The United States released $3.2 million in aid to Guatemala’s military Thursday, ending a 15-year freeze on the assistance in a largely symbolic recognition that the Central American nation has made progress reforming an army tainted by past human rights abuses.
The money was freed up after this nation of 14 million agreed to make its military subject to civilian courts, establish an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and remove legal impediments to U.N. investigations of rights abuses.
“I’ve been impressed by the reforms that have been undertaken here in the armed forces. I know it is a difficult thing to do, but it’s been done with professionalism and transparency,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in an appearance with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger. “My impression is that this is a magic moment for Central America.”
The military aid had been frozen since 1990, six years before Guatemala ended a 35-year civil war in which some human rights groups estimate as many as 200,000 people were killed, most by the army.
Although the military assistance is small compared to the more than $100 million a year in economic aid the U.S. gives Guatemala, Berger welcomed the decision.
“The shadow that was above our army has disappeared,” he told reporters. “I believe this is a 360-degree change.”
Since Berger took office in January 2004, he has cut the size of the military by almost half, to 15,000 members, and focused its efforts on peacekeeping missions rather than counterinsurgency.
The U.S. money will help pay for Guatemalan peacekeeping troops in Haiti and elsewhere, as well as cover the costs of parts for planes and ships used in drug interdiction and peacekeeping operations.
Bush administration officials estimate that 80% of the cocaine bound for the United States passes through Guatemalan territory.
The funds will also help modernize the air force, which has some planes with windshields so damaged that pilots can see through only a small portion.
In addition to the $3.2 million, the Bush administration has included $900,000 for international training aid and a program to buy foreign military equipment in its 2006 budget proposal. That is a substantial increase from the $350,000 provided in the 2005 budget, for strictly limited purposes.
“Guatemala is returning to the fold of a military relationship with the United States,” said Roger Pardo-Maurer IV, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Latin America.
The civil war in Guatemala, which pitted largely poor rural dwellers against a government backed by the United States and Guatemala’s urban elite, was among the hemisphere’s more brutal of recent times. By some estimates, more than 100 political assassinations and 40 abductions occurred each month during a particularly bloody period in the 1980s. The army was accused of wiping out whole villages that it said harbored Mayan guerrillas.
Change has come slowly since the war ended. Despite ostensible civilian rule, military leaders retained broad power over Guatemala, which wields influence with its neighbors as the most populous nation in Central America.
Alfonso Portillo, Berger’s predecessor, was widely accused of being a front man for Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a former president known for his “scorched earth” campaign against the rebels.
Bush administration officials had withheld the announcement that the military funds would be unfrozen until Rumsfeld’s visit, the last stop on a four-day tour that also took him to Argentina and Brazil. He returned to Washington late Thursday.