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A Footnote to History

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The recent death of Francisco Villagran Kramer in Guatemala was reported in the New York Times on the back page. It was not considered major news outside his country. But to me, as a journalist at the time reporting on the bizarre and bloody politics of his country traceable to the ruling military junta that Villagran served as vice-president, it was.

International human rights organizations thoroughly misunderstood his motive and in 1997, they helped to block an appointment he so wanted as a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He actually was a distinguished citizen and a lawyer, not a general. He truly was hopeful that his presence inside the government would serve as a brake on those who denied Guatemala the democracy he cherished. He failed though for many years.he served his country with distinction, helping to defend the rights of the working class population.

The atmosphere in his otherwise beautiful country was overshadowed by the violence that characterized the nature of life under most dictatorships in Central America. As a freelance columnist for a political newsletter, I accepted an invitation to visit the country from an organization in Guatemala identified as the Freedom Forum. A public relations agency, representing it in Los Angeles, Deaver and Hannaford, arranged for the press tour. Its major work was in behalf of Governor Ronald Reagan. Believing that Reagan was a likely victor over President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 U.S. election, I wanted to determine the likelihood of American foreign policy toward Guatemala and other military regimes in Latin America.

It did not take long to confirm my suspicion. Our hosts met us in Guatemala City at the airport dining room, all wearing political lapel buttons that read: DOWN WITH JIMMY CASTRO!, an intentional dig at Reagan's target, President Jimmy Carter. The next evening, four blocks from the hotel, six civilians known to be critics of the military junta were murdered in cold blood. The following morning, a schoolteacher, who was a member of a labor union, was shot down, walking to her automobile. Both of her breasts were cut off. The president of Francisco Marroquin University drove me and a half dozen other American reporters to his campus in an armored vehicle preceded by a sapper squad, checking for potential land mines in its path. Inside the wagon, accompanying us, were four armed men with sub-machine guns.

It did not take long to get the idea of the atmosphere that engulfed us. Paranoia about a threat from Communists was rampant.

Later that afternoon, we were tipped off about a protest rally by the student union at San Carlos University. It was interrupted by what appeared were two policemen who made no secret of their identity. Several students were shot by the armed men who were seized by the angry students. One was lynched, and the other doused with gasoline and set on fire. The wounded students were rushed to a nearby hospital that soon after was torched by a group of soldiers.

That brought me to the home of Vice-President Villagran who had recently taken a leave of absence from his vice-presidency. Coincidentally, he was living under self-imposed house arrest in a home adjoining the hospital, angered as he was by the mounting violence toward critics of the junta. Coincidentally, I was tipped off by a group of students who told me Villagran occupied an adjoining home.

I walked over and rang the doorbell and shortly thereafter, a maid appeared at the door with Villagran, a distinguished man in his late 40s. I identified myself and showed him my passport. I explained that I was an American journalist and would like to interview him. He smiled and said in good English that "this is not the appropriate time." But he indicated that if he had a telephone number, he would call me some day soon, almost as if he knew a time would come. I gave him a card and left..

Several months later, I received a surprise telephone call in Los Angeles from a woman in suburban Virginia who identified herself as Maria Eugenia Villagran. She said her father had been secreted out of Guatemala by friendly National Guardsmen, that her father had my phone number and would like to talk to me, because he had promised me some day that would happen. Villagran and I had a friendly conversation over the phone. I recalled that since our last brief meeting, Reagan had been elected as the next U.S. president and I wondered how the Guatemalan junta would react with a fellow conservative in the White House. Villagran laughed. "Sr. Fromson, the difference is that in your country, conservatives are reasonable men. In ours, they are cavemen."

The following afternoon, he held a news conference in Washington D.C. to announce his resignation as vice president.of Guatemala.

Villagran died at the age of 84 last Tuesday. His son was the former Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, and his daughter is the president of the Supreme Electoral College.

(My article, describing some of the central figures likely to emerge in a Reagan Administration, predicted how they might influence a hard line policy in Latin America. Editors of California commissioned my report, but then decided against publishing it and remunerated me with a "kill" fee after an internal debate over how it might be regarded by incoming members of a new leadership.)