"Guatemala: Never Again!"at

Friday, July 10, AD 2009

There has been an interesting discussion going on that began with a little mockery of Obama’s propensity for offering collective apologies around the world for various things out of the American past or present. I am a big proponent of apologies- but they must be prudent and truly repentant- not some mixed-motive posturing like former President Clinton seemed inclined. A great Catholic example of what I am seeking is found in a great book  entitled “Guatemala Never Again!”. This is no Leftist diatribe, this is (REMHI) the Recovery of Historical Memory Project. This is the Official Report of the Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala. Let me quote from the back cover:

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22 Responses to "Guatemala: Never Again!"at

  • But it is a “leftist diatribe”…. or else so naive as to pass as one. We’re being overrun by Obama’s soft-Bolshevism and now asked to act like European-style intellectuals indulging in poseur hand-wringing and moral equivalency. Cut to the chase. The only meaningful point is that about Planned Parenthood. One doesn’t have to be a GOP hawk (I’m not) to think: what a waste of this blog’s space.

  • Tim,

    I agree with you, and I have no respect for anyone – whether they call themselves a Catholic or not – who cannot acknowledge historical truth and apologize for it when it reveals evil acts.

    Moreover, any “Catholic” who puts the word of right-wing propagandists above the testimony of bishops and priests and nuns and lay Catholics in the country in question is really doing a disservice to his own Church. I’ll stand with Oscar Romero before I’ll stand with the butchers who filled mass graves in Guatemala or the nun-raping contras in Nicaragua.

  • The Contras raped nuns Joe? Could you cite the incident you are referring to? My guess is that you are thinking of this incident in El Salvador:


    As for the Contras and the Sandanistas, the Pope seemed rather pleased after the Sandanistas were voted out.


  • The problem with your post is that is presumes the US is not now and has not been engaged in precisely the kind of inward looking self analysis for many years.

    We have beaten the subjects of Cold War drug experimentation to death. We have beaten up on the CIA, the NSA, and our military. Following Vietnam, we entered a generational orgy of self-loathing and doubt. There have been thousands of books, tens of thousands of articles, and hundreds of thousands of internet posts about every manner of evil the US did or is supposed to have done. We have granted Doctorates to thousands and thousands of professors who only too happily trot out America’s evils without ever mentioning her greatness. We produce text book after text book suggesting that early colonists were nothing less than thieves and murderers who drove noble, peace-loving, agrarian peoples from thier homes so that they could set up theocracies.


    Were America a person and were that “person” in therapy, she would be heavily sedated so that she didn’t do violence to herself.

    Anyone who wants to use America as an escape-goat for the sins of the world, rather than acknowledging that international affairs is a brutal, ugly game that requires walking a thin line between right and wrong to survive, is either naive or ignorant.

  • I don’t see America thriving as a nation or as a people for the long-run, because I don’t see how we are so very different from the Great Empires of the past

    I realize this is perhaps a characteristic hobby horse, but it’s worth noting that the great empires of the past did pretty well in many ways, and indeed the Church found itself much involved with them. Rome around 1000 in its Western form, and another 1000 in Constantinople. And the Church was very much connected with both the Christian empire and with later European empires that aspired to be successors: Hapsburgs, French, Spanish, etc. There’s an American mythology that all great empires immediately became corrupt and fell apart, but it’s not fully accurate.

    On your general point: I think there is at the same time a danger in spending too much time on other people’s sins. Sure, I would wax wroth all day about racism, eugenics, treatment of the Indians, or what have you, but it worries me that when we spend a lot of time on sins committed by other people that we feel no personal affinity to, we make ourselves feel good at others expense while doing very little to actually make ourselves better. Yes, it’s important to recognize evil for what it is, but if we spend too much time talking about evils that other people did in the past (especially when we do so in an un-nuanced and accusatory way) we end up unnecessarily pumping ourselves up.

    So for instance, I could write some scorchers about eugenics and the forced sterilization programs that many states (my home state of California most of all) had in the 20s and 30s, but since that’s basically going on about “bad things other people did” and to an extent also the connections I see between the eugenics of the 20s and the birth control and abortion movements of today — I think a lot of the people most tempted by those evils would simply be put off by my writing and feel that I’m unnecessarily characterizing them as participating in past horrors. And given the distance (and the fact I already recognize it as wrong) I’m not sure I’d be undergoing any moral development myself either.

