CONGRESS has an opportunity to contribute to peace in Guatemala, where 30 years of civil war have caused at least 200,000 civilian deaths at the hands of an army known as Latin America's worst human-rights violator. The House of Representatives will shortly take up the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee's recommendation to severely curtail the use of US "Economic Support Funds" (ESF) in Guatemala. During five years of ineffectual rule by former President Vinicio Cerezo, not a single investigation of human-rights violations was successfully completed. Nor was there any abatement of repression, and the same pattern continues under Cerezo's successor, Jorge Serrano. A prominent Guatemalan politician stated: "As a conservative, I have come to the conclusion that the starting point for any action in regard to Guatemala must be respect for human rights; and from the US end, this means that economic aid
must be conditioned on human-rights improvement."
Bush administration officials claim that human rights is their "top priority" in dealings with Guatemala. The State Department, in this year's annual Human Rights Report, acknowledged that the main violators of rights are members of the Guatemalan security forces. Nonetheless, the White House wants to send over $60 million in ESF allocations to Guatemala next year, without tying the funds to significant human-rights improvements.
Since the use of ESF by recipient nations is discretionary, aid provided through the program often ends up as thinly disguised security assistance. It is ESF, rather than outright military aid, that allowed the Reagan-Bush administrations to strengthen Washington's reliance on Guatemala's unsavory security forces as a bulwark against Central American leftist movements. In 1987, ESF to Guatemala came to $115 million, representing 60 percent of all US aid to that country; it was at least $80 million in ea c
h of the next two years.
Why not give Serrano "another chance," as the Bush administration wishes? For years Congress has sent the wrong message to the generals by trying to "encourage democratic tendencies" within Guatemala's security forces. The few military reformists to be found are immediately neutralized by corrupt and violence-prone senior officers.
Direct US military aid to Guatemala was running at less than $10 million a year before the administration temporarily suspended it on human-rights grounds. But diverted ESF funds regularly swelled that figure by almost 10 times.
Rather than improve, the military's behavior has worsened. The House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee is finally challenging the failed US policy by creating language that would in future foreign-aid measures specifically prohibit the use of economic aid (including ESF) by the security forces or for anti-guerrilla efforts. Such funds would have to be used only for projects that alleviate poverty and promote democratization.
For years those seeking a peaceful settlement to the civil war have been stymied by an intransigent high command. But as internal pressure mounts, the army has been forced to acknowledge that negotiation may be necessary to end the war. The first direct meeting between the two sides took place in Mexico in April. To encourage this process, Washington should clearly signal the Guatemalan military - through this year's foreign-aid bill - that it can no longer operate as a death squad.
In 1954 the US tragically interrupted the process of democratic development in Guatemala by ordering the CIA to overthrow the ruling legal government out of fear of its leftist tendencies. The country has experienced slaughter at the hands of brutal US-financed military forces ever since. Congress now has a chance to shed that shameful legacy by helping Guatemala move in a new direction. Let's send the message that US tax dollars will no longer be used to subsidize state-directed terror.