Barring hurricanes, landslides and the occasional drug trafficking story, Guatemala doesn’t often reach our newspapers or TV screens. But in spring 2013, this small Central American country made the headlines when it put its former president on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges against General Efraín Ríos Montt and his Intelligence Chief, General Rodríguez Sanchez, were based on a military campaign in 1982-3 that targeted indigenous Mayan civilians. This was not a case of rogue troops, but sophisticated and brutal social engineering thinly masked as counter-insurgency against leftist rebels. Unlike Yugoslavia and Rwanda however, Guatemala was not given an international tribunal, or even a ‘hybrid’ war crimes court like Sierra Leone or Bosnia. Instead, justice came only 30 years later and from the most unlikely of places: an official state tribunal.
The late twentieth century saw a wave of democratic transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the former Soviet republics became independent states in their own right, while countries in Latin America began to break away from their colonial pasts, as well as from the dictatorships and civil wars that followed independence in the 19th century. While Huntington’s famous ‘third wave’ of democracy saw the emergence of democratic structures in previously autocratic regimes, unresolved territorial claims, border disputes and questions surrounding the relationship between self-determination and sovereignty continue to affect regional security in Latin America today.
Guatemala and Belize are two countries that have been embroiled in a territorial dispute over land and maritime boundaries since the 19th century. Guatemala once claimed all of modern-day Belize (which it borders to the Northeast) as its territory, but today restricts its claims to the southern half of the country and its islands.
If Latin American politics can sometimes look like a bad Telenovela, Guatemala has just added two more characters to the cast: Alvaro Colom, the country’s president, and Sandra Torres, the first lady.
Torres announced on 8 March that she planned to run for president as the candidate of a coalition of her husband’s UNE party and the Great National Alliance in September’s general elections. However, as the Guatemalan constitution blocks relatives of sitting president’s from running for office, the couple now decided to quietly file for divorce in an attempt to circumvent the country’s set of fundamental principles.
The Colom-Torres divorce set off an avalanche of criticism from opposition parties, members of the Catholic Church and conservative elements of Guatemalan society, with the leading right-wing Patriot Party (a favorite to win the next elections) calling it an “electoral fraud.” Shortly thereafter, a group of university law students filed the first legal challenge to the divorce, followed by seven further petitions by representatives of different sectors within Guatemalan society.
On Monday, 14 March 2011, seven Guatemalan citizens filed suit against US health officials over nonconsensual medical experiments – including the infection of some 700 Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers, mental patients and orphans with syphilis – carried out in the Central American country by American doctors between 1948 and 1964.
The Guatemalan study, which was never published, came to light in 2010 after Wellesley College Professor Susan Reverby stumbled upon archived documents outlining the experiments led by the controversial doctor John Cutler. According to the documents, American scientists persuaded prison and orphanage authorities to allow them to deliberately infect hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis in order to test the efficacy of penicillin, in exchange for medical equipment like refrigerators, and medication to treat epilepsy and malaria.
Today’s Guatemalan lawsuit calls to mind the 1930s Tuskegee syphilis experiments in Alabama, where hundreds of African Americans were observed for over 40 years, without being told they had been infected and without being treated, even after penicillin became available. Needless to say, US government doctors at the time thought it perfectly appropriate to experiment on disabled people, minorities or prison inmates – practices all too familiar from Europe and East Asia in the 1930s.