The port visit of a U.S. Navy destroyer last month to Guatemala, a country that has either refused or been denied U.S. military aid since 1977 because of its human rights record, has brought into focus strong policy disagreement both within and between the State Department and the Pentagon.
According to an editiorial in one of Guatemela's leading newspapers, the March 26 to 27 visit of the USS Manley "reflects . . . the good relations and cordiality existing between the U.S. and Guatemalan governments and particularly between the armed forces of the two countries."
The editorial denounced "propaganda claims" that Guatemala's rightist military government has charged come from human rights and church groups allied with leftist subversion. It also cited the Navy destroyer's visit as proof the United States does not believe charges of rights violations against the government.
Until 10 days ago, however, the State Department apparently did not even know the Manley had been to Guatemala. At an April 11 State Department meeting with church and rights organizations, the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs questioned U.S. officals about Guatemalan press reports on the visit printed by the official U.S. Foreign Broadcast Information Service.
Department officials initially denied any visit.
U.S. policy in Guatemala ostensibly involves the use of military assistance as a reward to be withheld until the government demonstrates a willingness to stop alleged violations of human rights. Amnesty International has charged that more than 20,000 Guatemalans have been killed in political violence, primarily by rightist death squads allegedly allied with the military in the past 10 years.
Reports of violations have increased in recent months as conservative Guatemalans and the miliatry they support have felt increasingly threatened by the successful revolution in Nicaragua and violent upheaval in El Salvador.
State Department officials eventualy confirmed the Manley visit and determined that the ship's captain met with the Guatemalan military leaders. The Navy had asked U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Frank Oritz for permission, according to a Navy spokesman, and Ortiz had approved the request without passing it on to Washington.
Had he done so, said one high-level member of the State Department's Latin America bureau here, "the decision would have gone directly to [Deputy Secretary Warren] Christopher. That's the least of what would have happened."
Officials agree that the likelihood of such approval was slim, since the Manley call would not be the kind of message the United States is seeking to convey to the Guatemalan government. The State Department Human Rights Bureau, the official said, would have fought hard against such a symbolic presence in a country considered a major rights violator.
Few seemed to agree, however, on whose fault it is that the Manley showed up at Santo Tomas de Castillo, Guatemala. Human rights activists at State blame Oritz, a career foreign service officer whose personal politics, they say, are too conservative.
"Last fall," said one state official, Ortiz" came up here to tell us that all death squad activites had stopped and the government had learned the lessons of Nicaragua and El Salvador," where social and economic inequities and official repression eventually brought insurrection.
Officials in the Latin American bureau put the blame more on the Pentagon -- and the administration's own lack of policy -- than on Ortiz.
"There is a standing manual for plane and ship visits," an official said. "All they have to do is clear it with the embassy; if the ambassador deems it senstitive, he clears it with State."
The official said he would call Ortiz's approval of the visit "an over-sight. It just hadn't come up for years. He wasn't obligated to tell us.
"The indication is that we don't seem to have a clear strategy. We turn down a lot of military sales [to Guatemala], and then we send a ship there."
The Pentagon officals insist the Navy is blameless in the Manley, case and say it was simply following orders from President Carter to increase the American and Caribbean region.
Those orders came in an Oct. 1 speech, in response to U.S. charges that Soviet combat troops were stationed in Cuba. Carter vowed that the United States would "expand our military maneuvers in the region, . . . monitor the status" of its countries, and form a "permanent, full-time joint Caribbean task force" to carry out the policy.
In November and December, the task force began planning a series of visits to "show the flag" in March and April, by the Manley and the Nassau, an 800-foot amphibious assault ship complete with combat helicopters on board.
The Nassau visited the Dominican Republic, Barbados and Panama, but canceled a trip to Cartegena, Colombia, when it was decided that the presence of a U.S. naval craft -- with long-range helicopters -- could do more harm then good in that country at a time when 19 hostages, including the U.S. ambassador, are being held by leftists.
The State Department appears to have decided that the Manley visit to Guatemala demonstrated too much concern for that country's military government.
Last week, a high-level State Department official traveled there for "serious" talks with Oritz. At the same time, a department directive was sent to all Central American embassies prohibiting official "visits" of any type unless charged with Washington.