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Guatemala President Faces Arrest as Business Interests and U.S. Scramble to Contain Uprising

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In Guatemala, a judge has ordered that former Vice President Roxana Baldetti must remain in prison while her corruption trial takes place. The ruling comes on the heels of the Guatemalan Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday to lift the immunity from prosecution for President Otto Pérez Molina, clearing the way for his impeachment. The court passed the impeachment recommendation along to Congress. A general strike has been called in Guatemala for today. We are joined by Allan Nairn, longtime journalist who has covered Guatemala since the 1980s.

Watch Allan Nairn interview in Spanish

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Guatemala, a judge has ordered former Vice President Roxana Baldetti must remain in prison while her corruption trial takes place. The ruling comes on the heels of the Guatemalan Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday to lift the immunity from prosecution for President Otto Pérez Molina, clearing the way for his impeachment. The court passed the impeachment recommendation along to Congress. Miguel Pineda is a spokesperson for the Guatemalan Supreme Court.

MIGUEL PINEDA: [translated] Today, all Supreme Court judges met for an extraordinary session regarding a request for the impeachment of President Otto Pérez Molina. Because of this, they met with the head magistrate of the Second Chamber of the Criminal Court of Appeals, Magistrate Gustavo Dubón. They then studied the case, and after their respective analysis, they established that there exists the possibility of transferring the case to the republic’s Congress. Consequently, the request has been passed on to the republic’s Congress for its resolution.

AMY GOODMAN: A general strike has been called in Guatemala for today. Well, for more, we’re joined by Allan Nairn, longtime journalist who has covered Guatemala since the 1980s.

Allan, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what is engulfing Guatemala today, the significance of what’s happening to the president, the general strike that’s called for today?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, it’s an uprising, and it could lead to the fall of Pérez Molina. They’re calling for a general strike, mass demonstration today. The issue is corruption. But if the movement develops further, if it spreads more fully to the Mayan heartland of the country, then the issue could move from corruption to justice, because the reason the Guatemalan elite, like General Pérez Molina and Vice President Baldetti, have been able to loot the treasury to the tune of more than $100 million, been able to steal for themselves cash which was used for Jaguar cars, plantations, villas, yachts, airplanes, helicopters, was because they took and have maintained themselves in power through mass murder. Pérez Molina was a commander in the northwest highlands during the '80s. He personally helped implement the Ríos Montt program of mass murder—effectively, genocide—against the Mayan population. And that's what the Guatemalan system has been built on.

So if this uprising spreads, if it becomes an even broader, deeper movement, and you move from the question of corruption to the question of justice for mass murder, that can only be resolved by implicating not just Pérez Molina personally, but also the Guatemalan army as a whole institution, also the U.S. government, which has armed, trained and financed that army, backed that program of slaughter, which the American CIA had Pérez Molina on the payroll when he was head of G-2, the intelligence unit. And it also can’t be resolved without implicating CACIF, the association of the oligarchy, which backed the army during the slaughter and which, individually, ran its own death squads. The oligarchs, the young men, would go through what was kind of a ritual of bloodying their own hands, and if there was a union-organizing drive at their fathers’ factory, some of the boys would get together, and they’d go out and kill the unionists. And those young men who did that in the '80s are now in their fifties and sixties, and they're the leaders of the Guatemalan oligarchy. So the last thing they want to see is a true investigation and bringing to justice of perpetrators. That’s the last thing Washington wants to see.

And the situation is basically out of control right now. The U.S. is trying to prop up Pérez Molina. They’re trying to keep him in office. CACIF is trying to co-opt and wind down the movement, the demonstrations. But no one knows if they’ll succeed, and no one knows where this will lead. And it could lead to fundamental change in Guatemala. There’s already talk of postponing the elections, which are due for September 6th, of rewriting the electoral law, of rewriting the constitution. So it’s a question of whether popular power prevails or whether the same old perpetrators continue to run the country, and nobody knows what will happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, I want to go back to 1982, when you interviewed Otto Pérez Molina in the area of Quiché of Guatemala during the height of the massacres targeting indigenous communities. At the time, Otto Pérez Molina was known as Tito. This is part of your exchange.

