Barely released from their inherited enlistment in Washington's anti-Communist crusade, Guatemalan officials say they are now being pressed to play a more active role in the United States' war on narcotics. For his part, President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen seems willing to go along He is, after all, in need of new tasks to keep Guatemala's armed forces out of mischief now that they are no longer allowed to kill leftist guerrillas or their suspected sympathizers.
The Guatemalan military must be "more effective and efficient" in fighting narcotics, Arzu said in an interview here, adding that he is willing to let the Pentagon supply patrol boats and advanced radar, if Congress approves, so that Guatemala can better "locate and interdict drug trafficking " But with the old alliance between the Guatemalan military and the CIA very much in mind, others argue that the DEA would be making a fatal mistake.
The military's partnership with Washington dates to 1954, when the CIA organized a coup that ousted President Jacobo Arbenz, an elected left-leaning reformer allied with local Communists, who started to expropriate U.S. banana-company properties.
EVEN THEN, Guatemala was a deeply polarized and inequitable society. But Washington's recruitment of Guatemala's rightists in its anti-Communist campaign, fol- lowed up by the dispatch of Green Berets and large sums of aid a decade later to fortify the Guatemalan armed forces, deepened that crisis. In this decade, it turned out that the CIA was relying on Guatemalan military officers as paid informers, even after the agency knew that some of them had covered up the killings of an American citizen and of another American's husband.
So, however much America wants to fight drugs, making that a basis for continuing to prop up the Guatemalan military worries some experts on this country.
"The short-term thinking of U.S. policy undercut and eviscerated democracy in 1954 and is repeating that mistake in 1996," said Jennifer Schirmer, who studies Guatemala's military and teaches at Harvard. "These guys just don't get it. They have no historical recollection of the United States in Guatemala, and really, in the end, don't understand that their presence and demands and pressure continue to undermine the ability of this fragile, incipient democracy to function."
For Guatemalans and other Latin Americans, though, those memories live and continue to shape attitudes. Since November, crowds have been flocking to movie theaters here to see "Devils Don't Dream," a documentary about the 1954 coup. One scene from old newsreels shows Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, President Arbenz's successor surrounded by American military officers who literally tell him what to say. And when Howard Hunt, the former CIA agent and Watergate figure who was an organizer of the uprising, is interviewed on screen snd smirks about how easy it was to bribe Guatemalan security forces to stand on the sidelines, pained cries of protest erupt from the audience.
"The United States had this problem with the Soviet Union, and we got caught right in the middle," said Lilian Martinez de Rivas, whose son Oscar, a doctor, and daughter-in-law Lourdes, a medical student, were abducted by the military in 1982 and never seen again. "Now the quarrel between the two of them is over, and still the United States won't give us satisfaction."
That notion also pervades "If the North Were the South," an anthem of indignation written by the Guatemalan pop singer Ricardo Arjona that is now a hit all over Latin America. The song's video shows a death squad victim on a cobblestone street wrapped in an American flag and soldiers in American uniforms munching sandwiches as they fire on unarmed protesters.
"The Stars and Stripes has taken possession of my flag, and our liberty is just a whore," Arjona sings in Spanish. And in the United States, he continues, "they have powder up their noses and syringes in their pockets, they're tripping on marijuana trying to understand the situation."
To be sure, Guatemala is not the only place in the hemisphere where the war against drugs is fast becoming Washington's latest crusade. In the Eastern Caribbean the Clinton administration has pushed for (and obtained) more cooperation from the small English-speaking island nations whose rich volcanic soil and isolated anchorages attract marguana growers and cocaine trafftekers with money to burn.
At the same time, the United States is trying to strip those islands of their preferred access to Europe's market for their bananas - an export crop that is the only commercially viable alternative to marguana for many Caribbean farmers. The Clinton administration is taking that action at the behest of the American-owned Chiquita banana company.
In an earlier incarnation, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company and operated in Guatemala and the rest of Central America as virtually a sovereign entity. Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, nud his director of Central Intelligence, Allen Dulles, were brothers who were both members of the law firm that represented United Fruit - a situation that Susanne Jonas, a leading American scholar of Guatemalan history, calls "one of the clearest examples in modern history of U.S. policy being affected by direct ties of public officials to private interests."
Nowadays, the convergence of private and public interests may be far more murky. But again the United States seems poised, st its own peril, to ignore the past and then to wonder what went wrong when its neighbors do not respond as anticipated.
"History is history, and it is always lurking there as a factor when you deal with Latin America," said a current American official with long experience in the region.