An interview with Allan Nairn
More than 200,000 Guatemalan civilians were killed or disappeared during 36 years of civil war ending in 1996, according to a report from the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission released in February. The nine-volume, 3,500-page report found that U.S. assistance was a key factor in human rights violations during the armed conflict. Yet Guatemala’s human rights ordeal has been almost invisible in U.S. press coverage.
FAIR’S CounterSpin (3/4/99) talked about press coverage of the report and of Guatemala with Allan Nairn, who reported extensively from that country in the early 1980s—a period, according to the report, when the Guatemalan government was carrying out genocide against Mayan communities.
CounterSpin: Since the report’s release, we’ve seen several articles and columns that, while they acknowledge the U.S. involvement in these human rights violations, seem to spend as much or more time congratulating the U.S. for its role in releasing the documents that aided the commission. Even a piece by Kate Doyle from the nonprofit National Security Archives (New York Times, 3/1/99) begins, “Along with a certain degree of shame, the U.S. can take pride in the report released last week.” What do you make of that?
Allan Nairn: The Archives and Kate have done excellent work, but that’s an outlandish statement. It’s as if someone went into your house, burned it down, killed your family, took some notes, and then a decade after the fact they come up to you and say, “By the way, would you like to see the notes?” And you’re supposed to say, “Well, thank you very much.”
These are crimes against humanity: torture, genocide. Even if you presume that this U.S. administration is taking a different approach than the previous ones, if they were to own up to this and behave appropriately after the fact, they would initiate prosecution. But of course they wouldn’t do that, because that would involve prosecuting not just low-level officials, but people like Elliott Abrams, secretaries of state, presidents.
CS: In a Wall Street Journal piece from March 3, “Guatemala’s Troubles Weren’t Made in the U.S.A.,” Mark Falcoff from the American Enterprise Institute comments on the tendency to exaggerate the foreign role in Guatemala. Is this common in the media, and was this common throughout the ’80s?
AN: The U.S. role in Guatemala was about as extensive as can be. It started with an invasion by the United States in which the CIA overthrew a democratically elected government in 1954 and put the military in power and began Guatemala’s nightmare. It continued in ’63–’64 with the establishment of a chain of security agencies throughout Latin America that were established by the AID Public Safety Program and the CIA.
In the late ’60s, in the provinces of Zacapa and Izabal in Guatemala, U.S. Green Berets actually went into the field to assist the Mano Blanca death squads established by the Guatemalan army as they killed some 10,000 Guatemalan civilians.
In ’82 and ’83, as Gen. Rios Montt was sending military sweeps into the northwest highlands, annihilating by their own count 662 rural villages, Reagan went down, embraced Rios Montt, said Guatemala was getting a bum rap on human rights. The U.S. military general attache at the time told me the sweep strategy was in large part his idea, and that he was working hand in hand with Gen. Benedicto Lucas to carry it out. It’s hard to overstate the U.S. role, because the U.S. role was so extensive.
To get back to your question about the press, the big corporate press in the U.S. was not covering the U.S. role at all. They were barely covering the fact that the mass killings were taking place in Guatemala. The New York Times, for example, would run a couple of Guatemala pieces every few months. That was about the rhythm of their coverage in the early ’80s.
The first time they devoted a single prominent piece to a massacre was when a particular massacre happened in the mid-’80s, which they blamed on the guerrillas. The guerrillas did do some massacres, according to the truth commission. The truth commission blamed them for 3 percent of the atrocities, as against 93 percent for the army. But it turned out, this one that the Times blamed on the guerrillas later turned out to actually have been done by the army.
If this had actually been covered as it was happening, if it had been on the front page day after day as the 662 rural villages were leveled and their inhabitants raped and tortured and burned in front of their families, this would not have been able to happen, because the public would not have stood for this. So the press also has blood on its hands, together with the U.S. government, because any competent reporter who went down could see it. In ’82 the Guatemalan bishops issued a pastoral letter saying the assassinations had reached the point of genocide. This was out there, it was just not reported, so the killing continued.
