It happened before the coup

Jason Kennedy · The Guatemala Syphilis Experiment

The US has issued an apology to Guatemala after the discovery by an American historian, Susan Reverby, that John Cutler, one of the doctors involved in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the 1960s, conducted similar experiments on unconsenting Guatemalan subjects twenty years earlier. The Guatemalan experiments, in which the local authorities appear to have been complicit, were carried out on prisoners and mental patients. In some cases prostitutes with syphilis were brought in to infect the men; others had the bacteria poured over abrasions on their penises or injected into their spines.

It happened between 1946 and 1948, during the Ten Years of Spring (1944-54), a period with a cherished place in the national imagination. After the October Revolution of 1944 overthrew General Jorge Ubico, an iron disciplinarian and staunch admirer of Mussolini and Franco, the newly installed junta delivered on their unlikely promise of free and fair presidential elections. A little known writer and teacher, Dr Juan José Arévalo, returned from self-imposed exile in Argentina to be greeted as the nation's saviour and swept to victory. Through his anti-authoritarian political philosophy of ‘spiritual socialism’, Arévalo sought to elevate the moral condition of the people through enhanced legal guarantees of their rights, and to free the country from the yoke of foreign capital (a policy that led, inevitably, to US intervention).

During his two terms in office, Arévalo promoted workers' rights, a huge school-building programme and agrarian reform. But the project came to a shuddering halt in 1954, when Arévalo's successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup. A brutal 36-year civil war followed, with the state enjoying material support from the US (including military training at the School of the Americas) as it tortured, disappeared and murdered 200,000 of its citizens.

So, for Guatemalans, the news that the US was complicit in crimes against humanity in their country is hardly surprising, though the fact that Cutler chose Guatemala precisely because it would permit experiments impossible in the US has made people angry. But above and beyond the revulsion at the details of the experiments, there is the hurt that will be caused by an investigation that in any way tarnishes the memory of Arévalo, one of the best loved men in Guatemala's recent past. Already, right-wing voices are muttering darkly about the 'excesses of Communism’.


  • 11 October 2010 at 1:21pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    I don't know where you begin with something like this, but how about the Reuters' report:

    Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said there were no records of the study at NIH other than the title of the original grant.

    The US government ought to find out for itself if the NIH and any other agencies have been responsible for crimes against humanity, it shouldn't be up to historians to discover it.

    Needless to say if China or Iran or any other country had behaved in this way, we'd never hear the end of it. As it is, we'll probably never hear any more about it.

    • 11 October 2010 at 1:48pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      A very hard-hitting opinion piece from Guatemala's premier broadsheet, Prensa Libre:

      After mentioning the crimes committed by the Nazis and the Nuremberg trials which enumerated crimes against humanity, this:

      "EN ESTOS DOS ESCENARIOS se sintetizaba la política de doble moral de Estados Unidos, pues mientras condenaba las atrocidades de Hitler, en su patio trasero latinoamericano comenzaba a desarrollar acciones ilegales que incluían todo aquello que repudiaba en Europa."

      (My translation - "In these two scenarios one sees the moral duplicity of the US, who while condemning the atrocities of Hitler, in their Latin Amercian backyard began to develop illegal actions that included everything they repudiated in Europe.")

      Crimes against humanity

      While this story is long past, there are ongoing attempts to investigate the role of APA members in overseeing torture in the US' various secret prisons.

      APA involvement in torture

      Meanwhile, Guatemala continues to inch towards prosecuting those guilty of human rights abuses during the armed internal conflict...

  • 11 October 2010 at 2:39pm
    Joe Morison says:
    You have to wonder if Arévalo knew about what was happening. If not, why not? But if he did, does it point to the fact that political leaders, once they achieve power, are almost bound to submit the fallacy of numbers and start thinking, like Stalin, that one death is a tragedy but a million just a statistic? Did he justify the means with the ends, the excuse of the despot everywhere, or did the US have some sort of hold over him? Either way, it's depressing.

    • 11 October 2010 at 3:11pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Joe Morison

      A read through Arevalos presidential diaries and other writings would show that here was a man who never had a Stalin-like thought pass through his brain. Indeed, Despacho Presidencial opens with the apocalyptic scene of the aftermath of WWII and Arevalo's conviction that the world has turned the page on the darkest day of human history. It's extremely hard to square those words, published long after he left office, with his being complicit in these experiments. And so far, it appears there is no evidence to suggest that Arevalo knew what was taking place, as it seems those conducting the experiments were circumspect (as well they might be), the Guatemalan authorities likewise. The quid pro quo is probably just going to be something hideously base and vulgar - money, probably, but for who, and how much, let's wait and see.

