Friday, April 12, 2013

Just what does US-backed dictator mean?

Okay, we can all agree that Efrain Rios Montt was a US-backed dictator in Guatemala during the early 1980s. However, after that description it gets kind of messy.

Obviously, the US orchestrated the US overthrow of the Arbenz government in 1954. That overthrow was brought on by both an individual business' economic concerns (United Fruit) and a government's political concerns (communism). I fall more in the camp that it was fear of communism that was more important in driving the mission but it remains debatable to this day.

(Part of my reasoning is that a similar democratic revolution occurred at the same time in Costa Rica. They undertook a number of reforms that went after United Fruit as well but since they banned the communist party, the US government didn't really care. Plus, there's the fact that Dulles didn't even seem to mention UFCO at all after the overthrow. The Eisenhower administration went after UFCO in court and UFCO went bankrupt a few years later; from what I remember they sold off much of their landholdings in Guatemala.)

The US then sought to purge communists from the government and the economic sectors of the country (i.e., unions). The Guatemalan government said no, we're going to purge all unions. The US sent anti-communist union workers to Guatemala but they were not received very well.

The US wanted to make Guatemala a democratic showcase in the hemisphere. Unfortunately, the US shouldn't have gotten involved in regime change in the first place. It underestimated its ability to change Guatemala into what it wanted and it didn't put in enough resources anyway. Plus, Guatemalan elites and military were not interested in what the US wanted. (Yes, I know. That sounds very much like Iraq.) Perhaps things would have been different had the Cuban Revolution not occurred in 1959.

During the 1960s, the US stepped up training of the Guatemalan military because the US felt that the Guatemalans were unprepared to combat the FAR/MR-13/PGT insurgency that was operating in the country, an insurgency led by a few soldiers who had also been trained by the US. Anywhere from 6,000-8,000, perhaps as many as 20,000, Guatemalans were killed between 1966-68/70. This was when the US sent Green Berets and special forces to Guatemala. A lot of the tactics employed by the Guatemalan military look eerily similar to the worst of what the US was doing in Vietnam at the same time.

We continued to train Guatemalan soldiers throughout the 1970s until President Carter and the Democrats in the House agreed on a foreign policy that was more in line with the promotion of human rights. However, instead of promoting human rights, the Guatemalan military flipped the bird to the US and said that they didn't want any of our aid. Who was the US to give them advice after getting defeated in Korea and Vietnam? The US cut off aid but it didn't really matter as Guatemala already rejected it. In the late 1970s, Guatemala would then receive assistance from Argentina, Israel, and Taiwan, among others.

Now, the US didn't entirely cut off aid. Whatever had been approved continued and more came through the CIA. US instructors continued to go to Guatemala. Some also left Guatemala to train in the US but not really in the late 70s/early 1980s when the aid had been cut off. The Guatemalan government was a US ally in the Cold War against communism. Just because they wouldn't listen to us didn't mean that we were going to stop assisting them. US threats to cut off aid were not that credible but they did have some effect.

Fortunately, Congress wouldn't allow Reagan to support them in anyway that he wanted. Sure more money and weapons traveled to Guatemala under Reagan, more than they should have, but not as much as those that actually went to El Salvador and to the Contras fighting in Nicaragua. Just think about the ways that US military support to El Salvador and Guatemala is described.

In the case of El Salvador, the most famous statistic is that the US government was giving the Salvadoran government, on average, $1 million a day during the 1980s.

In probably the most frequently cited description of US support for Guatemala, Reagan said that Rios Montt was getting a "bum rap." That tells you a little about the difference between US involvement in the two wars.

Now, US support for Rios Montt and Guatemala was obviously more than just public statements in defense of the regime but it was probably less than is presumed. This isn't a defense of the US' role in Guatemala's history, just an attempt to briefly clarify what people are talking about when they say US-backed.

It's also an unknown whether less US support would have led to more killing by the Guatemalan military. Their Kaibiles were very...special to say the least.

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