

Read transcript: Sheldon Whitehouse / Senate.gov

Watch video: Whitehouse addressing Senate

41 Years Ago

What follows is the full text of a 1968 U.S. State Department memo written by Viron Peter Vaky (diplomat, and later U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, Colombia, and Venezuela) concerning "counter-terror" tactics in Guatemala at the time (1968).

Policy Planning Council
March 29, 1968

To: ARA - Mr. Oliver
From: S/P - Mr. Vaky
Subject: Guatemala and Counter-terror

I made the point in the attached memorandum in a private conversation I had with Ambassador Mein yesterday prior to the IRG meeting. These views are based on my experience as DCM in Guatemala and upon a close following of events since I left. They are the product also of extended reflections on the situation and my experience there. As I told Ambassador Mein I feel somewhat like Fulbright says he felt about the Tonkin Gulf resolution -- my deepest regret is that I did not fight harder within Embassy councils when I was there to press these views. I can in any case understand quite well how easy it is to be complacent or rationalize things.

Because I do feel so very strongly about the problem, I felt compelled to repeat these points to you with the hope they may receive a hearing.


The Guatemalan Government's use of "counter-terror" to combat insurgency is a serious problem in three ways:
a) The tactics are having a terribly corrosive effect on Guatemalan society and the nation's political development;

b) they present a serious problem for the U.S. in terms of our image in Latin America and the credibility of what we say we stand for;

c) the problem has a corrosive effect on our own judgments and conceptual values.

A. Impact on the Country

Counter-terror is corrosive from three points of view:

1. The counter-terror is indiscriminate, and we cannot rationalize that fact away. Looking back on its full sweep one can cite instances in which leftist but anti-Communist labor leaders were kidnapped and beaten by the army units; the para-military groups armed by the Zacapa commander have operated in parts of the northeast in war-lord fashion and destroyed local PR organizations; people are killed or dissappeared on the basis of simple accusations. It is argued that the "excesses" of the earlier period have been corrected and now only "collaborators" are being killed. But I question the wisdom or validity of the Guatemalan Army's criteria as to who is a collaborator or how carefully they check. Moreover, the derivative violence of right-wing vigilantes and sheer criminality made possible by the atmosphere must also be laid at the door of the conceptual tactic of counter-terror. The point is that the society is being rent apart and polarized; emotions, desire for revenge and personal bitterness are being sucked in; the pure Communist issue is thus blurred; and issues of poverty and social injustice are being converted into virulent questions of outraged emotion and "tyranny." The whole cumulative impact is most unhealthy.

It is not true, in my judgment, that Guatemalans are apathetic or are not upset about the problem. Guatemalans very typically mask their feelings with outward passivity, but that does mean they do not feel things. Guatemalans have told me they are worried, that the situation is serious and nastier that it has ever been. And I submit that we really do not know what the campesinos truly feel.

2. Counter-terror is brutal. The official squads are guilty of atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated. Many believe that the very brutal way the ex-beauty queen was killed, obviously tortured and mutilated, provoked the FAR to murder Colonel Webber in retaliation. If true, how tragic that the tactics of "our side" would in any way be responsible for that event! But the point is that this is a serious practical political problem as well as a moral one: Because of the evidence of this brutality, the government is, in the eyes of many Guatemalans, a cruel government, and therefore righteous outrage, emotion and viciousness heve been sucked into the whole political situation. One can argue about the naivete of the Maryknoll priests, but one should not discount the depth of the emotion and the significance of the reaction. One can easliy see there how counter-terror has blurred the question of Communist insurgency and is converting it into an issue of morality and justice. How fortunate for us that there is no charismatic leader around yet to spark an explosion.

3. Counter-terror has retarded modernization and institution building. The tactics have just deepened and continued the proclivity of Guatemalans to operate outside the law. It says in effect to people that the law, the constitution, the institutions mean nothing, the fastest gun counts. The whole system has been degraded as a way to mobilize society and handle problems. Our objectives of helping Guatemala modernize are thus being undermined. The effect of the money we put into civic-action and the pilot program in the northeast is, in my personal opinion, more than offset by the effect of the counter-terror. The value to the nation's political development of Mendez completing his term is probably already gone.

B. The Image Problem.

We are associated with this tactic in the minds of many people, and whether it is right or wrong so to associate us is rapidly becoming irrevevant. In politics just as important as the way things are is the way people think things are. In the minds of many in Latin America, and, tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate youth, we are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually to have encouraged them. Therefore our image is being tarnished and the credibility of our claims to want a better and more just world are increasingly placed in doubt. I need hardly add the aspect of domestic U.S. reactions.

C. U.S. Values

This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all -- that we have not been honest with ourselves. We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness. This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as Communists are being killed it is alright. Murder, torture and mutilations are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists. After all hasn't man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people.