ALLAN NAIRN: [in Spanish, translated] The United States is considering giving military help here in the form of helicopters. What is the importance of helicopters for all of you?

MAYOR OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] A helicopter is an apparatus that’s become of great importance not only here in Guatemala but also in other countries where they’ve had problems of a counterinsurgency.

ALLAN NAIRN: [translated] Like in Vietnam?

MAYOR OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] In Vietnam, for example, the helicopter was an apparatus that was used a lot.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, you were speaking to Otto Pérez Molina. Can you explain what it is he said and who you understood he was at the time?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, he was using the alias “Mayor Tito,” Major Tito. He was the commander working out of the town of Nebaj of the Ixil zone, where he was implementing the Ríos Montt program of massacre. The soldiers below him described in detail how they would go into villages, strangle people, make them dig their own mass graves, bomb their houses.

Pérez Molina was telling me in that clip about the helicopters they had and were hoping to get more of from the United States, which they used to attack the villages. The U.S. and Israel armed that program of slaughter. After he did that in the highlands, he rose to become general, become head of G-2, the military intelligence unit, which did disappearances, torture. They even had their own crematorium in the town of Huehuetenango. And the CIA, the American CIA, gave funds to Pérez Molina. They placed North American CIA operatives inside the G-2 as those atrocities were being carried out. And the U.S. was fully behind this.

Now, there’s fear in Washington. There’s fear among the oligarchs that this whole Pandora’s box could be opened, because the people are in the streets. Now the people are in the streets talking about the corruption, but if they start more intensively talking about the blood, if they follow that trail of blood, it leads directly back to Washington. It leads directly back to the suites of CACIF, the oligarchs who own Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say CACIF, talking about the oligarchy, what does CACIF stand for? Who are they, actually? Is it equivalent in the United States to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

ALLAN NAIRN: It’s much stronger than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It would be as if all of the U.S. billionaires, all of the U.S. corporations came together in one entity and usually spoke with a single voice. For example, after the Ríos Montt genocide trial, in which he was, in an extraordinary achievement—I think a world historic civilizational breakthrough—Guatemala domestically brought to trial its own former dictator, convicted him of genocide, sentenced him to 80 years. The leaders of CACIF, the oligarchs, stood up and demanded, demanded on national TV in a press conference, that that verdict be annulled. They were giving orders to a court. And the High Court of Guatemala, as they usually do, responded to the bidding of CACIF, and they annulled the verdict.

But now the Ríos Montt trial is being renewed. It’s due to start again in January. But this is an oligarchy in Guatemala which kills its own unionists, which kills peasants who try to organize the plantations, which works hand in glove with Washington and is now trying to hold onto their power, because, for the first time, it’s under threat. I mean, this is a historic moment. It all began in 1954, when the CIA invaded Guatemala, overthrew a democratically elected government and put the army in power. And now, the people have risen.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Allan Nairn, a journalist and activist who has covered Guatemala for decades. Ríos Montt, the trial for Ríos Montt, it’s in the midst of happening now, is that right? We were just looking at images of Ríos Montt laid out on a gurney. Explain who he was in the 1980s, his relationship with the U.S. government. At the time, it was President Ronald Reagan, is that right?

ALLAN NAIRN: Yes. Ríos Montt was a dictator who seized power in a coup. He sent his army sweeping through the Mayan northwest highlands. Ríos Montt told me that for every one who is shooting, referring to guerrilla insurgents, there are 10 working behind them, meaning 10 civilians. He considered those civilians who had any feelings of opposition to the rich, to the army, to the government, as legitimate targets for extermination. And that’s what they did with—and that’s what he did with the help of field officers like Mayor Tito, Otto Pérez Molina.

After he fell, I interviewed Ríos Montt again. And I said to him, “Well, General, you were a big proponent of the death penalty. Do you think that you should be executed for your role in the slaughter of the Mayan population?” And when I asked him that question, Ríos Montt jumped to his feet, and he shouted—and this is Ríos Montt’s style of speaking—he said, “Yes! Put me on trial! Put me against the wall! Execute me! But if you’re going to try me, you also have to try the Americans, including Ronald Reagan.”

