STILL SEARCHING ...
Jennifer Harburyinterviewed by Patricia Townsend
Jennifer Harbury is an international human rights activist and lawyer. In 1990, in Guatemala, she met her husband, Efrain Bámaca Velásquez (Command-ante Everardo), a Mayan Indian resistance leader. In 1992, he was "disappeared" and she began a search to find him and save his life. What she uncovered—too late to save him—was that the CIA and US government had information of his whereabouts during his detention and that at least one of his torturers was on the CIA payroll. Moving beyond this tragic episode, she continues her courageous commitment to assisting other political dissidents, including representing imprisoned American Indian activist, Leonard Peltier.
On October 27th, Ms. Harbury was honored for her commitment to human rights by the Denver Peace and Justice Center, and before the ceremony she was interviewed at a rally calling for peace, by former Agenda staffer Patricia Townsend, who regularly conducts interviews for Free Speech TV (www.freespeech.org) and the Independent Media Center (www.indymedia.org).
AGENDA: What were your thoughts on the attacks of Sept. 11?
JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, I was of course horrified. I had many friends from law school that had offices either in the Trade Center or very close by. On the other hand, I was very chilled to remember that Sept. 11th is also the anniversary of the day the United States went hand-in-glove with General Pinochet in Chile to carry out the violent overthrow of President Allende, who had been legally and popularly elected. That was the day that our government carried out a major role, not only in assassinating a president, but in bombing the capital building, La Moneda—knocking it to the ground; rounding up thousands of Chilean civilians (who were of different political persuasion than the right wing Pinochet forces) into the national football stadium, torturing them and killing them without trial. And I believe the Chileans on that day must have felt very much like we did on Sept. 11th of this year, watching the events take place. Because, until then, that kind of violence was unknown to Chile. We brought it there to them.
AGENDA: You must have also felt empathy for the people who were looking for their missing relatives. Can you talk about that?
HARBURY: I, of course, was very moved to see the pictures of the family members looking for their loved ones and holding up their photos since for many years I was in that same situation, looking for my husband in Guatemala. My husband was a Mayan resistance leader who was secretly detained by the Guatemalan army for more than two years, during which time he was severely tortured, held in a full body cast and then either thrown out of a helicopter or dismembered. I knew that he was being tortured, but I could not find out where he was in order to save his life. I carried out a number of hunger strikes on his behalf. I remember going door to door in Congress with his photograph. I remember going to the United Nations. I remember going to the General’s office in Guatemala and just being in despair that he was out there somewhere being horribly tortured and suffering great pain. So, I know all too well what those families were thinking and feeling and my heart really does go out to them.
AGENDA: Do you have concerns that increases in power of the US government and military following the attacks is going to hamper even more any future efforts by citizens to get information like the kind you were trying to get about your husband?
HARBURY: I know that Ashcroft, the head of the Justice Department, has already issued a ruling, an executive order, that will far cut back on the Freedom of Information Act. This means people will stay in prison who should not be in prison, who are innocent. People will die who could be rescued from secret cells. And people will be tortured who could have been brought before the courts for a fair trial and correct treatment according to the Geneva Conventions. Yes, I’m very concerned about that.
AGENDA: Polls are showing that many Americans are supportive of the US military response and the governmental response in general to what’s happened. What do you think about that?
HARBURY: I think many people in the United States are very afraid and they assume that the only way to prevent another attack from happening is a swift and powerful military response. I don’t believe that this will protect us at all. I believe this will severely endanger us. But I think the difference between myself and those good citizens, who think a swift military response is necessary, is that I’ve spent many years outside of the country. I’ve also first-hand witnessed the abuses by the CIA and by our government—none of which, of course, is allowed into our press and none of which anyone else knows about. I’ve given the example of Chile. There’s also my husband’s example—a man who was literally tortured for two years in a secret cell by people on CIA payroll. That kind of abuse—that kind of human rights violation—by our CIA is kept secret from us, but it sows hatred against us abroad. And sooner or later, that kind of hatred will ricochet back against innocent civilians in our own country. What the CIA sows, civilians who know nothing about that are going to reap in all innocence. And I think that’s the most dangerous situation we can have.
AGENDA: You’ve done a lot of work in Guatemala around human rights issues. Now that the US has declared a war on terrorism, could you talk about examples of terrorism you saw in that part of the world, who was responsible for it and what the US response was to that type of terrorism?
