Yesterday the former dictator of Guatemala, Efrain Montt, was convicted of 80 years in prison for Genocide. The sentence is, in a sense symbolic considering that Mr. Montt is now 86 years old and very unlikely to survive any significant time in prison. But the sentence is interesting at least because it is one of the very few examples in which a nation is actually trying to come to grips with its fascist past. The sad fact is that Guatemala has seen a string of dictators and brutal militarists (the current president was an military officer under the Montt regime). Central America (and Latin America in general) is awash with former dictators and political murderers, almost none of which have been brought to justice. In 1954 the CIA orchestrated a coup in Guatemala and in 1973 they orchestrated another in Chili. But few (and certainly no one in the US) has ever been properly brought to account for these events. The sad truth is that Montt is a drop in the bucket.
As the years have past I have come to realize that, for the most part, nations really don't really want to come to terms with their past. Nations (and nationalists) want to wave flags and sing anthems and are very good at ignoring the negative aspects of their country's past. I was shocked with I visited Spain with my partner (who was born and raised there) and realized that not only was it a country that had not come to terms with the fascism of the Franco but the country is full of young people who think he was a pretty good guy. If good ol' George Santayana was right, then counties that fail to come to grips with their past are in real danger of slipping back into the fascism that their country once embraced.
I grew up amid the Watergate scandal and as I have gotten older I have been amazed at the way that people in the US have gradually rebuilt the public image of Richard Nixon. Now, as countries go, the US is surely one of the most rabidly nationalistic and as a result even the so-called left in the US is not eager to keep the memories of Nixon's crimes in the public mind because they feel that it hurts the nation in general. A couple of nations (including South Africa and El Salvador) have used national reconciliation commissions in an attempt to come to grips with their past while avoiding the logistical mess of bringing potentially tens of thousands of people to justice. But it seems almost that, as a general rule, countries want to ignore the anti-democratic, brutal, dictatorial elements in their past. And in many cases they are inclined to even vocal defend such misdeeds. (I think that there is little question that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney could, and should, have been brought up on charges of crime against humanity be we all knew that wouldn't happen.) It is not just that the victors write history but nationalists and so-called patriots simply don't want the "wrong" kind of history written.
And the saddest part of all is that Montt, his supporters (and his ilk elsewhere) actually believe that their crimes against humanity were not crimes in the first place, but that their deeds were harsh but necessary.
This brings us to our own dear leader. As far as I am concerned, Stephen Harper is a criminal. He has actively contravened the constitution, he has operated through electoral fraud, he has attempted to dismantle our democratic institutions, he is destroying the environment in ways that will be a terrible burden on future generations, and he has poisoned the political discourse in Canada to a degree from which it may never recover. But despite the fact that Harper makes the previous Liberal government (which he never tires of condemning) like a bunch of honest and honourable public servants, a good swath of Harper supporters believe that ANYTHING Harper does is justifiable and continue to hold to the untenable postion that he is an excellent Prime Minister.
I have no sympathy for a brute like Efrain Montt. But the truth is that this 86 year old man is little more than a scapegoat, a meaningless symbol for people to hold on to as though dictators and brutes really are held responsible for their murderous and anti-democratic past. As a general rule they aren't and perhaps never will be.