Image Brokering: PR Firm Hired to Put Spin on Human Rights in Guatemala

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (July 1995)

“A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilizations.” – Jorge Videla, President of Argentina 1976

Earlier this year we were given some information in the corporate media about the CIA involvement in human rights abuses in Guatemala. Several weeks later Guatemala has again fallen into the abyss of International coverage of the BIG Press. This is in spite of the fact that human rights abuses continue, impressive land occupations are occurring and that the country is gearing up for presidential elections in the fall. Because of the corporate media’s blatant omissions one gets the impression that things are just peachy in Guatemala. Unfortunately for citizens of Guatemala and the US the Guatemalan military is not taking any chances on the world’s perception that things are getting any better.

In May, Washington PR firm R. Thompson & Co. was hired for “$420,000 to conduct a six-month public relations effort,” according to a May 15 issue of CounterPunch. “The funds will allegedly improve lines of communication in the US so the government’s story and the truth are fully explained, said a letter from the firm to Defense Minister Gen. Mario Enriquez.” Enriquez initially said the money that was being provided to the PR firm was from “private companies”. He later admitted that the companies are all owned by the Guatemalan military. The firm of R. Thompson & Co. plans to arrange visits to Guatemala by US government officials. Outrageous you say? Well this is not the first time that Guatemala has had help in its attempt to cover up what Americas Watch called “Guatemala’s systematic campaign of terror and human rights abuses.”

In 1979, when the Lucas Garcia regime was implementing its counterinsurgency war against the civilian population, they hired the Hannaford Company to influence some within the US government and the corporate media’s view of what was going on at the time. (see Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media, by Joyce Nelson, pg. 40) All throughout the 1980’s and even the early part of the 1990’s Guatemala continued to hire PR firms to bolster their image, especially in the US.

According to a study done by the Center for Public Integrity named The Torturers’ Lobby, during 1991 alone several elements within Guatemala had hired 5 different PR groups to lobby for them in Washington. (Patton, Boggs, and Blow; Schuette & Associates Intl.; Schuette & Associates; Reichler & Soble; and MWW Strategic Communications) These 5 PR firms received a combined amount of $475,000 from military and non-military sources in Guatemala. This PR lobbying was an attempt to reactivate the $2 million of military aid that was suspended by the US government, even though both Americas Watch and Physicians for Human Rights sharply criticized the Guatemala government that year in a report entitled Guatemala Getting Away With Murder. The report said: “Government forces continue to commit torture, murder, and disappearances with impunity.” Now with the help of R. Thompson & Co., an old hand at congressional lobbying, the Guatemalan military hopes to regain its good favor with Washington.

In 1991-92 R. Thompson & Co. was also hired by the Republic of Turkey for $400,000 to put a spin on their international image. Here the stakes were higher, since the potential US foreign aid was listed at $804 million for fiscal 1991. Robert Thompson, who knows his way around Washington, (he was Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs in the Reagan administration) called upon some of his old pals who were questioning the integrity of Turkey. The PR firm lobbied several influential members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Michigan Democrat Carl Levin. The aid eventually went through even though a 1992 Amnesty International report entitled Turkey: Torture, Extrajudicial Executions, Disappearances, said that “no practical or legislative steps had been taken and the already large volume of credible torture allegations had, if anything, increased.” The report added: “Systematic practice of torture continues throughout Turkey.”

If the PR firms have their way we will all believe, as the tourist industry has many believing, that Guatemala is a paradise. Don’t believe the hype. More importantly don’t let Congress believe it when they receive slick material from R. Thompson & Co. showering praises on the government of Guatemala for “embracing democracy”. Unlike what the Sprite commercial says, in this case, image is everything, death is nothing, the policy makers obey the image brokers.