    So while we shouldn’t sugar-coat the past, I think we also need to be wary about getting too involved in apologizing for wrongs that other people committed. It can become more a weapon and a tool for pride than an actual process of humility.

  • I have travelled and lived in several places abroad for extended periods of time- and there is a very real sense of being an ambassador for your country, at a deeper level we are ambassadors for Christ in every land. I lived and taught in the Czech Republic just months after the Velvet Revolution there and encountered many who had never met an American, and my views as an American carried a lot of weight as a consequence. I felt a certain burden to present opinions that were thoughtful and even diplomatic at times- on religious and political topics- as a Catholic I ran into many Czech protestants and agnostics, so I wanted to represent an American Catholic perspective as best I could.

    As for apologizing for the sins of other people- it depends- if people presently associate you with the actions of your government or elite interests past or present, then it may not be enough to say- “not my sins”. You may need to clarify that these abuses are part of your memory and you are committed to do better. That may be the way to move forward in the complicated relations of differing peoples of different national backgrounds. To confess and repent is freeing for good reason- if I limit my confessions to my nation’s past and present wrong doings, and bypass a careful examination of my own actions and lack of action- then you are right to criticize my preoccupation with past and present social sins. I can only give you my word that I am really trying to be humble in assessing my own spiritual state, and it is actually part of that process that inspires me to take on a more public role in speaking out for life and social justice as a very overt Catholic- shouting out from the rooftops as it were.

    I don’t broadcast my own past and present sins to the general public- I don’t think that is prudent- but for social sins I believe there is a social call to be public in discussing such things- Scripture seems to indicate that nations are judged in some capacity, and individuals are definitely judged- so I am trying to be both/and in my approach- and I find inspiration in the example of the church in Guatemala that I feel has application here in the U.S.

  • As for the Contras and the Sandanistas, the Pope seemed rather pleased after the Sandanistas were voted out.

    Presumably it’s possible to be pleased that the Sandanistas were voted out without necessarily being pro-Contras.

  • I have travelled and lived in several places abroad for extended periods of time- and there is a very real sense of being an ambassador for your country, at a deeper level we are ambassadors for Christ in every land. I lived and taught in the Czech Republic just months after the Velvet Revolution there and encountered many who had never met an American, and my views as an American carried a lot of weight as a consequence. I felt a certain burden to present opinions that were thoughtful and even diplomatic at times- on religious and political topics- as a Catholic I ran into many Czech protestants and agnostics, so I wanted to represent an American Catholic perspective as best I could.

    Good point, and I think certainly when someone is asked, “So why is it that you Americans did XYZ,” one’s duty is to answer in honesty and humility.

    And I don’t want to come off as saying that we should never talk about the evils of the past. It’s just that I think there is a frequently indulged in temptation to make a big show of denouncing the evils of the past (which one was never tempted to in the first place) and thus acquire a glow which allows one to ignore the evils of the present because “we’re not those kind of people.”

    A classic example of this would be the many young (and not so young) people who loudly denounce the racism and sexism of the past, but can’t see how abortion could actually be all that bad because, “Lot’s of women who get abortions are just ordinary, good people in bad situations.” Well, come to that lots of racists were ordinary good people in bad situations.


    I’m not wanting to accuse you of these kind of sentiments, but I am wanting to outline why I’m leary of big apology projects for things in the more distant past, or things taken out of their fuller historical context. I’m not familiar with this book put out by the Guatemalan bishops, but they’re dealing with a situation which is very recently in the past — just 20 years before the book’s writing.

    I am very much in favor of looking unblinking at the truth, good and bad, of the past. But I’m hesitant about big apology projects — especially when they go far into the past and also when they’re taken outside of their original context to become a parade of horribles.

  • “Presumably it’s possible to be pleased that the Sandanistas were voted out without necessarily being pro-Contras.”

    It’s possible BA, although one would then have to ignore the fact that without the pressure of the Contras and the US the Sandanistas would probably have held a free election about the same time their hero Fidel did.

