Thursday, February 19, 2009

Colom Apologizes for Guatemala's Participation in Bay of Pigs

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom apologized to Cuba on Tuesday for his country's having allowed the CIA to train exiles in the Central American country for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

"Today I want to ask Cuba's forgiveness for having offered our country, our territory, to prepare an invasion of Cuba," Colom said during a speech at the University of Havana. "It wasn't us, but it was our territory."

He added that he wished to apologize "as president and head of state, and as commander in chief of the Guatemalan army."

About 1,500 Cuban exiles trained under CIA guidance in Guatemala before invading the island beginning April 17, 1961, in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's communist government.

The invasion ended in less than three days, with about 100 invaders killed and more than 1,000 captured by Cuban forces.

Colom, whose government is considered center-leftist, said he was asking Cuba's forgiveness as "a sign of solidarity and that times are changing," and to "reaffirm my idea that Latin America is changing."

At the height of the Cold War, the Guatemalan military government of Miguel Ramon Ydigoras Fuentes allowed the CIA to train an exile force in the rural province of Retalhuleu. Known as the 2506 Brigade and comprising mostly Miami-area Cuban exiles, the group was determined to overthrow Castro's government.

Colom said Tuesday that "Cuba deserves its own destiny, a destiny that you all built with this revolution of 50 years."

"Defend it," he said, referring to the guerrilla uprising that brought Castro to power on Jan. 1, 1959. "Defend it like you have always done."

Colom's comments drew sustained applause from his Cuban audience.

Like some Cubans, some Guatemalans harbor a deep resentment toward the United States for past violence. The CIA helped topple the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and Washington backed a series of hardline military and civilian governments during that country's 36-year civil war, in which 200,000 Guatemalans died or disappeared before peace accords were signed in December 1996.

During a visit to Guatemala in March 1999, President Bill Clinton said any U.S. support given to military forces or intelligence units that engaged in "violent and widespread repression" was wrong. "And the United States must not repeat that mistake."

The Guatemalan president's was the latest in a series of recent visits to Havana by regional leaders, including Panama's Martin Torrijos and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

Fidel Castro, who ceded power to his younger brother Raul about a year ago, met with two other visiting Latin American presidents, Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and Chile's Michelle Bachelet.

Funds Sent to Guatemala by Immigrants Drops

The economic crisis in the U.S. has resulted in a decline in funds sent by Guatemalan immigrants in the U.S. to their families in Guatemala. That, plus the mass deportations have begun to have a negative effect on Guatemalan villages whose welfare depends almost exclusively on this revenue. That revenue could fall by 3.5 percent this year according to preliminary estimates from the Banco de Guatemala.

In 2008, 1.3 million Guatemalans living in the United States sent over U.S. $4 billion in remittances, which were invested by their families in housing construction and the opening of businesses.

Last year 27,875 Guatemalans were deported from U.S. territory. The impact of these evictions and the economic crisis and unemployment in the U.S. is being felt in Guatemalan communities.

In some communities, remittances from the United States has dropped 75 percent causing enormous hardship. For a family accustomed to receiving $400 a month from a relative in the United States, a drop to $100 a month is disastrous. Some have barely enough for food and clothing. In some communities abandoned buildings and half-finished constructon projects are clearly in evidence. The drop in construction activity also throws construction workers out of work and causes a ripple effect, hurting businesses that supply building materials.

According to economists, if the depression in the United States is a deep one it will have a strong negative effect on remittances sent to Guatemala.