The photographs of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib will haunt our political landscape for a long time but the one that will not leave me is that of the elated 300 prisoners, innocent of any crime or terrorist act, who were the first to be released. It has awakened a frightful memory of the time when I first learned about political violence.
In 1955, I was living in my native city of San Francisco, California. My mother, a Salvadoran immigrant, had left behind several younger brothers then living in Guatemala. One evening, the phone rang with terrifying news: My beloved Tio, uncle, César Homero Mendez, had been abducted on the stairs of the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, where he was studying law. No one knew why my uncle, a gentle, scholarly man who had never been involved in politics or activism of any sort would be kidnapped, although it seems that everyone knew that it was more than a common crime.
During those terrible days, my mother and her sisters who lived nearby, waited with rising dread for the phone to ring again. Their anxiety was heightened by the difficulty of telephone communication with Guatemala. No one in the Guatemalan branch of the family had a telephone at home, so we could do nothing but wait for them to call us. Even at the age of four I understood that something awful was taking place.
He was gone for three days; it seemed endless at the time. By the time the call came, we had resigned ourselves to the inevitable. The news was good and bad; Tio Homero was alive, but barely.
The torture he had suffered left him frail and broken. During his detention, they had held his head under water until he had fainted; they had beaten him. They had used electrodes to shock him. There were other punishments that I overheard in whispered conversations but did not fully understand the nature of until I was much older. Heaven knows what else they did to him. It would take years for him to recuperate. He never recovered completely.
My poor uncle was a victim of mistaken identity. The democratically-elected leftist president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, had been overthrown by a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954. Following Arbenz’s ouster and exile to Mexico, Guatemala fell into the clutches of a string of dictators before it dissolved into its long civil war.
The men who kidnapped Tio Homero thought that he was a leftist guerrilla named Cesar Romero Mendez who was thought to be connected to Arbenz. “Mendez” is as common a surname in Latin America as “Smith” is here. They realized that they had the wrong man only when a judicial official visiting the jail recognized him as the college professor and vouched for his innocence. Naked, half dead, he was put into a taxi and sent home.
My uncle eventually became a family law judge in Guatemala. My aunt says that the terrible physical injuries he suffered were dwarfed by the spiritual and mental damage that the experience left behind.
In the sad history of Guatemala, my uncle’s story has a fairly happy ending. After all, he had a relatively long life in a country torn apart by a CIA-sponsored coup and a 36 year-long civil war underwritten by the United States. He paid a terrible price but he was lucky; many others did not escape with their lives.
Many Latin Americans, Guatemalans, Chileans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, to name a few, harbor a deep and abiding hatred of the United States because of our interventions in their internal affairs, our sponsorship of their dictators, and our unblinking disregard for the “collateral damage” we leave in our wake. Some, like my uncle, had the education to recognize our shameful role in their sorrowful history.
Although we present ourselves as fighters for freedom and justice, our actions in Guatemala and many other Latin American countries do not bear out these boasts. As forensic anthropologists exhume the bodies of the dead from the mass graves in which they've lain for a third of a century, the evidence of our misdeeds is there in the bones, most of which contain American bullets. Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and even the American Associate for the Advancement of Science have compiled a sickening record of our part in these abuses.
Guatemalans, citizens of a poor and powerless country, cannot raise a hand against America: we should be grateful for that. Their guerrillas never had the money to organize a 9-11-style attack on the United States but the bitterness is there. The families of the dead will remember who killed their countrymen and women; who was ultimately responsible for the disappearances, torture, and killings.
Iraqis, too, will long remember the murderers of their innocents. Yes, Saddam Hussein gassed and murdered his own citizens, but we dropped bombs on innocent civilians, destroyed the infrastructure of their cities, and now want to take credit for bringing them freedom and peace. It’s like the guy who rapes your sister and impregnates her then wants credit for having married her.
America must face the fallout of Bush’s misadventure in Iraq with humility; with the honesty to acknowledge what really happened; and with the resolute will to punish those who are responsible for the deaths of more than 846 dead American troops in Iraq (combat and combat-related accidents) http://icasualties.org/oif/, and an estimated 8000 Iraqi civilian dead http://www.iraqbodycount.net/. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and all of their henchman should be impeached but any move in that direction would be squandered energy since it would be summarily squelched so long as both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans.
We, the people, can throw the bums out of the White House and out of Congress. We can rebuild our tattered relationships with our allies, and we can offer more than hypocritical rhetoric about honor, freedom and justice by changing our foreign policy and our comportment in the world accordingly. The Middle East, long a tinderbox, has exploded; the fire is fed by our government’s treachery and misuse of the noble military men and women who serve our country honorably. If we truly believe that we are a good people, then we must ferret out the corruption that is poisoning us and our place in the world.
In memory of Cesar Homero Mendez, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, and the victims of the CIA coup in Guatemala, June 27, 1954, on its fiftieth anniversary.
Dr. Rosa Maria Pegueros is an associate professor of Latin American History and Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island. She may be reached at Pegueros@uri.edu