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Guatemala and Israel have historically shared a warm, if sometimes dark, relationship—and it is one that is bearing new fruit today

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Guatemala City, Guatemala. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

The teens rise, hands clasped to hearts, and dutifully sing about the hope of being a free people in their land. Listening to Hatikva in this classroom, you could close your eyes and imagine yourself in Israel, except for how the “y” sounds in “ayin letzion” are rendered “j”-like. I am, in fact, in Guatemala, and these are children trained to love Israel at an evangelical Zionist academy in a crumbling outpost of the capital.

At Instituto Guatemalteco-Israeli, founded not coincidentally in 1967, teachers greet me with “Shalom” and hugs upon learning that I’m Israeli. The gym and school uniforms are festooned with Stars of David, and posted on the walls of the office are news articles celebrating the return home of Gilad Shalit and an article condemning Hamas by the last Israeli ambassador to Guatemala. According to the school’s website, “The Embassy of Israel in Guatemala maintains a constant relationship with our Institution, providing us Reading material, multimedia, and also visiting our school.”

That embassy refused repeated requests for interviews to discuss the broader Guatemalan-Israeli relationship, the warmth and history of which goes far beyond the crowded halls of the Instituto—or even the Israeli post-army backpackers trekking through the jungles. The country is littered with gas stations and convenience stores named “Adonai” and “Shalom.” The Guatemalan government has said it will negotiate a free-trade agreement with Israel this year. When the Guatemalan congress gave Israel its highest honor in 2009, the speaker said, “If there is thriving agriculture—it’s an Israeli contribution. If we have education, medicine and security—it’s the Israelis that shared with us their rich experience,” he said.

Educated Guatemalans I met proudly recalled their country’s role in the establishment of the state of Israel: Jorge Garcia Granados, the Guatemalan Ambassador to the United Nations, was a member of the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine who helped lobby votes on behalf of a Jewish state, and Guatemala was among the first countries to recognize Israel. Granados became the first Guatemalan ambassador to Israel, where streets are named after him. (When his grandson was kidnapped by guerrillas in the late 1970s, the family asked Israel for help. Not long ago, his granddaughter was living in Herzliya and overseeing mining concerns in the Negev, though that ended badly.)

Early on, this relationship was predicated on a broader understanding of Israel as being born out of a liberation struggle against the imperial British; Guatemala is not only a former Spanish colony but also still resents a British-imposed border with Belize. Granados remarked of his 1947 visit that there were “many sociological and political analogies between Palestine and Guatemala, in spite of being remote from each other.” By 1955, Guatemala was the first country to move its embassy to Jerusalem, though it’s since moved to Tel Aviv. (Years later, President Ramiro de León Carpio’s plans to return the embassy to Jerusalem—citing “the sentimental and intimate relationship” between the countries—were stymied by cardamom farmers, who in turn feared a boycott from their major market, Arab countries.)

But there’s a darker side to the friendship, particularly during the bloody chapter of Guatemala’s civil war. When human-rights abuses led the Carter Administration to cease military aid to Guatemala in 1977, Israel filled the vacuum. By 1983, the New York Times was reporting that Israel was not only acting as a surrogate for the United States (in a similar fashion to its actions in Nicaragua) but also working to oppose the Soviet Union and grow the market for Israeli arms. The cooperation didn’t just involve UZIs and hand grenades; it also included providing intelligence and operational training, both in Israel and in Guatemala, to the right-wing government.

“The Israeli soldier is the model for our soldiers,” proclaimed the chief of staff of the Guatemalan army announced. In 1982, Efraín Ríos Montt—the country’s first evangelical president and a general whose military regime was installed by a coup—told ABC News that his success was due to the fact that “our soldiers were trained by Israelis.”

As it happened, while I was in Guatemala last month, Ríos Montt was finally indicted on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide, after decades of efforts by human-rights activists who cited massacres, torture, and rape against indigenous people accused of supporting the guerrillas. A United Nations truth commission also called it genocide, finding that the many Mayans among the 200,000 people killed in that era were targeted by the state.

There wasn’t much outcry in Israel at the time, though much of these activities weren’t secret. Yossi Sarid protested on the floor of the Knesset that the country had “abandoned the green route of agriculture for the red and bloody route of arms,” according to a 1985 Mother Jones article on the export of “bithonism”—the high church of Israeli security—to Latin America. Likud member Yigal Hurwitz replied, “Your speeches, Yossi, are not saleable on the foreign market; weaponry we can sell.” Indeed, as even Sarid conceded to the magazine’s Victor Perera: “You have to understand: survival too is an ethical issue.”

Whatever diplomatic points were scored with the regime, the Israeli link wasn’t lost on the average Guatemalan. At a cemetery in Chichicastenango, relatives of a man killed by the military told Perera, “In church they tell us that divine justice is on the side of the poor; but the fact of the matter is, it is the military who get the Israeli guns.”

