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Crimes & Misdemeanors: Reflections on The Death of Howard Hunt


   Most telling about the AP story this morning regarding the death of E. Howard Hunt is what is glossed over in this story.   Thus, while the AP Story notes in passing that Hunt "helped orchestrate a coup in Guatemala," the story goes on to talk in detail about what, as the article notes, Hunt is most famous for:  the Watergate burglary.  However, the Watergate burglary, which Hunt ended up serving time for, was merely the act of a small-time prankster compared to coup in Guatemala which the article tells us nothing about and for which Hunt was never punished.

     Of course, the coup in Guatemala which Hunt was intimately involved in as a CIA officer at the time, was the overthrow of President Arbenz in 1954.   Arbenz was a democratically-elected president who the U.S. unseated, with Hunt’s leadership, at the behest of the United Fruit Company which opposed Arbenz’s land reform program.  While the Arbenz overthrow may be a mere footnote in the minds of U.S. newspaper publishers, the event was much more significant for the people of Guatemala. 

     First, thousands of people lost their lives during and in the immediate aftermath of the coup.  In addition, the U.S. installed a military dictatorship in the place of President Arbenz which would rule Guatemala, with support and funding from the U.S., for almost 40 years.   This military dictatorship was the responsible for the murder of approximately 200,000 civilians, many of whom were "disappeared" by the regime.   The vast majority of those killed were Mayan Indians who were targeted by the military which suspected the Mayans of sympathizing with left-wing insurgents who began to challenge the dictatorship in 1962.  The targeting and murder of the Mayans is now universally considered as an act of genocide which Guatemala continues to feel the effects of to this day.      

     Despite the terror and genocide which Hunt helped to unleash upon Guatemala, Hunt was never punished for this high crime.  Rather, after a short sentence for his role in the Watergate burglary, he lived a tranquil life, dying peacefully at the ripe age of 88 in Miami.  The fact that Hunt, and his co-conspirators, escaped punishment for this crime, and the fact that the U.S. press to this day views this crime as a mere footnote in the life of Mr. Hunt, and indeed in the history of the U.S., speaks volumes about how our nation has become inured to such violence and imperial aggression. 

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     One thing more on Mr. Hunt and his foray into Guatemala.  Years ago, when I travelled to Nicaragua on a peace delegation, I was told this story by a member of the delegation (sadly, I do not remember his name) who had been in the CIA and had left in disgust at the CIA’s role in subverting democracy worldwide.  He told me that Hunt, years after the coup in Guatemala, had called a young aide into his office to tell him of a lesson he had learned in Guatemala during the coup.  Hunt explained to the aide that, when he was about to board a plane to leave Guatemala after his job was done, he was tasked to have approximately 15 individuals who were lined up on the runway killed as subversives.  Hunt, out of what he claimed to the aide was an over-abundance of compassion, decided not to carry through with these killings, and instead let those individuals go.  One of those individuals, it turned out, was none other than Ernesto Guevara, who would soon thereafter become known to the world simply as "Che."  Guevara would then leave Guatemala for Mexico where he would meet a young Fidel Castro, and the two would go on together to lead the overthrow of Batista in Cuba.  Hunt would have to confront Che again (at least indirectly) when tasked to organize the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.  Of course, Che and his comrades triumphed over that invasion.  Hunt told his aide that he learned from that experience never to show mercy again.  Ironically, Hunt’s life, in actuality, suffered from a great lack of mercy on his part.  And yet, much mercy has been shown to him for his crimes.

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