In 1992, I visited Guatemala on a United Nations-sponsored mission to assess the health situation of Central American refugees and displaced people in Central America.
It was in Quetzaltenango, home to many indigenous Mayans. There, where I learned a lesson.
I had gone to visit the town’s historic cathedral when I saw an old Mayan woman. She was dressed beautifully, kneeling and praying on the steps in front of the church.
I instinctively grabbed my camera and was ready to shoot when the woman turned towards me and said, “One dollar!”
The ethical thing to do
Although initially, I refused to pay her for the photo, I realized it was her right to demand compensation for something that would benefit me.
Unintentionally, I had wanted to take advantage of this woman. That is something that the Mayans had been used to for centuries following the Spanish conquest of the country.
A man with a dream
It was only in 1951, when the Mayans had the opportunity to redress their poor health situation and standard of living with the democratic election of President Jacobo Árbenz.
He instituted a series of dramatic reforms to improve their situation and strengthen democracy in the country. When Árbenz took office, 2% of the population owned 70% of the land.
An early reformer
The focus of his policy was a comprehensive agrarian reform law. It transferred uncultivated land from large landowners to their poor workers, allowing them to start a farm of their own.
One of the motivations for the passage of that law – which benefitted approximately 500,000 mostly indigenous peasants – was to generate enough capital to fund his public infrastructure projects around the country. Árbenz also instituted near-universal suffrage and a minimum wage.
Standing up to powerful landowners
In the process, Árbenz had alienated many powerful landowners, notably the United Fruit Company (UFC), which felt particularly targeted by the reforms.
The company owned 220,000 hectares, only 15% of which were cultivated. The fallow land fell under the scope of the agrarian reform law.
Scuppered reform hopes
The response of the UFC was predictable. It started an intensive lobbying campaign aimed at overthrowing the Árbenz government.
The company had powerful allies in the U.S. government, notably John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State and his brother Allen Dulles, the CIA director, who was on the company’s board of directors.
In August 1953, President Eisenhower authorized Operation PBSuccess: aimed at overthrowing President Árbenz.
Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was chosen to lead the coup which included psychological tactics.
The U.S. vs. democratic legitimacy
Lacking the Guatemalan army support, on June 27, 1954, Jacobo Árbenz resigned and received political asylum at the Mexican Embassy.
It was the loss of one of the most important opportunities to create a successful democracy in Central America.
Guatemala pushed into continuous disarray
The fall of Árbenz inaugurated an almost uninterrupted series of corrupt and authoritarian governments that have ruled Guatemala.
These governments conducted systematic abuses against the indigenous population which explains, to a large extent, the massive migrations toward the United States.
Crimes against humanity
A brutal civil war started in 1960 ended with peace accords in 1996. During that war, more than 200,000 people – mostly indigenous Mayan – were killed.
It was a regime of terror where at least 100,000 women were raped, over one and a half a million people were displaced from their homes, and their basic infrastructure for survival was destroyed.
Most of those guilty of crimes against humanity have gone unpunished.
A presidential pardon
In 1999, Bill Clinton took the unprecedented step of apologizing for the U.S. role in supporting the war that caused havoc in Guatemala’s social structure.
His apology came shortly after an independent Historical Clarification Commission concluded that the U.S. was largely responsible for most of the human rights abuses committed during that bloody war.
The Clinton clarification
President Clinton said, “It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong. And the United States must not repeat that mistake.”
Well beyond Guatemala, that mistake included support for the criminal regimes in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.
Can we Americans then be surprised when tens of thousands of people try to leave their countries in Central America in search of a better life?
To be sure, the U.S. is not responsible for all the ills that affect the Central American countries.
However, it is a duty of the U.S. to improve the situation of migrants seeking safety and treat them with care and respect to compensate for the tragic circumstances we helped create.
These are useful facts to remember as President Joe Biden makes of human rights the centerpiece of his foreign policy.
Joe Biden has a responsibility towards migrants from Central America.
The US cannot be blamed for all of Central America’s problems. But it must help migrants seeking safety and compensate for its impact on the region.
Biden’s foreign policy places human rights front center and should give prominence to the needs of the people of Central America.