  • I would like to point out that the mass slaughter which occurred in the course of suppressing the communist insurrection in Guatemala occurred during a 32 month period in 1982, 1983, and 1984. There had also been a lot of killing in Army massacres in the four years previous to that. The thing is, the U.S. Government cut off aid to the Government of Guatemala at the end of 1977 and it remained in abeyance for eight years.

    There was a successful counterinsurgency conducted in 1966-70 which had a much smaller death toll. The insurgency, which had commenced in 1960, was dormant for the next eight years. IIRC, the Guatemalan government had offered in 1966 a window of amnesty for the insurrectionists before beginning the campaign.

    Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in 1954. It is rather de trop to argue that the course of the country’s political history over the next thirty years followed deterministically. The Guatemalan military, without the assistance of the United States, killed about 150,000 people in 1982-84. That is nothing for which the U.S. government should apologize.

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  • Well- after reading the Church’s Memory Project and the details of the U.S. involvement in the book – Bitter Fruit- and in other accounts like Tim Weiner’s history of the CIA- I would say there is a lot to be ashamed from a Catholic American point-of-view- I can’t be anyone else’s conscience, but I think the more complete story is one where we can’t just wash our hands a la Pontius Pilate. To be so neck-deep in coups and backstage manipulations of other sovereign nations is a terrible abuse of global solidarity, subsidiarity, and a host of other ills. Even if the ends sought were mostly good ones- and I’m not convinced our leaders were primarily concerned for the well-being of the world’s poor so much as they were looking out for #1- power politics and economic interests- it is still illict to do evil that good would come from it- that is bedrock Catholic principle and one we had better promote here in the U.S. if we are to represent our true faith. We have to be very wary of the philosophy of power that includes RealPolitick, Pragmatism, “The Great Game” and other moral compromising strategies and ways of thinking and acting on the world stage- we must be truthful, clear, and dedicated in word and deed to the Christian commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is the only worthy American foreign policy objective which I will accept. The war I am fighting is the one for my soul primarily, and secondarily I want to help build a civilization of love for my children and grandchildren- I don’t want God to have to shut down the human project before my great grandchildren are born- my greatest weapon is my integrity and my righteousness, I won’t allow my patriotism to be false or misleading and ultimately a detriment to my larger goals of sainthood.

    Certain Guatemalan individuals over time are the ones most culpable for the crimes against the many average Guatemalan people- that is for sure- just as certain American individuals are the most culpable for the crimes of abortion carried out against the unborn- but there is a measure of culpability that goes far and wide for many such things- perhaps if I try to deny what I have learned about the role of the U.S. in Guatemala, and refuse to allow myself pangs of disgust, and refuse to offer up my testimony, then I am also a little bit guilty of something here. And perhaps I am a bit guilty for the state of affairs here in America with rampant abortion- not just for my past where I can plead some or a lot of ignorance, but even today, with all that I know- maybe I am not doing enough, maybe I am not expressing myself as well as I could if I took more time, more effort, and above all, more prayer. The thing is that I am trying very, very hard to not become a minimalist when it comes to the moral questions- I take the state of the nation and the world personally to the degree that I can or should. There is always that open question for Confession- am I doing all I can? Help me Lord to know, to grow, to do what you will me to do.

  • Tim,

    What you are saying now sounds different from the characterization of your post in the thread above. Might I suggest that we have entwined two different threads: that individuals and institutions must study and learn from the past and that individuals and institutions should apologize to those who perceive themselves to have suffered?

    In your latest addition to the thread, you speak eloquently of the need to learn from the past. I do not dispute the necessity of doing so and I doubt many who opposed the original post for various reasons would. Indeed, learning from other than one’s own past has a noble heritage in human experience. It is the backbone and, arguably, the purpose of much education and training. I don’t think there is a dispute as to its utility and the proposition that it is also part of one’s duty as a person and a Christian would receive a negative response.

    However, apologies are different.

    Apologies have meaning ONLY when proffered by the one responsible for the injury and only when received by one who was actually injured. The more remote either party is, the more likely it is that a new abuse is being perpetrated – by which I mean that either the one apologizing or the one apologized to is manipulating others by the interaction.