      During the same period, Arevalo was also fending off over 30 coup attempts from enraged right-wingers, while trying to consolidate 'the revolution'. I have to add that in quotes, as it was arguably not a genuine revolution but a classic 'cuartelazo', which in the Latin American typology of violent means of changing the government is the method where a barracks uprising overthrows the regime and institutes a military junta.

    • 11 October 2010 at 3:16pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Joe Morison
      You have to wonder if Arévalo knew about what was happening. If not, why not?

      I'd say you have to wonder if Harry S. Truman knew about it, and if not, why not?

    • 11 October 2010 at 3:21pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      That's a telling point.

      And considering the exhibition of contrition on the part of the present WH, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility.

    • 11 October 2010 at 3:29pm
      Joe Morison says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      I imagine that someone like Truman would have had people around him to make sure he didn't know the things it would be best for him not to know, while ensuring that those things happened if they were in the 'interests' of his administration.

    • 11 October 2010 at 3:43pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Knowledge of the work went up at least as far as the Surgeon General in the US.

      Reverby's articles details the benefits the Guatemalan public health system received from the US, including stocks of drugs, help with clinical studies, refrigerators, etc.

    • 11 October 2010 at 3:47pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Joe Morison
      He's the one who had the sign on his desk saying "The buck stops here".

  • 12 October 2010 at 10:04am
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    And as for Obama's & Hillary's reaction, I'd like to say, on behalf of everyone, that I'm very sorry for everything that's ever happened in the history of the world. I'm hoping it never happens again.

    • 12 October 2010 at 10:12am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      If anyone thinks I owe them money, it will be investigated.

    • 12 October 2010 at 12:16pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      It is a Clinton family tradition to apologise to Guatemala:

    • 12 October 2010 at 12:26pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Jason Kennedy
      Too bad that's all they've done. Or maybe not.

    • 12 October 2010 at 3:29pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Are you going to give us all a Norwegian-centric update on the spat with China?

    • 12 October 2010 at 10:47pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Jason Kennedy
      They aren't noted for caring what the world thinks of them, but from the standpoint of public relations the Chinese government has acted very stupidly throughout this fiasco.

      First the deputy foreign minister, Fu Ying, told the Director of the Nobel Committee that if Liu Xiaobo got the peace prize it would damage Sino-Norwegian relations. Then she said she couldn't even remember meeting any members of the Committee, let alone making threats. At some point the Chinese must have realised that the Committee acts independently of the Norwegian government and that they can't really punish Norway for the Nobel Committee's decisions. So the next time they spoke, an official from the foreign ministry in Beijing said China was very hurt that Jens Stoltenberg, Norway's Prime Minister, had endorsed the award. Cui Hongjian, the man from the foreign ministry, said the words "Liu Xiaobo is awarded the prize for his defense of free speech and democracy" caused the most pain. So it looks like the end of a bilateral trade agreement in which Chinese duty on salmon imports were expected to be cut by 8 percent, saving Norway about £41 million a year. Not a huge deal by the standards of the Norwegian GNP, in my opinion, but Norwegians are pretty amazed and disgusted. They aren't used to being treated this way.

    • 13 October 2010 at 10:18am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Good for the Nobel Prize Committee - it won't hurt the Norwegian economy very much, but the committee members surely knew that their decision would be met with a vigorous response by the Chinese authorities. They don't like being pushed by anybody, Chinese dissidents or western intellectuals and it's to be hoped that the prize does not affect Liu Xiaobo and his family too adversely. From what I have heard, they won't impose any further sanctions. I must say that Russia seems to be further away from being a democratic state at the moment.

    • 13 October 2010 at 10:42am
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Come on, Geoff. Regardless of Liu Xiaobo's personal situation, after awarding Obama last year's prize, here is another Nobel aimed squarely at supporting American propaganda efforts. How Obama can stand there, on one hand congratulating Liu, while on the other claiming extrajudicial powers to assassinate his own citizens, well, it beggars belief. My bet is next year it will be an Iranian.

      Presently, the Obama presidency argues that it can add a person to a 'kill list' and then assassinate them anywhere without due process. The father of a US citizen earmarked for deletion is waging a legal battle against this:

      Me, I'd give it to Mordechai Vanunu.

    • 13 October 2010 at 10:48am
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Jason Kennedy
      Taiwanese newspapers reported Liu got to skip the communal rice for something slightly better on the day he received the award.

