American Conservative “Christian” Leaders Enabled Genocidal Guatemalan Dictator Rios Montt
” … Pat Robertson had praised Ríos Montt for his ‘enlightened leadership’ and claimed that the dictator insisted on ‘honesty in government.’ Observed Robertson, ‘I was in Guatemala three days after Ríos Montt overthrew the corrupt [previous] government. The people had been dancing in the street for joy. … “
Answering for bloodthirsty crimes against humanity
Jamaica Observer, May 18, 2013
RONALD Reagan once described him as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment”. Erfaín Ríos Montt, in the course of a long military career dating back to the early 1950s, displayed very little integrity but certainly a lot of commitment to eradicating the indigenous people of his native Guatemala who were guilty of nothing more than wanting to exist and make a living.
In the course of a 17-month stint as president in 1982-83, he led a scorched-earth campaign which took the lives of 1,771 Mayans. At least, that’s the number actually documented by prosecutors who secured his appearance before three Guatemalan judges. Last week, they found him guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.
It was a historic decision, for never before has a country’s judicial process found one of its own former heads of state guilty of such crimes. Monumental as it is, the task leaves much unfinished business. Ríos Montt was, by no means, solely responsible for the systematic brutality and genocide unleashed against the poorest citizens of that beautiful Central American country.
Many others remain to be brought to trial, and the stain is not confined within the boundaries of Guatemala. The United States, beginning with President Eisenhower — initiated, encouraged and sponsored much of the brutality on the grounds of fighting communism.
American evangelical leaders also played a huge part in supporting Ríos Montt who, after falling out with the Roman Catholic Church, fell under the influence of American Pentecostal “God Squads” and became a born-again member and passionate preacher in the Iglesia del Verbo (Church of the Word). Big names on the US evangelical circuit — like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, Loren Cunningham and Pat Robertson — adopted him. Through their offices, he was introduced to the White House when Reagan became its occupant in 1981.
Ríos Montt was a career military officer who entered the US Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1951 and had his first taste of action in the coup against a reform president, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, in 1954. Unlike many other Latin American countries, Guatemala was never occupied by US forces, since it was governed by a succession of regimes friendly to Washington. Its oligarchy consisted mainly of descendants of the original Spanish settlers together with a few European immigrants. They were disdainful of the indigenous people who were already well-entrenched when the conquistadores came.
Successive governments welcomed US companies not with a mere welcome mat, but a whole broadloom carpet. By far the most important was the United Fruit Company, which was also an early player in Jamaica’s banana industry. It began its hegemony in the 1930s under President Jorge Ubico with more than 40 per cent of the land. United Fruit also controlled the railway and electricity companies and paid no taxes or import duties.
This cushy state of affairs came to an end in 1945 with the election of a reform-minded Government under President Juan José Arévalo. This began a period some call “Ten years of Springtime”. Arévalo set up a health plan and social security as well as a department to look after Mayan affairs. It wasn’t an easy time for him, as there were numerous military coup attempts. Árbenz came along in 1951. He initiated land and social reform which displeased the oligarchy and the Monroe Doctrinists in Washington.
While he was a student of socialist theorists, Árbenz was his own man who wanted to straighten things out in his own country for the benefit of his own people. At that time a mere two per cent of the population owned 70 per cent of the land. The people who actually worked that land were virtual slaves to the landowners. Continuing Arévalo’s liberal policies, Árbenz brought in agrarian reform to re-distribute some 65,000 hectares of uncultivated land owned by United Fruit. The idea was to foster small farms owned by individuals. The Government actually compensated United Fruit for the land.
But the Americans would have none of this. United Fruit had considerable clout with the US Government. The secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was a lawyer whose firm had prepared the company’s contracts with Guatemala. His brother, Allen, who ran the CIA, had been a member of United Fruit’s law firm while other senior Administration officials had high-level connections with the company.
The CIA, which had been formed seven years before, already had one great success under its belt — the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, a freely elected nationalist leader in Iran the year before. Turning its eyes on Guatemala it conducted a campaign of disinformation and subterfuge against Árbenz, in which a young Ríos Montt took part with gusto. A new strongman, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, who had studied with the US army at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was now in charge. He resumed the brutality and support for the oligarchy.