Ríos Montt’s indictment is not the only indication that this isn’t ancient history in latter-day Guatemala.The country just elected its first military president since its civil war ended, Otto Pérez Molina, who was a commander during the Ríos Montt regime. Pérez Molina’s win was widely seen as a vote for remilitarization in response to persistent violent crime and impunity, these days mostly perpetrated by gangs and narcotraffickers. By the time I arrived in Guatemala, only weeks into the Pérez Molina regime, the military was back on the streets performing security functions that had once been the domain of civil police, to the great concern of human rights defenders. It doesn’t take a tremendous leap to imagine how those warm Israeli relations are already coming in handy. Meanwhile, last month, Guatemala took a spot on the United Nations Security Council and is considered a reliable vote against Palestinian bids for recognition there, also due to its currying of U.S. influence in an attempt to get that military aid restored. Friendship has its benefits.

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Jacobo Cifuentes says:

As a student if the “Instituto Guatemalteco Israeli” I fell that’s the reason why Guatemala is blessed. And of course we have a lot of problems in security, economics, narcotrafic, but? Who does not? In my Guatemala we are blessed with such a nice weather, our landings are beatiful, you can have a meal with only $3. Yes i belive that we are blessed because we have a close relantionship with Israel. Yesterday i read in our local paper that Perez Molina, our president, said : ” that is the matter of creating of creating a Palestine State goes to votation of the Security Consergie of the ONU, he will support in a 100% to Israel to define their frontiers”. We know what Israel means to the world and to our lives. Regards, Jacobo.

Deborah says:

Irin, it is a pity that Tablet has chosen this article to highlight the close ties between Guatemala and Israel. Israel has provided much more than Uzis to Guatemala. For example, Israelis have brought a lot of agricultural expertise to Guatemala, and many Guatemalans have a very positive view of Israel. During the aftermath of the destructive 1976 earthquake, Israelis help rebuild bridges, etc. That is leaving aside the fact that religious Guatemalan Christians often look forward to a trip to the Holy Land. And as many people ignorant of the causes of the civil war in Guatemala, you choose to focus only on the “bad” military. You completely gloss over the violence and killing the guerillas wrought on their own people. I suggest you do a bit more research before publishing an article such as this.

I think Guatemalans admire Israel and hope for their safety and freedom. We dislike war, for we know it is traumatic to all. We also hope for the safety, freedom and dignity of the Palestinian people. We are grateful to Israel for helping our country remain free and somewhat stable and prosperous. We recognize Israel has a right to exist and has the right to defend itself against terrorism and other enemies. I think most Arabs are peaceful and wish the same for all but a small group of fanatics seems to want to start hostilities against Israel and then complain when they get bombed. I believe in the bible and it says that those who fight against Israel will not prevail. Only at the very end of the world, there will be a possibility for Israel’s enemies to succeed but even then, the God of all armies will himself come down from Heaven to defend his chosen people. Palestinians still deserve to have a place of their own and the middle east is a very big place and not very populated in comparison to other areas such as India, Africa, China, even Guatemala and El Salvador. I don’t understand why they want Jerusalem for themselves, they didn’t want it a long time ago, only after the Muslim faith started. As descendants of Abraham through Ishmael, Palestinians also have a share of the inheritance but why do they want to destroy Israel of take Jerusalem all just for them without respecting Israel eternal claim to Jerusalem as their capital and for their land to be safe and secure from foreign invaders??? I do believe that the countries that help Israel will be blessed, that is the reason the US is blessed even when challenges and problems such as recessions and natural disasters they are still the most free, beautiful, rich in resources and full of opportunity country in the world. Also Guatemala is one of the most beautiful, full of resources, happy, spiritual, countries with great potential and hope for the future among many. I believe this is because of their support for Israel as well as because they are a very Christian, faithful and loving people. In spite of the many natural and man caused challenges.

Long live beautiful Guatemala, Long live Beautiful Israel, Long live the United States of America that each nation claim victory over and against all tyrannic leaders and terrorist.

Israel is a terrorist state.

Anna says:

Thank you Irin for a balanced article on a very sad history. The scale and horror of the devasation in Guatemala is only now beginning to be understood. Rape, torture, killing of infants, a spree of cruelty comparable to the Einsatzkommandos in Easter Europe – see Christopher Browning’s book, ‘Ordinary Men’.

It is very sad that Israel should have supported this through arms and intelligence training. Of course many people, perhaps most, in Israel knew very little about it. But now the facts are known, perhaps Israel too, like the US, should apologize for its role in this. And what a wonderful man Yossi Sarid was. I read about him years ago. I believe he was a Holocaust survivor. Such are the few righteous men on which the world depends.
Please Israel, do not let this happen again.

M. Robateau says:

The article mentions a “British imposed border” as if it is simply a matter of removing that British border and everyone will be happy. That border is there because Belize and Guatemala are two separate and distinct country and people with very different histories and ideas about how to govern. The people of Belize have as much right to their land and their country as does Guatemalans and Israelis, I might add. Israel unexamined support for Guatemala’s claim to Belize could have become, save for the British, another dark aspect of its relationship with Guatemala.

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Guatemala and Israel have historically shared a warm, if sometimes dark, relationship—and it is one that is bearing new fruit today

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