    • 13 October 2010 at 11:51am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Jason Kennedy
      Jason, I don't buy into this idea that the Nobel Committee is an instrument of US government propaganda. What they seem to want to do is to support moderate tendencies in international conflicts in order to bring about a solution. That was my take on the Obama award (which I don't think was a good choice) and when I look at the list for the past ten years or so, there have been some good choices.

    • 13 October 2010 at 12:13pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Yes, because I don't regard Obama as in any way a moderate. And I'm not sure what solution was sponsored.

      Since receiving his award, Obama has increased drone strikes and claimed a 'states secret' privilege that means he needs not disclose the grounds upon which he orders US citizens extrajudicially murdered. 'Closing Gitmo' amounted to moving those there to other places that are the same, while 'ending the combat mission in Iraq' entailed simply describing it as having finished while leaving 50000 troops there.

      So, no bang for their buck.

      It's okay, we'll differ. And Vanunu asked to not be considered for the prize as he regards it as blood-spattered on account of Peres receiving it.

      The weird thing, reading through the Chartist 08 stuff is that Chinese intellectuals like Liu appear to be operating in a timewarp, pursuing a program of democratic reforms that are presently being rolled back in the West. Maybe we will have a full pendulum swing and one day there will be a free China looking on as an incarcerated US dissident receives a Nobel.

    • 13 October 2010 at 3:37pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown

      One curious thing to note is that I read, in passing, that, for whatever reason, the Nobel Peace Prize is something the Chinese authorities actually do care deeply about, and that this is why their reaction has been so vehement (and sure, it's proving, on the world stage, counter-productive).

    • 13 October 2010 at 5:40pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Jason Kennedy
      I didn't know they cared about it. Of course Obama getting a fucking peace prize is, and was, absurd. I've no idea why the Committee thought that was a good move. In the case of Liu Xiaobo, the Committee probably sees him as a Gandhi-myth figure, someone who passively resists repression. It's a good choice, in my opinion, someone who thinks about peace, and I don't think it's that influenced by the US. Thorbjørn Jagland, by the way, the Committee's chairperson, is a former Labour Prime Minister, a bland man who looks a bit like Jim Callaghan.

    • 13 October 2010 at 5:48pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Two articles I picked up from Scott Horton at Harpers:

      Gives good backround on what is underpinning this enterprise.

  • 12 October 2010 at 1:55pm
    Gerry K says:
    Excellent piece of writing. I found this piece concise, intelligent and certainly informative. I have enjoyed some of this writers previous work in his guise as a short story writer.

    • 12 October 2010 at 7:21pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Gerry K

    • 12 October 2010 at 11:23pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Gerry K
      Short story writer? Where can we read them?

    • 12 October 2010 at 11:39pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown

      (I don't receive royalties. Also available in Simplified Chinese)

      or by private request, as I have been informed by the denizens of Soho Square that 'nobody reads short stories'.

    • 13 October 2010 at 5:18pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Jason Kennedy
      Yeah, well I do.

    • 13 October 2010 at 5:44pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Picks up a piece of chalk and scratches another mark on the wall of his dungeon.

  • 12 October 2010 at 7:21pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Has anybody done any research on the Eugenics scandal? I sometimes wonder what the American scientists think that they are doing when they get assignments to infect people with syphillis or castrate those they think are of inferior intelligence, or construct weapons of mass destruction. Time for a radical examination of the crimes of American scientists, I'd say.

    • 12 October 2010 at 11:48pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Geoff, the APA resignation letter is worth reading.

      There is also the Minerva Research Initiative which offers DoD funds to support social science research of value to the military. It has caused something of a stink in the anthropology community.

      "Minerva looks to tap into the community of area specialists and other university researchers, particularly those who work on Islam, Iraq, China, and related areas."

  • 13 October 2010 at 10:23am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Here's a link for anybody who wants some information on Russian politics:

    • 13 October 2010 at 11:50am
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Geoff Roberts
      You could take out the fact that the players hold public office and just read it as a power struggle between various criminal factions. It very much resembles Guatemala, where there appear to be basically no actual ideas involved in what they call politics, only corruption, personal advancement and punishment of your opponents.

    • 13 October 2010 at 11:53am
      The blog didn't get much airtime though - I wonder why?

    • 13 October 2010 at 3:25pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Jason Kennedy
      You sound like an old friend who lives in Florida and who regards Obama as slightly to the left of Bush jun. I must send him the link to this thread - he'll be interested in your excellent piece on Guatemala. I'm looking forward to reading one of your stories too! Take care.

    • 13 October 2010 at 3:35pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Geoff Roberts

      There's an email there you can use.

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