And he had a point in that, because he had the full support of the U.S. Reagan personally embraced Ríos Montt, said he was getting a bum rap on human rights, and did everything he could to overcome resistance in the U.S. Congress to send weapons, arms and training. And there was a covert relationship through which the CIA sponsored one generation after another of G-2 assassins. And the G-2 leaders, like General Pérez Molina and also General Ortega Menaldo, General Godoy Gaitán, also received funds from the CIA. So this is a very—Guatemala has been one of the key projects of Washington for decades, one of the countries in the world most under the influence of the U.S. government and defense establishment and corporations, and also, not—I think not unrelated, one of the hungriest countries in the world. They have one of the highest indices of malnutrition in Latin America. The exploitation is as gross as it can get. That’s why so many Guatemalans are flooding into America as immigrants looking for work—and now possibly facing the prospect of expulsion at the hands of people like Donald Trump.

But now the system is coming under challenge from people on the ground in Guatemala, but no one knows how far it will go. CACIF, the oligarchs, and Washington are trying to implement a smooth transition, where, you know, one military man, one oligarch, is replaced by another, nothing basic changes. But this could get out of control, and it could lead to a rewriting of the constitution, of the electoral law, and perhaps the beginnings of a kind of popular government, like we see in parts of South America, that starts doing some kind of work for basic justice, for a basic redistribution of wealth, making it possible for workers in the fields who break their backs trying to support their families, making it possible for them to get enough to feed the kids, to give them some education, to get some healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, The New York Times editorial today says, “The president [Otto Pérez Molina], whose term expires in January, [and] who enjoys immunity while in office, has refused to heed the calls for his resignation, even as the business establishment and many politicians have turned on him. Of course he deserves his day in court, but right now he is only delaying the inevitable—meaning, quite likely, a prison sentence, along with one for [former Vice President Roxana] Baldetti. That outcome would send a powerful message to Guatemalans who aspire to be governed by honest leaders. It should also be studied, and possibly emulated, in neighboring countries where justice is still too often administered arbitrarily or not at all.” That from The New York Times today. Your response?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, one neighboring country that needs justice is the United States. The United States has not yet reached the level of civilization of Guatemala. Guatemala put their own former head of state, their own former dictator, Ríos Montt, on trial and convicted him of genocide. When I was in the courtroom as that verdict was being read out, I was trying to imagine if you could be standing in a court in Texas and hearing a guilty verdict being read out against George W. Bush for the civilians he killed during the invasion of Iraq, or in a court in Illinois hearing a guilty verdict being read out against President Barack Obama for the civilians he killed with his drone strikes. And it’s just—I didn’t have enough imagination to reach that point. It’s inconceivable in the U.S. now. But Guatemala has done that.

Now, they’re going after the sitting president for corruption. This is being down with the initiative, the main initiative, of the special prosecutor’s office, that was created as a result of agitation by human rights activists in Guatemala who succeeded in getting a special statute implemented. That special prosecutor is backed by the United Nations, and the Attorney General’s Office of Guatemala has gone along with them. And now they have arrested the sitting vice president. They’re seeking to arrest the sitting president for corruption. But again, the question is if the movement spreads broadly enough, if it reaches the Mayan heartland, if people come into the streets and are not intimidated by CACIF, not intimidated by the army, and they start demanding justice for the years of mass murder, the ongoing economic exploitation at the hands of local oligarchs, but also at the hands of foreign corporations who they brought in—now there’s mass looting of the mineral wealth of Guatemala by American and especially Canadian mining companies, and activists who protested against that have been murdered. This could all face change now if the movement goes far enough. And Washington and the rich are desperately trying to stop it.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, I want to thank you for being with us. Allan Nairn, journalist and activist, has long covered Guatemala. We’ll link to your many articles on the Central American country.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it’s 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. We’ll go to New Orleans. Stay with us.

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