The Search for Truth in Guatemala

On Aug. 1, a truth commission will begin investigating the hundreds of massacres and thousands of other human rights violations committed during the 36-year armed conflict in Guatemala. The commission, established by Guatemala's peace accords signed last December, has a year to carry out this monumental task. Although its mandate does not allow it to name individual violators, it can do much to clarify what happened.

The truth commission will need all the support it can get - especially from the United States. The Clinton administration has played a valuable role in supporting the peace process and already has provided $1 million for the work of the commission. The voluminous files of US agencies active in Guatemala, furthermore, are full of information that could help the truth commission investigate key cases.

However, the Clinton administration is using familiar but unconvincing arguments to avoid declassifying documents on past abuses in Guatemala. Administration officials argue that they have gone out of their way to provide information on human rights violations in Guatemala. They say they will provide information in response to very specific requests from the Guatemalan truth commission. This, they argue, should be enough.

But the documents released by the administration in 1996 concentrated mainly on human rights violations that involved US citizens, such as the abuse of Sister Dianna Ortiz and the deaths of innkeeper Michael DeVine, journalist Nicholas Blake, and Efran Bmaca Velasquez, a Guatemalan insurgent leader married to US lawyer Jennifer Harbury. They contained little on the tens of thousands of Guatemalan victims of violence.

Even with the scope of the investigation narrowed to US-related cases, the State Department found 6,350 relevant documents, not including those produced or originally received by other agencies. Clearly, there are thousands of other documents - memos, cables, military and intelligence reports, and electronic intercepts - that could be indispensable to the commission in clarifying the broader history of violence against Guatemalans.

Yes, declassifying US documents will involve expending staff time and resources in a period of budget cutbacks. But peace and reconciliation in Guatemala justify the investment, especially in light of the US role in derailing democracy in the 1950s. A request from Guatemala's truth commission for all of the US documents on perhaps 30 major cases - as happened in El Salvador - could limit the staff time involved in declassification, while greatly aiding the search for truth.

Some US officials have implied that providing information will only reopen old wounds and make reconciliation more difficult. According to this view, too much information about violations could encourage communities and human rights organizations to pursue cases against military officers and paramilitary members, precipitating a backlash that could threaten the peace process. But a more serious danger is that Guatemala's human tragedy will be papered over, and an attempt will be made to build peace on the shaky foundation of denying the past.

There's one other possible reason for the Clinton administration's reluctance to declassify documents on Guatemala. Perhaps it worries that revelations could prove embarrassing to the US. But this, too, is an argument for openness.

In many parts of Guatemala today, people are still digging up the bodies of family members murdered by military and paramilitary groups. Over the years, survivors have kept a fearful silence. Now that peace has come to the country, they insist on learning about what happened to their loved ones. The peace accords hold the hope of transforming Guatemala into a more open and democratic society. But to accomplish this, the country must be allowed to face up to its past.

Just as Guatemalans need to know the truth to bring to resolution a tragic period of their history, learning the full story of the US role in Guatemala can help bring closure to our own involvement in one of the saddest chapters of cold-war history.

* Hugh Byrne is a fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, and Bill Spencer is its deputy director.

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