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  •   Clinton: Support for Guatemala Was Wrong

    Clinton and Alvaro Arzu
    President Clinton, left, and Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen review a military honor guard at the presidential palace in Guatemala City on Wednesday. (AP)
    By Charles Babington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 11, 1999; Page A1

    GUATEMALA CITY, March 10 President Clinton expressed regret today for the U.S. role in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, saying that Washington "was wrong" to have supported Guatemalan security forces in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that slaughtered thousands of civilians.

    Clinton's statements marked the first substantive comment from the administration since an independent commission concluded last month that U.S.-backed security forces committed the vast majority of human rights abuses during the war, including torture, kidnapping and the murder of thousands of rural Mayans.

    "It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong," Clinton said, reading carefully from handwritten notes. "And the United States must not repeat that mistake. We must, and we will, instead continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala."

    Guatemalan President Alvaro Arzu sat next to Clinton when he made the remarks at a "peace round table" in the ornate National Palace of Culture, but had no immediate response. His press aides said they were unsure whether he would comment.

    Clinton's aides said the president had thought for some time about how to word his near-apology. The Guatemalan military received training and other help from the U.S. military in an era when the United States supported several Latin American rightist governments fighting leftist insurgents.

    The record of the Guatemalan security forces was laid bare in a report released Feb. 25 by the Historical Clarification Commission, which grew out of the U.N.-sponsored peace process that ended the war in 1996. The commission said the Guatemalan military had committed "acts of genocide" during the conflict, in which 200,000 people died.

    Clinton's comments capped a busy, nation-hopping day that began in San Salvador, El Salvador's capital. There, he told Central American leaders that their recently democratized region deserves to be a more equal partner with the United States, and he pledged to make several trade and immigration changes they have sought.

    In what aides billed in advance as the major address of his four-day Central American visit, Clinton praised the nations for ending their devastating civil wars and shifting to democratic systems of government. All Central American countries, he noted in a speech in San Salvador before the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly, now have freely elected leaders.

    Winning applause from the legislature's 83 attending members, the president vowed to reduce tariffs on some Central American exports, press for nearly $1 billion in new aid for victims of Hurricane Mitch and give $8 million to the region's schools. Tiptoeing around the sensitive issue of past U.S. support for rightist governments in the region, Clinton also acknowledged that the United States had undergone "bitter divisions about our role in your region," which included a "dark and painful period."

    But he did not grant one key request from this region's leaders, who want the United States to cease or slow deportation of undocumented Central Americans, many of whom send money to relatives in their impoverished homelands.

    "We must continue to discourage illegal immigration," he said. "We must enforce our laws."

    Clinton did, however, say he will fight to put illegal immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador on an equal footing with Nicaraguans, who enjoy easier rules in proving "hardship," a condition that can allow them to remain in the United States although they crossed the border illegally.

    The Nicaraguan rules are a holdover from U.S. animosity toward the former Sandinista regime, the leftist government of the 1980s that some Nicaraguans had sought to escape by moving illegally to the United States.

    "I will do everything I possibly can to overcome that different treatment," Clinton said, drawing a roar of approval from the Salvadoran lawmakers. Administration officials already are drafting plans to change the guidelines, which do not require congressional approval, presidential aides said. In Guatemala, Clinton said he would seek to change the guidelines by law and executive action.

    In his speech in San Salvador, Clinton alluded to the brutal civil wars and insurrections that killed thousands of people in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and, to a lesser degree, Honduras, in recent decades. He did not, however, apologize for U.S. support for the Salvadoran military in the 1980s, which totaled billions of dollars during a war that cost 70,000 lives.

    "Just a few years ago, the people of Central America were suffering from a legion of man-made disasters far more cruel than anything nature can bestow on us," he said. Over the past several years, he said, "a battlefield of ideology has been transformed into a marketplace of ideas."

    When Clinton traveled later in the day to Guatemala City, he ran into one of the few signs of protest during his trip. Several demonstrators held signs decrying U.S. support for the military during its counterinsurgency campaign. A few yelled, "Viva Monica," a reference to former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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