Bum Rap: The U.S. Role in Guatemalan Genocide By Peter Hart

21 May 2013 — FAIR Blog

I was struck by this May 17 headline in the New York Times:

Trial on Guatemalan Civil War Carnage Leaves Out U.S. Role

Reporter Elisabeth Malkin provides a pretty thorough accounting of U.S. support for Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. The “long history” of U.S. support for the brutal military went back to a CIA-backed coup in 1954, Malkin reported. She added:

When General Ríos Montt was installed in a coup in March 1982, Reagan administration officials were eager to embrace him as an ally. Embassy officials trekked up to the scene of massacres and reported back the army’s line that the guerrillas were doing the killing

The U.S. role in facilitating genocide was not central to the trial of Ríos Montt, but the fact remains that U.S. aid helped fuel the military, and Reagan-era officials like Elliott Abrams brushed off concerns about atrocities against indigenous villages. As Malkin put it, “For some in Guatemala, the virtual invisibility of the American role in the trial was disturbing.”

This kind of report raises at least one obvious question: How much has U.S. coverage of the Ríos Montt trial talked about U.S. support for genocide?

Genocidal Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt with supporter Ronald Reagan.

Genocidal Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt with supporter Ronald Reagan.

According to a search of the Nexis news database, some prominent outlets haven’t just ignored the U.S. role–they’ve ignored the story altogether. On the broadcast networks (ABCCBS and NBC), there have been no references to Guatemala genocide trial at all over the past two months. TheWashington Post ran one brief item (5/12/13) about Ríos Montt’s conviction .

The PBS NewsHour, which covered the trial several times,  made one reference (5/8/13) to Bill Clinton’s apology “for the U.S. government’s role,” and on another broadcast (5/10/13) directed viewers to the PBS website to watch a 1983 debate over U.S. support for Ríos Montt.

Other outlets were more direct. On MSNBC’All In With Chris Hayes(5/14/13), the host noted that Rios Montt “oversaw the slaughter of nearly 2,000 indigenous people.” (Note: That’s the number of victims in the specific acts of slaughter for which  Ríos Montt was convicted; the full death toll of the Guatemalan genocide is more like 200,000.) Hayes then played this soundbite from Ronald Reagan:

I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.

And on Democracy Now! (5/15/13) , investigative journalist Allan Nairn said that the killings of the era “were crimes not just of General Ríos Montt, but also of the U.S. government.”

And what about the New York Times? Malkin covered the trial fairly extensively for the paper, but before this May 17 piece did not spend much time discussing the U.S. role in supporting the genocide. The May 11 article announcing Rios Montt’s conviction noted that “the involvement of the United States in Guatemala’s politics received scant attention during the trial.” It made this point at the very end of the piece, which closed with Reagan’s comment that Rios Montt was “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.”

In 1982 Reagan proclaimed the dictator was getting a “bum rap.”  If accountability for genocide is an important value, then it would stand to reason that U.S. media would pay some attention to a genocide that our own government facilitated. But the record suggests otherwise. Would coverage have looked different if the dictator convicted of genocide was not a U.S. ally?

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