By Lorne Matalon
Guatemala’s President Álvaro Colom still recalls his reaction upon hearing the news that hundreds of Guatemalans were infected with syphilis without their consent. “I was indignant,” says Colom, “A vulnerable population wasn’t asked but was lied to about the experiment. It bothers me.”
Colom initially considered taking the case to an international court, but now he says he’s waiting until a Commission of Inquiry headed by Guatemala’s Vice President makes recommendations on compensation.
That will take months and others don’t want to wait. “It is complete outrage. People are amazed the US was able to do that and they’re also amazed there were Guatemalans who helped them,” says investigative reporter Dina Fernandez. She says waves of anger are rippling through the country as calls for compensation intensify.
Guatemala’s Attorney General says 3 victims may still be alive, but it’s unlikely descendants of others will ever be identified. What particularly grates people here is that Guatemalans were infected beginning in 1946, the same year the Nuremburg trials tried Nazi doctors who experimented on concentration camp prisoners.
Fernandez concedes Nazi experiments took place on a far larger scale. But she says experiments here were no different in terms of abusing defenceless human beings. “This is so big that that I don’t think the Guatemalan government, the Guatemalan people should accept an apology, just a phone call from a president saying, ‘Oh. I’m sorry we did this.’”
Some Guatemalans think compensation could come in some form other than payments to survivors and their families. Gonzalo Marroquín heads Prensa Libre, the country’s largest daily. He says there are many ways that Guatemalans could be compensated. “Through medical research, for instance, or through support for our health system that’s very weak. Also Guatemala has nearly a million and a half immigrants in the U-S. Many have been deported. The U-S could be more flexible with Guatemalans there to compensate for the damage caused.”
Carlos Mejia heads Guatemala’s College of Physicians and he’s a member of the Commission of Inquiry. He says he has documents about the experiments in Guatemala.” Although, records culled from a trove of information from the U-S don’t identify victims, Mejia says they all had something in common; they came from the fringes of society. “Marginalized people here in Guatemala were used in experiments at the very same time the Nuremberg trials resulted in a code of ethics,” he says, “that said no one can be used in medical research without giving informed consent.”
The American doctor who led the experiments was John Cutler, a former assistant Surgeon General. Cutler also played a major role in the Tuskegee Experiment in Alabama when black American sharecroppers with syphilis were deliberately left untreated to see how the disease progressed. Untreated, syphilis can cause blindness, dementia, extreme pain and death. Near the end of his life, Cutler defended his work.
But here in Guatemala, people are not inclined to forgive him. Nor are they inclined to accept President Barack Obama’s apology without demanding some form of compensation. Download MP3