Have our values been so twisted by our adversary concept of politics in the hemisphere? Is it conceivable that we are so obsessed with insurgency that we are prepared to rationalize murder as an acceptable counter-insurgency weapon? Is it possible that a nation which so reveres the principle of due process of law has so easily acquiesced in this sort of terror tactic?

I cannot, from my own personal experience in Guatemala and what I have seen since, honestly say to myself that the Guatemalan military have any reason to believe that we really are opposed to this tactic. I honestly think that on the contrary they believe we have accepted and encouraged it -- even though we have pro forma remonstrated against excesses. We have talked to them to be sure, but not very insistently, and the image the Guatemalan military man gets from his total contact with the U.S. advisors at all levels is very much a mixed bag. It betrays, I am afraid, intentionally or unintentionally, acquiescence and condonment.

Counter-terror is, in short, very wrong-morally, ethically, politically from the standpoint of Guatemala's own interest and practically from our own foreign policy point of view.

D. What To Do?

I am frankly not sanguine we can stop counter-terror. But one thing we can do is be honest with ourselves and admit to ourselves that there is a problem, and that counter-terror is wrong as a counter-insurgency tactic. I just do not think we have done that.

Beyond that there are three things to do:

a) The record must be made clearer that the United States Government opposes the concept and questions the wisdom of counter-terror;

b) the record must be made clearer that we have made this known unambiguously to the Guatemalans; otherwise we will stand before history unable to answer the accusations that we encouraged the Guatemalan Army to do these things;

c) Most importantly, we should put our thinking caps on and devise policies, aid and suggestions that can make counter-terror unnecessary. It is argued that if we can remonstrate strongly to the Guatemalans, they will say we encouraged them to go ahead and now what do we suggest? It is a good question, and we should ask ourselves that. If counter-terror is justified by Guatemala in terms of weakness of the legal system, is there nothing we can do to help and prod them on legal reforms? Is there nothing we can do to make them stop the brutality of torture and mutilation? Is there nothing we can do to help them develop philosophical concepts of institutions and a legal system? I know that primitive violence has gone on a long time in Guatemala and elsewhere. Do we just throw up our hands and accept all of its wrongness as long as it was "effective", (and will history's verdict say it was "effective" in Guatemala)? If, in fact, the GOG pleads weakness in the conventional security apparatus, is that not precisely what our assistance and counsel is for -- to help them perfect conventional, legal law enforcement?

If the U.S. cannot come up with any better suggestion on how to fight insurgency in Guatemala than to condone counter-terror, we are in a bad way indeed. But most of all, even if we cannot dissuade them, we owe it to ourselves to come to terms with our values and judgments and take a clear ethical stand.

Vaky memo - National Security Archive

NOTES on Vaky memo:

[1] - The murdered "ex-beauty queen" Vaky mentions in his memo is former Miss Guatemala (1959), Rogelia Cruz Martinez (pictured above, second from left). She was murdered in 1968 (bold emphasis below is mine):
From the mid-1960's on, death squads became a fact of life in Guatemala. People disappeared by the hundreds at the hands of a secret paramilitary force called "la Mano Blanca" (The White Hand), tortured corpses turned up in public places to intensify fear. In 1967 the eminent poet Otto Rene Castillo was tortured for four days before being burned alive, echoing Menchu's account of the fate of her brother over a decade later. In an equally dramatic episode in 1968, the national beauty queen, Miss Guatemala, fell under government suspicion for her leftist sympathies. She was arrested, stabbed, tortured, raped, poisoned, and her naked corpse left for vultures (readers will be reminded of Menchu's account of her mothers death). Such episodes exemplify the calculated symbolic use of violence that typified what came to be called the "counterinsurgency state" in Latin America (see Fagan 1992). The participation of the United States in shoring up the Guatemalan regime remained constant. Using tactics later deployed in Vietnam, the U.S. undertook to "transform the Guatemalan army into an effective modern counterinsurgency force" (Jonas, 70) and to create what came to be a model for the counterinsurgency state, characterized by institutionalized violence and the absence of consensual politics. Guatemala was regarded as a "labratory" for the fight against communism in the third world. There was thus nothing random or "underdeveloped" about the military institutions and strategies Menchi and her fellow villagers confronted in the 1970s. These were part of a highly orchestrated global strategy. - [ Teaching and Testimony, By Allen Carey-Webb and Stephen Connely Benz; pages 62-63 ]

[2] - Mein refers to John Gordon Mein, Ambassador to Guatemala (1965-1968) at the time of Vaky's memo. Mein was later assasinated (in 1968) by the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR).

[3] - Colonel John Webber was a military advisor also killed by the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR)

[4] - Zacapa is a city in Guatemala.

[5] - The "Maryknoll priests" (Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America) are missionaries who were outspoken proponents of social gospel / liberation theology and the rights of the poor and the farmers (campesinos) in Guatemala at the time.

[6] - Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's grandfather (also named Sheldon Whitehouse) was U.S. Envoy to Guatemala from December, 1929 to July, 1933.


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