Resuming the nastiness
Thus began one of the nastiest campaigns in Latin America — one which, sadly, is not well known. Furnished with lists of radical opponents by the US ambassador, Armas began a new regime of bloodletting and restored all the confiscated lands to United Friuit. He shut down opposition newspapers, burned books deemed to be “subversive”, outlawed political parties, trade unions and peasant organisations, and, by barring illiterate people from voting, disenfranchised one-third of the voters.
He targeted the indigenous population and even after he was assassinated in 1957, the brutality continued. Between 1954 and 1996, well over 200,000 Guatemalans were slaughtered and the country had the worst human rights record in Latin America. As the military waged its campaign in the countryside, resistance multiplied and a guerrilla army came into being. More repression followed.
The CIA and the US military had sent in advisers to train the Guatemalan military and death squads began to emerge. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter, incensed by reports of atrocities, cut off overt military aid, but money still seeped in through covert CIA routes, Argentina and Chile also helped the military, and a new partner stepped in — Israel, which trained soldiers, built munitions plants and supplied weapons.
It was on Reagan’s watch that Ríos Montt staged a coup. Claiming that the “spirit of the Lord” was guiding him against “communist subversives”, he intensified the war against the aboriginals. About 400 villages were flattened and more than 100,000 people fled to neighhbouring Mexico. He was overthrown by a civilian, Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, who disbanded the secret police and took some other measures to tone down the ferocity of the campaign. But the army still went after “subversives”, be they peasants, students or human rights activists.
Ríos Montt’s misdeeds eventually caught up with him, and last year prosecutors made history by bringing a successful case against him. His lawyers argued that neither the 86-year-old officer nor his intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, ordered the killings. They said the atrocities were committed by field commanders facing a determined left-wing insurgency.
The tribunal heard more than 100 witnesses over five weeks, including Mayan survivors who described how soldiers killed their relatives in their campaign to wipe out villages. The head of the tribunal, Judge Yasmín Barrios, sentenced Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison while acquitting Rodríguez Sánchez.
It doesn’t matter whether Ríos Montt serves a day in prison — the point has been made and a precedent set — the forces of justice will catch up with you. It’s a warning to leaders all over the world who either ordered atrocities or allowed them under their watch.
Guatemala’s Former Leader Charged with Genocide. Pat Robertson Enabled It
by Bill Berkowitz
Friends of Justice, March 5, 2012
Nearly thirty years ago, Guatemala’s ruthless dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt and televangelist Pat Robertson were practically tied at the hip. Now, Guatemala’s judicial system is debating how to handle charges of genocide against the former military dictator, while Robertson, who had praised Ríos Montt for his `enlightened leadership,’ appears to have turned his back on his old friend.
In the early 1980s, José Efraín Ríos Montt, a military general was a favorite of the Reagan Administration and U.S. Christian conservative evangelical leaders – particularly televangelist Pat Robertson — and organizations. Ríos Montt was one of a series of military dictators that masterminded the murders of perhaps as many as 200,000 Guatemalans — including tens of thousands of Mayan people — as well as the destruction of a numerous Mayan villages.
Now, some thirty years later, Ríos Montt, whose rule as de-facto president lasted for seventeen months in 1982 and 1983 — taking over in a military coup before being ousted by a subsequent military coup – has been ordered “to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity,” the New York Times recently reported.
Ríos Montt is accused of being responsible for at least 1,770 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations, and the displacement of nearly 30,000 indigenous Guatemalans.
This is the first time a Latin American court has charged a former president with genocide.
In late February, however, the judge in charge of the trial, Carol Patricia Flores, stepped down after being accused of being biased in the case. According to several press accounts, the new judge, Miguel Angel Galvez, who before postponing a scheduled hearing until the 1st of March, said that the charges against Ríos Montt as well as the conditions of his bail and house arrest, would remain in place.
During Ríos Montt’s reign, “the military carried out a scorched-earth campaign in the Mayan highlands as soldiers hunted down bands of leftist guerrillas. Survivors have described how military units wiped out Indian villages with extraordinary brutality, killing all the women and children along with the men. Military documents of the time described the Indians as rebel collaborators, the New York Times reported.”
A United Nations-backed truth commission, “set up after a peace accord in 1996, found that 200,000 people were killed during the civil war, mostly by state security forces. The violence against Mayan-Ixil villages amounted to genocide because the entire population was targeted, the commission concluded,” the Times pointed out.