HARBURY: Of course in Guatemala and in other countries in Latin America, the worst terrorist was the United States and continues to be so.
I’ll give you examples and statistics in Guatemala. The United States carried out a coup in 1954—again against a legally and very popularly elected reformist president carrying out basic reforms to bring Guatemalan society into the twenty-first century. For example, he allowed free speech and freedom of political parties. He allowed unions to form, things that you and I would take for granted every day of our life. The CIA didn’t like this person because of certain reforms he was carrying out that had impact on the United Fruit Company and their exorbitant profits. And we carried out a violent overthrow of that government, put the military in power, kept them in power for the next 35 years. No free elections in that country thanks to the United States.
The United Nations Truth Commission Report found that, during that thirty-five year period, the army was responsible for genocide against the Mayan people of Guatemala. Two hundred thousand civilians had been killed. Six hundred sixty Mayan villages had been wiped out. I’m talking about three hundred people a day being hacked to death by soldiers and thrown into mass graveyard dumping grounds. The United Nations found that the army was responsible for ninety-three percent of those violations and the guerrillas, who were predominantly Mayan, were responsible for only three percent. In other words, the Untied States placed the terrorists and genocidal forces in power and kept them there and armed them and funded them and lied for them for thirty-five years straight. Two generations were wiped out. The United Nations specifically criticized the United States government for the role it had played—for knowingly aiding and abetting that army. That’s what led to President Clinton’s apology to the Guatemalan people two hundred thousand civilian deaths too late.
AGENDA: Can you talk about the School of Americas and how it’s tied to the sorts of things you were just mentioning?
HARBURY: The SOA is a US military institution whose name has recently been changed, but it is the same institution and has given military training to the worst human rights violators in the western hemisphere. They claim that it’s just a coincidence—any school could have a few bad apples. But no other military school in the United States, or in the hemisphere, has the record number of true terrorists the School of Americas has. To claim that that is coincidence defies the laws of statistics. It’s mathematically impossible that that could be just a coincidence. Just by way of example, the military people in El Salvador who were responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero were SOA graduates. Some of the worst people in Pinochet’s cabinet were SOA graduates. Eight to ten of my husband’s torturers were SOA graduates. The list goes on and on. The School of the Americas churns out torturers, assassins, and terrorists. Changing the name does not change the reality. [See p. 8 for the Nov. protest.—Ed.]
AGENDA: Do you think if the American public had more access to this information through the media that these injustices could be changed?
HARBURY: If the American public had access to the truth through the media, changes would happen overnight. When the American public is exposed to the truth they answer with great honor and great justice immediately. In my husband’s case, I could not have asked for more support and a more humane response from everyone in the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, and that included people in the United States Congress.
The problem is that our press is being slowly, but surely, shut down. That’s why Amy Goodman is no longer on the air. And that’s why Pacifica is facing so many problems. One by one, we’re losing our last sources of true information. So, it’s really important that we stand up for those folks. [Goodman is the host of the best daily news program in the country, "Democracy Now", which you can hear anytime at www.webactive.com if you have access to a computer with the free RealPlayer program. That site also serves up the daily "Free Speech Radio News" which is staffed by Pacifica strikers, who are making great strides in reversing Pacifica’s corporatization—see www.savepacifica.net.—Ed.]
AGENDA: What do you think of the government’s control of the mass media in influencing them not to show certain information about the situation in Afghanistan?
HARBURY: I think that the Pentagon and CIA have a lot of reasons to not want the American public to see what’s happening in the war on Afghanistan. I lived in Afghanistan for four months. There’s no way that a smart bomb can hit a target in Kabul, when it’s surrounded by mud-thatched huts and hovels, without killing many civilians. That’s why we’re not allowed to see the pictures. Civilians are dying in there. And that kind of brutality, our people would never accept. We didn’t accept it in the Vietnam War and we wouldn’t accept it now. But this time our government is going to make sure we don’t know about it.
AGENDA: So what can be done?
HARBURY: I think it’s going to be very important to back up people like Amy Goodman. I think people should be calling their journalists and their press and demanding better coverage of what’s going on and demanding that we get better statements than that America is so hated abroad because we’re such a wonderful democracy. We are not so stupid that we need to be fed this pabulum. I think people should be complaining to the press when they’re treated as stupid.
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