Guatemala: Past and Future

Few countries have a more difficult past to confront than Guatemala. For 36 years, civil war took the lives of an estimated 200,000, mostly Mayan Indian civilians killed by the Army.

The findings of the United Nations-backed Historical Clarification Commission place blame for the overwhelming majority of disappearances, torture, and mass murders squarely on "state forces and allied paramilitary groups." While the report doesn't name individuals who gave orders, it will inevitably renew calls for accountability and legal redress for victims' families.

In Guatemala as in other places with grisly recent pasts - South Africa, for example, or Cambodia - issues of reconciliation, amnesty, and justice make an often turbulent mix. But the overriding need is clear: to assure that such grim abuses of power will not recur. In Guatemala, this will require proof that the military and police are no longer laws unto themselves.

Today's democratically elected government shouldn't be cowed into letting the commission's findings languish. This probe ought to spur further investigations, and prosecutions, as the commissioners recommend.

Lessons from this history aren't limited to Guatemala. The commission gave fresh exposure to Washington's role in the tragedy. Starting with the CIA-aided overthrow of a left-leaning elected government in 1954, US training and support often fed the Guatemalan Army's anticommunist rampage.

The effect of the repression was as much to perpetuate the country's gross social and economic inequities as to root out Marxists. It was as grotesque a distortion of American values as the cold war offers.

That era is past, but today's world provides many temptations for the US to become involved in engineering changes of government abroad. The example of Guatemala is a sharp reminder to carefully examine motives and recognize the destructive forces that can be unleashed.

To its credit, Washington aided the commission's work by releasing much formerly classified information. That spirit of cooperation should continue as Guatemala tries to come to terms with its past and reach for a more democratic and progressive future.

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