The Religious Right and the Ruthless Dictator
Thirty years ago, the Religious Right played a significant role in U.S.-Central American relations: vigorously supporting President Ronald Reagan’s so-called low-intensity wars in the region – the contras in Nicaragua, right wing paramilitary death squads in El Salvador, and military dictators in Guatemala – a policy that was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people. The Religious Right’s support was in part couched in the struggle against communism, and in part tied to what they hoped would be the expansion of evangelical Protestantism in the region.
Guatemala’s José Efraín Ríos Montt was a favorite of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Loren Cunningham’s Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and televangelist Pat Robertson.
In his book, The Most Dangerous Man in America?: Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition, Americans United’s Rob Boston pointed out that Pat Robertson had praised Ríos Montt for his “enlightened leadership” and claimed that the dictator insisted on “honesty in government.” Observed Robertson, “I was in Guatemala three days after Ríos Montt overthrew the corrupt [previous] government. The people had been dancing in the street for joy, literally fulfilling the words of Solomon who said, ‘When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.’”
According to Right Web, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies,
“Within a week of the 1982 coup … Robertson flew to Guatemala to meet with the new president. Ríos Montt’s first interview as president was with Robertson, who aired it on [his Christian Broadcasting Network’s program]`The 700 Club’ and praised the new military government. Robertson also urged donations for International Love Lift, a relief project of Ríos Montt’s U.S. church, Gospel Outreach. Ríos Montt said that Pat Robertson had offered to send missionaries and `more than a billion dollars’ in aid from U.S. fundamentalists. Robertson, however, claimed that he hoped to match the earlier CBN donation of $350,000 in earthquake relief and send `a small team of medical and agricultural experts’ to Guatemala. CBN reportedly sponsored a campaign to send money and agricultural and medical technicians to help design the first model villages under Ríos Montt.”
In her 1989 book, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press), Sara Diamond wrote: “Ríos Montt’s ascension to power was celebrated by the U.S. Christian Right as a sign of divine intervention in Central America.”
While Robertson never delivered the sums of money Ríos Montt expected, Diamond pointed out that the promise “enabled Ríos Montt to convince the U.S. Congress that he would not seek massive sums of U.S. aid. Instead, he would rely on `private aid’ from U.S. evangelicals. Toward that end, Ríos Montt’s aide… came to the United States for a meeting with… [Presidential counselor] Edwin Meese, Interior Secretary James Watt… and Christian Right leaders Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Loren Cunningham).”
In an article written prior to the publication of her book, Diamond pointed out that Montt was a member of Gospel Outreach, a fundamentalist sect based in Eureka, California, which became the Church of the Word. Diamond noted that “The Gospel in Guatemala,” a PBS documentary, “revealed the complicity of Gospel Outreach in the Guatemalan Army’s administration of camps for refugees from Rios Montt’s brutal counterinsurgency massacres of Mayan Quiche Indians.”
In the September 25, 2006 edition of The Nation magazine, Max Blumenthal reported that, Loren Cunningham, according to Diamond “was a follower of Christian Reconstructionism an extreme current of evangelical theology that advocates using stealth political methods to put the United States under the control of Biblical law and jettison the Constitution.”
These days, while Guatemalans are seeking justice, Pat Robertson is still selling snake oil on his “700 Club.” One of the Grand Old Men of televangelism is no longer as significant a political figure that he once was.
“In 1996, I called Pat Robertson `the most dangerous man in America,’ but I wouldn’t do that now,” Americans United’s Rob Boston told me in an email. “Robertson is clearly in his dotage and is no longer the powerful political figure he once was. His influence declined greatly when the Christian Coalition collapsed. Without a large political organization behind him, Robertson became just another TV preacher ranting over the airwaves.”
Boston was careful, however, to give Robertson his props. “That doesn’t mean we should dismiss Robertson as an unimportant figure,” Boston explained. “The model he used to launch the Christian Coalition has been copied by others, including the Family Research Council, thus ensuring that his legacy will be felt for many years to come.”
Meanwhile, according to two experienced right-wing watchers, Robertson has not so much as uttered the name of his former Guatemalan contact, José Efraín Ríos Montt, on “The 700 Club.”