    In the instant case, it undoubtably true that the US used Central and South America as one of several battle-grounds for our proxy war with the Soviet Union. Since the alternative was a direct war with the Soviet Union and, potentially, the destruction of all life on our planet, I hope you will forgive my conclusion that, whatever the injury on the Korean Peninsula, in the Congo, or in Guatemala, the world is better off with the way that history played out.

    Where the US causes injury and that injury can be made right, we should do so. However, as time passes and intervening causes confuse the culpability, an apology and remedy becomes less and less desireable.

    I am not reaching for the complicated here. When it comes to learning from the past and applying those principles to future action, I am solidly with you. However, when it comes to offering apologies and providing remedies, we simply MUST apply a case-by-case analysis.

  • Tim,

    Twenty-eight years separated the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz and the series of offensives in 1982-84 which cost so many lives. What is the point of conjoining a discussion of John Foster Dulles and the United Fruit Company with discussion of a counter-insurgency program which occurred a generation later?

  • The Memory Project goes into the history of connections- the abuse of human rights didn’t simply begin in 1982- the Memory project deals with what happened prior to 1982 as well as the period you are talking about- the historical links are there- you will have to read the report to see for yourself- the mass arrests, the lists of anyone who had even a remote connection to anything “communist”, the loss of habeus corpus- this all started up immediately after the coup- and no doubt was supported by our own leadership- even if the distancing took place much later- the unraveling of democratic rule of law really took off after United Fruit et al took matters into their own hands- there was a similar process in Iran which led to a chain of negative events- we can’t say that these coups and support for greater breakdowns in the rule of law and solidarity/subsidiarity had no lasting effect or damages which we need to take some ownershop of. Please read the books I recommended to fill in the necessary record- Wiener and Kinzer are solid investigative reporters, and the Church’s Memory Project is really above reproach.

  • I would add that according to the Memory documents the coup of 1963 either began after a meeting with president Kennedy and his political advisors, CIA director and ambassador to Guatemala- or it was something that had at minimum no objections from Washington and for the first time the military as an institution took over the government. The Paramilitary groups came soon after and developed into death squads operating usually with hidden hand control from official military leadership- it is estimated that upwards to 20,000 were killed in just a few years by these paramilitary- and the law was quite arbitrary and abusive leading to even worse conditions to come. So, the connections to the first overthrow and with American support overt/covert is to be considered as significant in my opinion.

  • There is significant problem with the left’s view of these issues, and it is quite apparent when they put scare quotes around the word “communist”, marginalizing the truly evil and powerful force that the US was trying to defeat. Just give “Uncle Joe” a big wink, and all will be fine, right? Well, it wouldn’t have been. If Communism had not been opposed at every turn, then the fate of the the millions upon millions who died at the hand Stalin and Mao would have been shared by countless hundreds of millions more…. many times worse than the often exaggerated numbers that the left puts out for every situation where the US might have been culpable.

    Now, that’s just the dead, what about those souls which would be lost being raised in a godless society which is the goal of the left? Don’t forget that a key goal of communism was to destroy the Church in every country that it conquers. Look at your cuddly Chavez and Castro! They do all that they can to suppress the source of salvation.

    “Communism”? Hell,yes.

  • I know I’m drifting away from the subject but I’m here addressing myself directly to Tim Shipe…I am MarkL of Inside Catholic. Have just read that 19 Dems Reps are trying to block abortion coverage in the Health Care reform bill. Now I don’t know if these guys are associated with Dems for Life; but anyway kudos for the good work in this case…I am not reluctant to praise people when praise is due, BUT however I will insist upon calling a spade a spade when necessary and “a bunch of teetotallers in an assembly of drunkards has never turned the lot into temperance activists”.

  • Tim,

    I do not care to be repetitious, but again….

