President Ronald Reagan meeting with Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
The first month of the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt has elicited chilling testimony from Mayan survivors who -- as children -- watched their families slaughtered by a right-wing military that was supported and supplied by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
As the New York Times reported on Monday, "In the tortured logic of military planning documents conceived under Mr. Ríos Montt's 17-month rule during 1982 and 1983, the entire Mayan Ixil population was a military target, children included. Officers wrote that the leftist guerrillas fighting the government had succeeded in indoctrinating the impoverished Ixils and reached '100 percent support.'"
A document that I discovered recently in the archives of the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, revealed that Reagan and his national security team in 1981 agreed to supply military aid to the brutal right-wing regime in Guatemala to pursue the goal of exterminating not only "Marxist guerrillas" but people associated with their "civilian support mechanisms."
This supportive attitude toward the Guatemalan regime's brutality took shape in spring 1981 as President Reagan sought to ease human-rights restrictions on military aid to Guatemala that had been imposed by President Jimmy Carter and the Democratic-controlled Congress in the late 1970s.
As part of that relaxation effort, Reagan's State Department "advised our Central American embassies that it has been studying ways to restore a closer, cooperative relationship with Guatemala," according to a White House "Situation Room Checklist" dated April 8, 1981. The document added:
"State believes a number of changes have occurred which could make Guatemalan leaders more receptive to a new U.S. initiative: the Guatemalans view the new administration as more sympathetic to their problems [and] they are less suspect of the U.S. role in El Salvador," where the Reagan administration was expanding support for another right-wing regime infamous for slaughtering its political opponents, including Catholic clergy.
"State has concluded that any attempt to reestablish a dialogue [with Guatemala] would require some initial, condition-free demonstration of our goodwill. However, this could not include military sales which would provoke serious U.S. public and congressional criticism. State will undertake a series of confidence building measures, free of preconditions, which minimize potential conflict with existing legislation."
The "checklist" added that the State Department...
"has also decided that the administration should engage the Guatemalan government at the highest level in a dialogue on our bilateral relations and the initiatives we can take together to improve them. Secretary [of State Alexander] Haig has designated [retired] General Vernon Walters as his personal emissary to initiate this process with President [Fernando Romeo] Lucas [Garcia].
"If Lucas is prepared to give assurances that he will take steps to halt government involvement in the indiscriminate killing of political opponents and to foster a climate conducive to a viable electoral process, the U.S. will be prepared to approve some military sales immediately."
But the operative word in that paragraph was "indiscriminate." The Reagan administration expressed no problem with killing civilians if they were considered supporters of the guerrillas who had been fighting against the country's ruling oligarchs and generals since the 1950s when the CIA organized the overthrow of Guatemala's reformist President Jacobo Arbenz.
Sympathy for the Generals
The distinction was spelled out in "Talking Points" for Walters to deliver in a face-to-face meeting with General Lucas. As edited inside the White House in April 1981, the "Talking Points" read:
"The President and Secretary Haig have designated me [Walters] as [their] personal emissary to discuss bilateral relations on an urgent basis.
"Both the President and the Secretary recognize that your country is engaged in a war with Marxist guerrillas. We are deeply concerned about externally supported Marxist subversion in Guatemala and other countries in the region. As you are aware, we have already taken steps to assist Honduras and El Salvador resist this aggression.
"The Secretary has sent me here to see if we can work out a way to provide material assistance to your government. " We have minimized negative public statements by US officials on the situation in Guatemala. " We have arranged for the Commerce Department to take steps that will permit the sale of $3 million worth of military trucks and Jeeps to the Guatemalan army. "
"With your concurrence, we propose to provide you and any officers you might designate an intelligence briefing on regional developments from our perspective. Our desire, however, is to go substantially beyond the steps I have just outlined. We wish to reestablish our traditional military supply and training relationship as soon as possible.
"As we are both aware, this has not yet been feasible because of our internal political and legal constraints relating to the use by some elements of your security forces of deliberate and indiscriminate killing of persons not involved with the guerrilla forces or their civilian support mechanisms. I am not referring here to the regrettable but inevitable death of innocents though error in combat situations, but to what appears to us a calculated use of terror to immobilize non politicized people or potential opponents. "
"If you could give me your assurance that you will take steps to halt official involvement in the killing of persons not involved with the guerrilla forces or their civilian support mechanism " we would be in a much stronger position to defend successfully with the Congress a decision to begin to resume our military supply relationship with your government."