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What Business in Guatemala?

By Robert Parry
June 15, 2001

George W. Bush’s maiden trip abroad as U.S. president brought some new attention to the earlier mystery of how extensive was his overseas experience. Over the past year, Bush’s aides have given out fragments of information, including the assertion that Bush conducted unspecified business in Guatemala in the past.

Immediately prior to his current European trip, Bush’s aides said he had traveled to Europe before, mostly to Great Britain with a 1990 add-on trip down to Spain and Portugal. The aides said Bush had visited Paris, too, though they wouldn’t give U.S. news organizations a date.

The confusion over Bush's travels began during last year’s campaign when aides told The New York Times about three overseas trips: a visit to China when his father was U.S. envoy in 1975, a trip as Texas governor to the Middle East (with a stopover in Italy), and a ceremonial visit to the African country of Gambia. [NYT, Oct. 29-30, 2000]

That account was followed by some clarifications and more locales to bolster Bush's image as a more seasoned world traveler. In mid-December, spokesman Gordon Johndroe released a list claiming that Bush had been outside the United States “more than a dozen times,” counting “many, many” visits to Mexico and Canada.

The overseas trips included France on vacation; Bermuda on vacation; Italy with his family (presumably en route to the Middle East); Israel and Egypt with the National Governor’s Association; Gambia with a delegation during his father’s presidency; England and Scotland; and China to visit his father, with a stopover in Japan on the return flight. [See, Dec. 17, 2000]


But perhaps Johndroe's most provocative addition to Bush’s travel itinerary was the claim that Bush also had traveled to Guatemala on business.

Bush’s aides offered no clarification of this entry and there’s no indication that the Washington press corps pressed very hard, if at all, for additional details. Bush’s biographies also shed little light on exactly what his business in Guatemala might have entailed.

A brief reference appeared in Bill Minutaglio's First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty about a job that had been arranged for Bush in the early 1970s that involved horticultural operations in the United States and Central America. One executive, Peter Knudtzon, said he traveled with Bush to Orlando to check on a nursery and had gone with him on an excursion to Guatemala.

It is not clear how long Bush might have stayed in Guatemala or if that one trip was the extent of Bush's travel to that country, which has been the scene of massive human rights violations over the past half century. It's also unclear what impression Bush might have had of a country undergoing widespread political repression. 

In 1999, a Guatemalan truth commission, which had received historical records from the Clinton administration, concluded that about 200,000 people were killed in the political violence that dated back to a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954.

Though repression became a routine fact of Guatemalan life, some of the worst bloodletting occurred during the 1980s. Then, the Reagan-Bush administration backed a right-wing military dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, who was blamed for massacres in 626 Mayan Indian villages in a butchery judged “genocide” by the commission.

While that slaughter was going on, President Reagan lifted a Carter administration embargo on military supplies to Guatemala and defended the Rios Montt regime as having gotten “a bum rap” from human rights groups.

Though the historical documents released by President Clinton made clear that the CIA knew differently – and indeed was monitoring the human rights calamity – it is still unclear exactly what Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and their top aides knew about the slaughter as it was occurring.

It is clear, however, that with the public-relations help of the Reagan-Bush administration, the genocide went on unchecked.

Records Delay

Since taking office in January, the new Bush administration has moved to block release of historical records covering deliberations of the Reagan-Bush administration.

Those records of policy debates inside Reagan’s White House were scheduled for release on Jan. 21. But George W. Bush immediately authorized delays so the documents could be reviewed and some material possibly withheld from public scrutiny on national security or other grounds. It is still not clear when that document release will occur.

Beyond what light those documents might shed on the Reagan-Bush administration’s level of knowledge about the genocide in Guatemala, George W. Bush might expect some questions about what he was doing in that troubled land and what his impressions were.

Did his experience lead to any special concern about the Guatemalan tragedy when his father was vice president? Did his time in Guatemala lead to any insights into economic and political conditions in the Third World?

There are other better-known gaps in Bush’s record, such as his whereabouts during the Vietnam War when he seems to have not shown up for required National Guard duty. As for that period and for Bush's Guatemalan sojourn, it seems reasonable for reporters to ask the new president for some details to flesh out his sketchy life history.

Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s.

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