    I am perfectly aware that the abuse of the population did not begin in 1982 and made explicit reference to what occurred in 1978-82 and 1966-70. Since the U.S. Government had cut off aid to the Government of Guatemala at the end of 1977, it is rather inventive to attribute the former to credit the goings on during that period running from 1978 through 1985 to the U.S. Government. You would have a better argument with regard to the former period, but it is complicated by the following: Communist groups elected to start an insurgency in 1960, Communist groups ignored a proffered amnesty in 1966, and any government has the responsibility to suppress insurrections. If you think it could have been done with less loss of life, you are probably right. If you think the U.S. Government was in a position to micromanage the Guatemalan military’s conduct in 1966-70, you may or may not be.

    You can argue that the U.S. Government should have intervened to prevent the overthrow of Pres. Miguel Ydigoras in 1963. One should recall that such interventions were not uniformly successful and a rash of elected governmnts were deposed in 1962 and 1963 to the Kennedy Administration’s dismay. One should also not advance such an argument while offering complaints about American intervention per se.

    It is not very credible that parliamentary government would have, absent the machinations of the CIA, continued merrily along in Iran after 1953. Mohammed Mossadegh had already instituted authoritarian measures and an ethnically heterogenous country with a literacy rate under 20% is a poor prospect for democratic institutions, most particularly in a region of the globe where parliamentary government failed in one country after another between 1949 and 1963. You have a better argument with regard to Guatemala, which had something resembling competitive electoral politics about a third of the time between 1838 and 1954. You should recall, however, that the only Latin American countries not experiencing a breach of constitutional order between 1954 and 1986 were Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. Colombia has suffered interminable political violence since 1948 and Mexico was a pluralistic party-machine state, not a democratic state in the European sense. Had the Marxism and praetorian populism of the Arevalo-Arbenz period morphed into a stable and well-rooted democratic order, that would have been unusual, but strange things do happen from time to time.

  • I live in Guatemala and I’m tired of all the navel-gazing guilt that American and European people seem so desirous of engaging in. I don’t feel guilty for things that I didn’t engage in and don’t support.

    More importantly, it seems to me Catholics have a great deal more to be concerned with than the social activism (and consequences thereof) of her episcopacy. The Church is in worse shape than it has been since the reformation-possibly the days of Arius-and everywhere in this region all I hear about is social justice. I have yet to enter a diocesan Church and hear about sin or the sacraments.

    We don’t need so much to open up our eyes to offenses of previous generations of American misbehavior as we need to remember our primary obligation-to God-and reorient our lives in that direction. The suffering all around us is a direct reflection of sin and a refusal to deal with that.

  • Liberation Theology was flawed by the failure to ensure that it was to be understood that the primary liberation offered by Jesus Christ was one of freedom from sin and death. It is always easy enough to fall into a Zealotry of the Left or Right- making politics the whole deal of one’s religiousity. Of course the reasons for this abuse are varied according to the individual- if one’s village was part of a government or rebel massacre, and my female loved ones were raped or killed- well I might be sorely tempted to spend my remaining time on a political or militant quest- there but for the grace of God go I. I do not want to judge the individuals who fall into zealotry too harshly- many well-meaning pro-lifers seem to be making similar decisions to those social justice leftists. But having said this, I think that when Christ commanded that we love God fully, and love our neighbor as our self, and offered the kingdom of God parables about what we do to the least among us, we are doing to Him. These are compelling items for me, and the fact of the Church’s social doctrine and all the ink the popes and VAtican produces over social and political sins and conditions- I feel it is an important part of being Catholic. We must be both/and- we must be prayerful, devoted to the Sacraments, and also taking those graces out into the street, marketplaces, and political gatherings, not just holding them inside of us. The social doctrine is an essential part of the Christian evangelization- so it is not a bad thing to have a social conscience, to have a memory of the past abuses, and to learn from those abuses of history to never again repeat them- to repent as a man and as a nation- we are meant to be social, we have social responsibilities coinciding with our personal life responsibilities- this is where the left and right tend to get divisive, but the Church stays with Christ, and I shall try to stay with Her.

  • @Dr. J:
    No we are nothing like European Intellectuals-we have learned nothing from 2 World Wars and still like to push our interests forward by means of war.
    You really sound like a big McCarthy fan. Obama and Bolshevism? Don’t make me laugh. I think the author of this blog did a good job in giving us access to important knowledge (which of course you would rather have hidden away because it is not patriotic).