04/17/2012 02:12 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2012

The U.S.'s Tragic Role in Guatemala and a Chance to Make Amends

One would think that the U.S. had it in for Guatemala and its people. As most know, the U.S. was behind a coup in 1954 that brought down the democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz. The U.S. then installed a military dictatorship that, with U.S. support, lasted through the 1980s. With lethal assistance from the U.S., that military regime killed around 200,000 civilians.

If that were not bad enough, it has recently been revealed that from 1946 through at least 1953, the U.S. "Public Health Service" (hereinafter, "PHS") engaged in the systematic and deadly experimentation upon thousands of Guatemalans without their knowledge or consent. As a 2011 Report by the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues confirmed, the PHS conducted highly invasive medical tests on Guatemalan citizens drawn from penitentiaries, the national orphanage, state-run schools and rural communities, the military, a leprosarium, a mental institution, and hired commercial sex workers as a means to spread infection. In order to gain access to such vulnerable people, the U.S. researchers bribed Guatemalan institutions with essential supplies such as epilepsy medication for the mental asylum and malaria medication for the orphanage. The experimentation the PHS performed on these people included the following: deliberately infecting them with syphilis by scraping samples of infected pus and placing it on their genitalia or in their eyes; transferring gonorrhea from infected subjects to non-infected subjects; failing to provide treatment for contracted diseases; and various other medical procedures such as drawing blood and lumbar punctures to obtain cerebral fluid.

For a moving video about these horrifying experiments and how you can help, please click here.

The 2011 Presidential Bioethics Commission Report confirmed that the members of the U.S. medical team knew they were violating the rights of vulnerable populations in Guatemala and concluded that the experiments were a "reprehensible exploitation of our fellow human beings." President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius have publicly apologized for these crimes, which they described as "abhorrent research practices." Yet, as the Washington Post decried in a January 13, 2012 editorial, the U.S. government has failed to provide any compensation to those it harmed.

Far from compensating the victims and their families, the U.S. government, through the Justice Department, recently filed motions asking the court to dismiss the class action lawsuit of Garcia, et al. v. Sebelius, et al. -- a case brought in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by the Guatemalan victims asking for a fair remedy. As the Washington Post explained in its editorial piece calling for the U.S. to compensate the victims and their families:

A class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of eight individuals who claim to have been victims, spouses or descendants of victims, has been wending its way through the federal courts in the District. On Jan. 9, the Justice Department made a strong and potentially winning argument that the suit should be thrown out on technical [sovereign immunity] grounds. A victory in the legal arena does not absolve the U.S. government from its moral responsibility. Moreover, it should not take a lawsuit to prompt the government to do the right thing.

In a February 14, 2012 letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, scores of individuals and organizations (such as the AFL-CIO, Center for Constitutional Rights, CWA, Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, the National Lawyers Guild, the SEIU and the Washington Office on Latin America) implored the U.S. government to withdraw its motion to dismiss the Garcia v. Sebilius case, and to "seek a fair and amicable settement" with the victims of these grisly experiments. Bioethicists also agree that individual victims deserve a remedy for the harm they individually suffered.

If you find the U.S. response as appalling as the Washington Post and the signatories of the foregoing letter and want to add your voice to the call for just compensation of the Guatemalan victims, you can by signing the petition.