A Human Rights Perspective on Clinton’s Visit to Central America

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent Latin America trip culminated in her visit to Guatemala on March 5 where she sat down with leaders from the region to discuss topics that included proposals to reduce narcotics trafficking in Guatemala and the normalization of relations with the new government of Honduras. In a region facing polarization, multiple security crises and extreme economic disparities, it is crucial to advance policies that uphold democratic norms, accountability and the protection of human rights. A few points from Clinton’s visit appear to contradict Washington’s commitment to these ideals.

Calling together leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, and Costa Rica, Clinton called for recognition of Honduras’ new government and pushed for a normalization of relations that had been severed since June when Honduran soldiers kidnapped democratically-elected President Zelaya at gunpoint in the middle of the night and sent him on a plane to Costa Rica. In response to the coup, the Organization of American States removed Honduras from its association and many Latin American nations cut diplomatic and economic ties to pressure for Zelaya’s return. The US, however, refused to officially acknowledge the military coup, which would have forced a suspension of aid.

Prior to Clinton’s trip, most Latin American leaders had refused to legitimize “Pepe” Lobo’s new administration because the November election in Honduras was organized by the coup government and occurred within a context of political repression and widespread media censorship. Members of US Congress had requested an investigation (August 7, Sept 25, Jan 28) into the documented political killings, beatings, torture and mass arrests that the coup regime used to maintain power and repress the pro-democracy movement. Reports of this repression continue to date, while Lobo’s government has issued a decree granting impunity to those who participated in the coup. Clinton, however, commented in her recent trip that, “The Honduras crisis has been managed to a successful conclusion,” adding that “it was done without violence.” Clinton’s statement either shows a willful ignorance of facts or explicitly condones the ongoing human rights abuses on behalf

of the United States government.

For an overwhelming majority of Latin American countries, the Honduran coup of 2009 was a harsh reminder of their own not-so-distant pasts, having only in recent decades emerged from successions of brutally repressive military dictatorships. Clinton’s efforts to push for recognition of the Honduran government could seriously undermine democracy in the region.

With Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom, Clinton’s public agenda focused on security. Guatemala has become a focal point in the so-called war on drugs in Central America; recent US funding for the new center of counter-narcotics operations in Escuintla, Guatemala, and Guatemala’s green light for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to carry out missions within the country are strong indicators of this.

Many of Colom’s counter-narcotics efforts depend on a national remilitarization process that directly violates the Peace Accords that ended Guatemala’s internal armed conflict in 1996.  As expected, Colom asked Clinton directly for additional military aid to support the struggle against organized crime and drug trafficking.

Yet the United States banned military assistance to Guatemala in 1990 as a result of the military’s participation in widespread human rights abuses during the internal armed conflict and its ongoing role in maintaining impunity. The US approved a partial lifting of that ban in 2007, yet the conditions that warrant limitations on US military aid to Guatemala remain unchanged: negligible accountability for the military’s crimes-including acts of genocide committed at the height of the violence; the Ministry of Defense’s defiance of a Constitutional Court order and Presidential decree demanding the release of military archives; and ongoing military collusion in unlawful activities (notably, the United Nations-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) uncovered the participation of retired and active military officers in the theft of 639 weapons for use in organized crime activities). The same day Clinton met with Guatemala’s president, a people’s tribunal denounced the sexual violence and other abuses committed against women by Guatemala’s military and police.  Breaking the silence that normally hides such crimes, the women’s testimonies included abuses being committed today, as well as those committed during the war.

The last time Secretary of State Clinton traveled to Guatemala, she accompanied her husband, then president, during his 1999 apology for US support of military forces and intelligence units that carried out widespread violent repression and genocide in Guatemala and his promise to support the peace process as dictated by the terms of the Peace Accords. It is ironic that in her following visit to Guatemala, Clinton has thrown US support behind a government of questionable legitimacy in Honduras and may consider requests for increased military aid to Guatemala.

The Obama administration has the opportunity to effect substantive change in Central America. US aid to Guatemala for 2010 included $4 million to support the CICIG, $2 million for protection programs for human rights defenders, and up to $2 million for legal reform and gender-based violence programs. At this critical moment, the US needs to maintain this type of support, prioritizing violence prevention programs and more holistic strategies for addressing the drug trade. Rather than condoning governments brought in by coups or increasing military aid, the US should advocate for the unequivocal protection of human rights, the strengthening of state institutions in the region, and accountability for past and present crimes.

Amanda Kistler and Joshua Cohen worked as international human rights accompaniers in Guatemala from 2008-2009 with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA).