BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Nearly thirty years ago, Guatemala's ruthless dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt and televangelist Pat Robertson were practically tied at the hip. Now, Guatemala's judicial system is debating how to handle charges of genocide against the former military dictator, while Robertson, who had praised Ríos Montt for his ‘enlightened leadership,' appears to have turned his back on his old friend.
In the early 1980s, José Efraín Ríos Montt, a military general was a favorite of the Reagan Administration and U.S. Christian conservative evangelical leaders - particularly televangelist Pat Robertson -- and organizations. Ríos Montt was one of a series of military dictators that masterminded the murders of perhaps as many as 200,000 Guatemalans -- including tens of thousands of Mayan people -- as well as the destruction of a numerous Mayan villages.
Now, some thirty years later, Ríos Montt, whose rule as de-facto president lasted for seventeen months in 1982 and 1983 -- taking over in a military coup before being ousted by a subsequent military coup - has been ordered "to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity," the New York Time recently reported.
Ríos Montt is accused of being responsible for at least 1,770 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations, and the displacement of nearly 30,000 indigenous Guatemalans.
This is the first time a Latin American court has charged a former president with genocide.
In late February, however, the judge in charge of the trial, Carol Patricia Flores, stepped down after being accused of being biased in the case. According to several press accounts, the new judge, Miguel Angel Galvez, who before postponing a scheduled hearing until the 1st of March, said that the charges against Ríos Montt as well as the conditions of his bail and house arrest, would remain in place.
During Ríos Montt's reign, "the military carried out a scorched-earth campaign in the Mayan highlands as soldiers hunted down bands of leftist guerrillas. Survivors have described how military units wiped out Indian villages with extraordinary brutality, killing all the women and children along with the men. Military documents of the time described the Indians as rebel collaborators, the New York Times reported."
A United Nations-backed truth commission, "set up after a peace accord in 1996, found that 200,000 people were killed during the civil war, mostly by state security forces. The violence against Mayan-Ixil villages amounted to genocide because the entire population was targeted, the commission concluded," the Times pointed out.
The Religious Right and the Ruthless Dictator
Thirty years ago, the Religious Right played a significant role in U.S.-Central American relations: vigorously supporting President Ronald Reagan's so-called low-intensity wars in the region - the contras in Nicaragua, right wing paramilitary death squads in El Salvador, and military dictators in Guatemala - a policy that was responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people. The Religious Right's support was in part couched in the struggle against communism, and in part tied to what they hoped would be the expansion of evangelical Protestantism in the region.
Guatemala's José Efraín Ríos Montt was a favorite of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Loren Cunningham's Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and televangelist Pat Robertson.
In his book, The Most Dangerous Man in America?: Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition, Americans United's Rob Boston pointed out that Pat Robertson had praised Ríos Montt for his "enlightened leadership" and claimed that the dictator insisted on "honesty in government." Observed Robertson, "I was in Guatemala three days after Ríos Montt overthrew the corrupt [previous] government. The people had been dancing in the street for joy, literally fulfilling the words of Solomon who said, 'When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.'"
According to Right Web, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies, "Within a week of the 1982 coup ... Robertson flew to Guatemala to meet with the new president. Ríos Montt's first interview as president was with Robertson, who aired it on [his Christian Broadcasting Network's program]‘The 700 Club' and praised the new military government. Robertson also urged donations for International Love Lift, a relief project of Ríos Montt's U.S. church, Gospel Outreach. Ríos Montt said that Pat Robertson had offered to send missionaries and ‘more than a billion dollars' in aid from U.S. fundamentalists. Robertson, however, claimed that he hoped to match the earlier CBN donation of $350,000 in earthquake relief and send ‘a small team of medical and agricultural experts' to Guatemala. CBN reportedly sponsored a campaign to send money and agricultural and medical technicians to help design the first model villages under Ríos Montt."
In her 1989 book, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (South End Press), Sara Diamond wrote: "Ríos Montt's ascension to power was celebrated by the U.S. Christian Right as a sign of divine intervention in Central America."
While Robertson never delivered the sums of money Ríos Montt expected, Diamond pointed out that the promise "enabled Ríos Montt to convince the U.S. Congress that he would not seek massive sums of U.S. aid. Instead, he would rely on ‘private aid' from U.S. evangelicals. Toward that end, Ríos Montt's aide... came to the United States for a meeting with... [Presidential counselor] Edwin Meese, Interior Secretary James Watt... and Christian Right leaders Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Loren Cunningham)."
In an article written prior to the publication of her book, Diamond pointed out that Montt was a member of Gospel Outreach, a fundamentalist sect based in Eureka, California, which became the Church of the Word. Diamond noted that "The Gospel in Guatemala," a PBS documentary, "revealed the complicity of Gospel Outreach in the Guatemalan Army's administration of camps for refugees from Rios Montt's brutal counterinsurgency massacres of Mayan Quiche Indians."
In the September 25, 2006 edition of The Nation magazine, Max Blumenthal reported that, Loren Cunningham, according to Diamond "was a follower of Christian Reconstructionism an extreme current of evangelical theology that advocates using stealth political methods to put the United States under the control of Biblical law and jettison the Constitution."
These days, while Guatemalans are seeking justice, Pat Robertson is still selling snake oil on his "700 Club." One of the Grand Old Men of televangelism is no longer as significant a political figure that he once was.
"In 1996, I called Pat Robertson ‘the most dangerous man in America,' but I wouldn't do that now," Americans United's Rob Boston told me in an email. "Robertson is clearly in his dotage and is no longer the powerful political figure he once was. His influence declined greatly when the Christian Coalition collapsed. Without a large political organization behind him, Robertson became just another TV preacher ranting over the airwaves."
Boston was careful, however, to give Robertson his props. "That doesn't mean we should dismiss Robertson as an unimportant figure," Boston explained. "The model he used to launch the Christian Coalition has been copied by others, including the Family Research Council, thus ensuring that his legacy will be felt for many years to come."
Meanwhile, according to two experienced right-wing watchers, Robertson has not so much as uttered the name of his former Guatemalan contact, José Efraín Ríos Montt, on "The 700 Club."