CS: In an exception to that media blackout on Guatemala, you had an op- ed in the New York Times in 1983 (4/4/83), in which you said: “The unavoidable choice for the United States and Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America, is whether we’ll accept radical change or keep the oligarchy in power by supporting this campaign of mass annihilation.” You also said that moderates and liberals are confused about these issues, because they keep dodging that choice. Are things any different now?
AN: Well, the U.S. made the choice. They supported that campaign of mass annihilation. At the time, to the extent to which political people here engaged with the Guatemala issue at all, the way they would put it was, well, we should try to put human rights conditions on U.S. assistance to the Guatemalan military.
In fact, if you took a straightforward look at the situation, the only way you would not be on the side of mass killing would be to say we’re going to abandon these armies. And if the U.S. had pulled the plug on the Guatemalan army, the Salvadoran army, I think they would have lasted about as long as the armies in Eastern Europe did after Moscow pulled the plug on them. These are client, satellite states, heavily dependent on external U.S. support. Any idea of making their conduct a little nicer was just pure nonsense, because their survival mechanism was mass killing.
CS: And of course media contribute to the confusion about laying out the starkness of that choice by giving credence to the third way, middle road plans or suggesting that you can have a little bit of human rights.
AN: To the extent they talked of it at all. The pace of the coverage of Guatemala was so limited that even if each article that appeared had been perfectly accurate—most of them were grossly distorted, if you look at the corporate press—but even if each one had been an excellent, well-documented, factual piece, it still wouldn’t have mattered because they appeared so infrequently.
In order for something to have impact it has to be remembered. And for something to be remembered, it has to be repeated a few times. If you don’t get the rhythm or repetition, it doesn’t enter the public mind. Guatemala is a classic example of that. Here was this bloodletting going on with direct U.S. participation and the American public didn’t know about it.
CS: Media can certainly create that drumbeat around an issue if they choose to. The crescendo of coverage demands an answer or a response. . . .
AN: And if you study the cases in which they do it, almost without exception, it’s when Washington initiates it. And the officials in Washington are smart people. They’re not going to come out and start a drumbeat on an issue that makes them look bad, in a case where they’re backing a genocide. They’re going to start a drumbeat on atrocities, on real atrocities or sometimes even imagined atrocities, on the part of official enemies.
They do it on a Noriega, or they do it on a Saddam Hussein. And suddenly these people and places that were previously unknown to the American public, suddenly they’re on everybody’s mind and everybody’s lips because every time you open the paper there it is, every time you turn on the TV there it is.
But the press does not operate in a truly independent way. They let Washington set that agenda. I recently was part of a debate here in New York, a broadcast forum, with people from the New York Times, CBS, NBC and a few other outlets. I made these points and they were absolutely outraged. First, that I used the term “corporate press.” Second, the idea that they weren’t acting truly independently.
My answer to that is just look at the record. Just look at the record in cases where you have a drumbeat of coverage and the cases where you don’t; you will find that unless the president or the secretary of state or the Congressional leadership are putting a foreign issue on a regular, repeated, memorable basis, you don’t do it. You wait for them to take the lead.
CS: Can we take anything away from the coverage of the release of this report? Does it tell us anything about the way the media may be reporting or not reporting on actions of the United States today?
AN: I think the reason a few things can be said today is because the Guatemalans are already dead. Right now the U.S. is involved in backing armies committing atrocities in places like Indonesia, East Timor and Colombia. And you don’t get aggressive, upfront reporting there, with few exceptions. Occasionally, you’ll get a piece here and there. But nothing that repeats it, and puts it in the public mind, so the public says, “Gee, this is an issue. Should we really be supporting this army which backs paramilitaries in Colombia that are assassinating human rights workers?” That question is not on the lips of Americans, because the press has not put it out there.
In addition to Guatemala, Allan Nairn has reported on human rights in Haiti, East Timor and El Salvador, among other places. He is the author of the forthcoming book Our Kind of Guys: the U.S. and the Indonesian Military.