Paying human rights lip service

As President Bush celebrated the toppling of a “murderous tyrant” in Iraq, right-wing rioters outside my window in Guatemala City chanted the name of Efrain Rios Montt — Guatemala’s genocidal dictator of 1982 and presidential hopeful of 2003. As Bush brought world attention to the exhumation of Iraq’s mass graves, archeologists quietly unearthed the bones of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans after 20 years underground.

Human rights sells wars, and no one knows this better than the Bush administration. The Afghanistan foray was marketed as a mission to “lift the veil” of oppressed burqa-wearing women; the invasion of Iraq was intended, they say, to liberate the people from Saddam’s iron fist. But given Bush’s indignation at the discovery of secret burial sites in Iraq, his silence surrounding 250 newly-disinterred mass graves in Guatemala speaks volumes.

Working with an indigenous women’s rights group in Guatemala this summer, fellow Yalie Lauren Burke ’05 and I saw firsthand some of the grim realities the Bush administration seems content to ignore. On July 24, two days after my return to America, three armed men invaded and vandalized the home where I had been living in Guatemala City. Burke was held at gunpoint as they stole the sensitive files, tape-recorded testimonials, and laptop computer of our housemate, Norma Maldonado — a prominent Guatemalan human rights activist. This was but one of many recent assaults on the activists and journalists who document Guatemala’s political corruption — an ugly phenomenon that the U.S. government and mass media have scarcely acknowledged.

It doesn’t take a foreign policy expert to explain one important reason why Bush has turned a blind eye to the egregious politics of Guatemala. Today begins the seventh round of negotiations over the Central American Free Trade Agreement –a treaty among the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica that repeats the disastrous tenants of the 1995 North American Free Trade Agreement. Under CAFTA, all trade barriers between the United States and Central America will disappear, as will current regulations requiring that commerce with the Central American nations be dependent upon their observance of international human rights standards. Although Bush willingly invoked the language of human rights to justify the beefed-up embargo on Cuba, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the full-scale war against Iraq, he seems to be suffering ethical amnesia as far as Central America is concerned.

Free trade is not the issue on the minds of the vast majority of Guatemalans. Their government is too busy struggling with daily riots, dire poverty, and unsustainable debt burdens to even think twice about enforcing basic constitutional labor rights. Less than 3 percent of the Guatemalan labor force is unionized, and those that speak out for better wages and benefits risk not only their jobs, but their lives. The future looks bleak; as Efrain Rios Montt shores up his bid for the presidency despite a constitutional provision barring former coup-leaders from candidacy, Guatemala risks reverting back to the chaos that characterized its 36-year civil war period.

All this, and yet Bush wants to reward Guatemala with the so-called carrot of free trade, asserting that it is one of the Central American nations that have “changed old ways and have found new wealth and new freedom”? All this, and yet not a presidential peep regarding Rios Montt’s formidable threat to human rights? It probably doesn’t help that the Bush administration includes men like Elliot Abrams, John Negroponte, and Otto Reich — key players in Reagan’s “dirty wars” in Central America who backed Rios Montt as he prescribed the slaughter of thousands of Mayan communities in the early 1980s. Speaking out against the repetition of such glaring atrocities is a task our administration can’t abandon simply because the trade interests of American corporations are at stake.

If U.S. foreign policy is to start making any moral sense at all, our definition of human rights must cease to hinge upon the Bush administration’s economic and political agenda. Human dignity and social justice are one-size-fits-all notions, not merely convenient public relations tools to salvage wars when less reliable justifications go sour. The three remaining rounds of CAFTA negotiations must honestly address the needs of workers, indigenous populations, and the environment in Guatemala, as well as elsewhere in Central America. CAFTA must grant tariff reductions to individual Central American nations only at the rate that they conform to international labor and human rights standards. More importantly, the Bush administration must wake up from its myopic obsession with the Middle East and smell the crisis in the land of coffee.



Sarah Stillman is a sophomore in Pierson College.

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