Politics | The End of Impunity? On the US ‘Nazi’ experiments in Guatemala

In 2010, documents were uncovered that proved a US governmental research programme had deliberately infected thousands of Guatemalans with STDs, leading to the deaths of hundreds. In a new essay, Ceasefire’s Sebastião Martins investigates the horrific background and details of the case, and argues the era of US impunity is over.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Monday, October 17, 2011 16:37 - 0 Comments

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“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Chinua Achebe

In late July the President of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, proposed to his nation the reopening of the court case, led by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the 80s, between Nicaragua and the US.

In 1986, the ICJ had condemned the US for its involvement in the bloody civil war which ravaged the country that decade, and demanded that compensation be paid to the Nicaraguan government.

More specifically, the US’ participation involved financial, technical and logistic support by the government and the CIA for the counter-revolutionary forces of the Contras, highly criticized for their indiscriminate murders by various human rights groups, notably by Americas Watch.

At the time, the court verdict proved ineffectual due to the US’ block of its enforcement by the UN Security Council.

However, Ortega’s recent proposal – sided with the rise of Bolivarian and left-leaning governments across Latin America in the past 13 years – is in tune with a new and well known collective regional stance which contests not only US regional hegemony, but also its questionable conduct when that hegemony was taken for granted by the “international community”, which, as the term itself clearly shows, does not include Latin America or its say in the matter.

Indeed, the West has long agreed that Latin America is the US’ ‘back yard’, or, in the words of US Secretary of War Henry L. Stinson (often quoted by Noam Chomsky,) “our little region over here that has never bothered anyone.”

Guatemala may be moving toward that new Latin American stance. It is true that the country has not sued the US for its support for the highly repressive military dictatorship installed in 1954, which was directly involved in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people during the decades-long civil war that ravaged the country.

However, in early August 2011 four Guatemalan former members of a death squad of the US-backed regime were sentenced to a combined total of 24,000 years in prison for their involvement in the sinister massacre of Dos Eres, 1982, which claimed the lives of 201 men, women – many of whom were raped before they were killed – and children. This was a highly symbolic sentence, since the maximum jail time in Guatemala is 50 years.

It would seem that Chinua Achebe’s proverb is coming true in Latin America, and that History is now beginning to be told by the lions’ historians.

In the continuity of these recent events, August saw a wave of discoveries which have shed new light on US intervention in Guatemala and given a new voice to “the lions”, for so long silenced by the overwhelming presence of the hunter’s self-glorifying History.

In 2010 a US professor at Wellesley College, Susan Reverby, accidentally stumbled upon documents that described US medical experiments in Guatemala and its proceedings in detail.

When Reverby’s findings were out in the open, President Barack Obama established a US Commission to investigate the matter in November 2010. On 29 August 2011 the commission concluded that ‘we believe that there were 83 deaths’ in Guatemala due to medical experiments conducted by the US between 1946 and 1948.

These experiments involved diagnosis tests to 5,500 people – all of whom were unaware of its inherent dangers – and the deliberate infection of more than 1,300 with sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) such as syphilis and gonorrhea, so as to test the applicability of penicillin as a cure for those very ailments.

The medical study was led by controversial US doctor John Cutler, who was financed by the government through a grant from the US National Institute of Health.

Ironically, this occurred at a time when the US government itself was pressing hard and shouting loud for German doctors of the Third Reich to be tried for their horrendous experiments with human subjects.

Cutler was also involved in another no less polemic study – the Tuskegee Experiment – in which African-American men with late-stage syphilis were observed between 1932 and 1972 without ever receiving treatment.

Writing an obituary for Dr Cutler (died 8 February 2003), a journalist for Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette called him a ‘pioneer in preventing sexual diseases,’ a man who‘ worked tirelessly to find better ways to provide affordable reproductive health-care services to women who need them.’ He was, of course, not talking about Guatemalan ‘women.’

Of the more than 1,300 Guatemalan victims, there were prostitutes who were initially infected by injectiomn and then encouraged to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prisoners.

The President of the Guatemalan College of Physicians and Surgeons, Carlos Mejía, confirmed to BBC World that the STDs were injected into the victims’ eyes, central nervous systems and genitals.

