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.