Mountain of Evidence

But the inaugural ceremonies marking Arbenz’s replacement with a U.S.-backed military regime had just ended when plantation workers and college students began trading their plows and textbooks for rifles and fatigues, setting out under cover of night for the hidden reaches of the mountains to prepare for the revolution.

In Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting, Daniel Wilkinson attempts to reconstruct this history, weaving firsthand testimonies with official records into an account of how U.S. intervention sparked Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war. Although he occasionally loses focus and gets bogged down in tedious details, Wilkinson’s book hits its mark more often than not.

Within weeks of taking office in the spring of 1954, Guatemala’s new leader, a dissatisfied colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas, dismantled a decade of reform, outlawing labor unions and leftist political parties. Wilkinson provides an intimate description of how the U.S.-backed regimes that came to power after the coup alienated the middle class and radicalized the left, dividing the country along class lines. As outrage mounted, more people joined the ranks of the resistance, and the countryside sank into violence and chaos. The fighting dragged on, and the elusiveness of the enemy frustrated the military. As a result, they began staging increasingly brutal assaults on civilian populations, swelling the death toll.

Ultimately, Wilkinson uncovers little information not contained in sheaves of declassified documents or in the official report made by Guatemala’s “Truth Commission”–which prompted Bill Clinton to issue a formal apology. But he makes up for this deficiency with good storytelling, portraying history on a human scale through visually compelling narratives that illuminate the psychological landscape that shaped the revolution. Taken together, these stories form a useful counterpart to the tangled official record that exists on the subject.

The main flaw of the book is its structure–that of a voyager’s diary. A young idealist on a fellowship-turned-vision quest, the author rides across Guatemala on his motorcycle conducting interviews, reading old documents, and waxing philosophic. Between each narrative, the reader suffers through pointless travel details (such as a two-page description of riding through heavy rain) and desultory reflections on the meaning of the author’s personal experiences. A patchwork of meditations on history and geography is muddied by bad metaphor (“the sun . . . exiting the day like a shameless diva”) and fallacy (“the mountain didn’t laugh with me”, “the sun . . . seemed to slow down so it could watch the world”). Still, it’s worth trudging through these passages for insights into a history unknown to most Americans.

At the end of his journey, Wilkinson reflects, “The most effective way to bury a revolution is to render it irrelevant.” Now that the end of the Cold War and the recent terrorist attacks have ushered in a new foreign policy paradigm, it’s easy to dismiss the stories in Wilkinson’s book–and the fragments of history they subtend–as empty relics of a bygone era.

But history has a way of repeating itself. Just this May, as President Bush asked Congress for money to fight Colombia’s paramilitary groups, a transcript of a conversation between House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Colombian military officials surfaced in which Hastert pledges to end the “leftist” policy of coupling human rights enforcement to military aid. In June, the government announced plans to resume drug interdiction flights over Peru–a policy that had been on hold ever since a missionary plane was accidentally shot down last year. Meanwhile, the State Department’s inspector general recently conducted an investigation into America’s involvement in Venezuela’s failed coup. If nothing else, given the recidivist nature of U.S. policy in Latin America, Wilkinson’s book deserves a certain measure of attention as a well-timed reminder of the potentially devastating consequences of our successes.