September 28th, 2006

raven's wing


When I was living in Guatemala three years ago, it was during their presidential election, which was a fascinating time to be there. The big story that year was Ríos Montt, whose campaign was incredibly controversial. The short story is that he was president/dictator in the early 80s for 18 months, during which time hundreds of thousands of indigenous people were massacred by the army that was under his control. This was in the midst of their 36 year civil war, which ended in 1996 with peace accords and a new constitution, which made it illegal for anyone who had ever been president during a time of genocide to run for the presidency (though Montt was and had been for quite a while influential in legislature, and his daughter, iirc, was the head of the army). Through some legal backbreaking, he was able to muscle his way onto the ballot, despite the fact that that clause was basically written specifically to exclude him from ever becoming the president again.

The election involved, as you might imagine, massive fraud on a number of levels, and Montt's party (FRG - Frente Republicano Guatemalteco) was caught bribing campesinos with fertilizer and promises of solar panels, among other things, as well as lots of bullying and other awfulness.

It's hard to convey the complexity of the emotions coming out of the political situation in Guatemala, where for 36 years, a truly bitter war was fought, and where the "common people" were forced to take sides when all they really wanted to do was farm and raise their kids. Thousands of villages were caught between the guerillas and the army, and hundreds of thousands of individuals were forced to form "armed civil patrols" and acted as an involuntary but brutal arm of the military. Many of the worst civil rights abuses were perpetrated by these PACs (patrullas de autodefensa civil), the members of which were often working in their own villages. Now, ex-PACs often still live in the same villages, where, as you might imagine, people have an incredibly difficult balancing task to live in a community with that kind of history.

So, that's all a bit of the history that I learned while I was studying there, and obviously, there's no unbiased source in Guatemala, and the school where I was studying had been founded by a couple of young, idealistic students, one of whom was "disappeared" by the government (and later found dead) before the school actually began, so the history I received was colored by their politics. I had chosen the school in part for that reason, though, and I was glad to have the opportunity to meet and study under a couple of former guerillas.

Along the way, I learned a lot about Montt, who was on the tip of everyone's tongues leading up to the election. He was a born-again christian who had the courts in his pocket and lots of influence in all the branches of the government. He trained at the School of the Americas and helped the CIA oust Guatemala's one good president in the last 50 years. So, he was a bad character, yes, and he also reminded me a lot of Bush. Plenty of the same religio-political nonsense came out of his mouth, and he had been allowed into the race through shady supreme (constitutional) court dealings.

Hearing all of this made me realize how delicate the line between a merely corrupt government (ours) and one that's outright evil (Montt's dictatorship) seems to be. Looking at the history of many Latin American countries, I saw the US poised on a cusp that has not led anywhere good for the average person. I had many occasions to be thankful for the rights that we have in the US, things like due process, (relatively) fair trials, and habeas corpus. I may hate the direction that the current administration is taking us in terms of social programs, but at least the basics still stand.

So, you will probably not be surprised to hear that today is not a good day for me, in terms of feeling okay about a whole lot of anything. I can't decide if I should throw up or just weep in the corner.

"Taken together, the bill’s provisions rewrite American law to evade the fundamental principles of separation of powers, due process, habeas corpus, fair trials, and the rule of law, principles that, together, prohibit state-sanctioned violence. If there is any fixed point in the historical understandings of constitutional freedom that help to define us as a people, it is that no one may be picked up and locked up by the American state in secret or at an unknown location, or without opportunity to petition an independent court for inspection of the lawfulness of the lockup and of the treatment handed out by the state to the person locked up, under legal standards from time to time defined by Congress. This core principle should apply with full force to all detentions by the American state, regardless of the citizenship of detainees."

The professors cite three specific objections to the legislation: its denial of habeas corpus review for detainees who aren't U.S. citizens; its empowering of the president to "to decide which techniques violate the Geneva Conventions for purposes of criminal sanction under the War Crimes Act, so long as they do not fall within the category of 'grave breaches'"; and its abandonment of "our longstanding constitutional protections against punishing people on the basis of coerced testimony and against denying individuals the opportunity to defend themselves through access to exculpatory evidence known to the government."