‘The Germans used the Polish, the Russians and the Jews,’ he said, ‘the Americans did practically the same in Guatemala.’

When the legitimacy of Susan Reverby’s findings was acknowledged on 1 October 2010, President Obama sent a formal apology to his outgoing Guatemalan counterpart, Álvaro Colom, who described the events as ‘crimes against humanity’ and ordered his government to conduct a separate investigation into the matter.

Also in October, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent her apologies to the Guatemalan people, underlining that ‘the study is a sad reminder that adequate human subject safeguards did not exist a half-century ago,’ she said in a statement, assuring that today ‘the regulations that govern U.S.-funded human medical research prohibit these kinds of appalling violations.’

In March 2011, victims and their families filed a law suit against the US in an attempt to seek legal compensation for the government-sponsored acts.

‘This is a very easy case,’ one of the attorneys representing the victims, Piper Hendricks told Voice of America. ‘There has already been an acknowledgment of the wrong that took place. We know that the U.S. government was involved. We do not know all the parameters, we do not know all of the impacts, but the main wrong has already been acknowledged.’

However, despite the empathic condolences expressed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, no fund has yet been established to compensate the victims and their families.

In truth, although the result of the law suit is yet unknown, the actual substance behind the White House’s soft apologetic tone can best be detected if we consider one of Obama’s choices for his cabinet in late 2008 – Eric Holder.

Eric Holder became US Attorney General shortly after he worked as a highly successful defense attorney for Chiquita Brands International in a law suit. The banana giant – also known as ‘United Fruit’ – had been sued by 4,000 Colombian plaintiffs for its financing and support to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – AUC).

AUC is a paramilitary right-wing death squad which describes itself as the protector of the private interests operating in Colombia. It is responsible for the death and torture of thousands of Colombian union leaders and organized workers, having also been added to the US list of terrorist organizations in the country on 10 September, 2001.

Although Chiquita confessed – much like the US government regarding its crimes in Guatemala – in this case to have paid the AUC US$1.7m over a 7 year period and to have granted it military support, Holder managed to pull United Fruit out of the legal shamble practically unscathed.

As a result, not only were the Chiquita executives involved not sentenced to any jail time, but the corporation managed to maintain their identity a secret – only being fined a total sum of US$25m, payable over a 5-year span. Since there were 4,000 plaintiffs – mainly family-members of the victims – in a nutshell the court basically decided that Chiquita should pay each plaintiff US$6,250.

I do not contest that US$6,250 may be seen as a fortune to most of them. After all, 45,5% of Colombians live below the poverty line according to 2009 figures from the CIA World Factbook, but US$25m are hardly what one would call “punitive damages” to a multi-billion dollar company complicit in the killings of perhaps even more people than those who had died in the US’ 9/11.

Therefore, although the lawsuit has not yet been resolved, with Eric Holder as US Attorney General it is highly unlikely that the US government will accept paying any kind of significant compensation to the Guatemalan victims and their families.

But, of course, Holder is not the real reason why the US government will not pay reparations. He is merely a symptom of a more engrained state posture, a posture that also governed US reaction to the ICJ’s verdict in the 1986 case regarding Nicaragua.

If it were ever to respect international law, the US would be handing out an open invitation to dozens of other countries – not only in Latin America but in other regions as well – with very real grievances against American actions abroad.

The president of the Arturo Uslar Pietri Foundation, Antonio Ecarri, said in an interview to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal last month – recalling a ruling by the Inter American Court of Justice (IACJ) for Venezuela granting protection to a human rights activist – that if Venezuela fails to comply with the court’s ruling it becomes an ‘anarchic state.’

He is quite right. And one should supplement his argument by adding that for US power to stay unquestioned, the country has to remain an ‘anarchic state.’

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit and of whether the ICJ intervenes or not, there is one thing we can say – the Nicaraguans, the Guatemalans and the lions of this world will never forget the crimes of the hunter. In George W. Bush’s words this past 11 September at Shanksville, PA, these crimes ‘will never feel like history’ to them.

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Sebastião Martins is an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge and a journalist for www.pulsamerica.co.uk, www.irlandeses.org and The Cambridge Student.

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