‘I Witnessed the U.S. Syphilis Experiments’: Prensa Libre of Guatemala
Posting articles like these is no pleasure. But part of the practice of journalism is to alert the public to things they might not want to see or hear, and which, in our judgment as journalists, they ought to see or hear. Global reaction to how the United States government intentionally infected unknowing Guatemalans and perhaps even American troops – is one such occasion.
According to the first article from Prensa Libre headlined I Witnessed the U.S. Syphilis Experiments, which is written in a very conversational style by a man who claims to have assisted with the experiments, doctors and scientists of the U.S. Public Health Service may have been experimenting on American troops as well as Guatemalans, and all apparently with the complete cooperation of Guatemalan health authorities.
For Prensa Libre, Santiago Villanueva Gudiel, a former Guatemala Public Health Service employee, writes in small part:
I, from 1947 to 1951, was an eyewitness and active participant in the issue of venereal disease now being brought to the attention of the Guatemalan public, since our office was in charge of the provisioning office located the basement of the Department of Health, under the direction of Dr. Luis Fernando Galich Lopez. Thus we and many of the health office staff witnessed this – as people working for the well-being of Guatemala.
Naturally, the American troops squandered their money by frequenting naive young women and prostitutes infected with STDs, and thus with great frequency contracted venereal disease. But they had their own hospitals. We never saw, nor would it have been possible to tell them, that a U.S. doctor had come to our hospital to intentionally infect the women.
The second article from Brazil’s Folha by science columnist Marcelo Leite, headlined The Moral of the U.S. Syphilis Experiments in Guatemala starts out with a taste of the scientifically detached – and given the circumstances one might say cold-blooded – language in the research by American scientists. Leite then offers a ‘moral’ of the tale to Brazilians – who themselves, according to Leite, also have a lot to answer for when it comes to shameful national crimes against the innocent.
For Folha, columnist Marcelo Leite writes in small part:
I don’t write about this to demonize the Americans, although it’s always useful to qualify our admiration for the high standards of biomedical research bodies in the U.S. I do it to put my finger on a more painful wound, which appears to have scarred over, but which hides an abscess that remains untouched: the long history of evil, or the unsettling fact that moral and ethical standards vary over time.
After all, despite the discomfort of the writer, there were more than a few people in that decade who would perhaps have considered the harmful research on people who are “objectively” inferior as legitimate, such as those – prostitutes, the insane and criminals, and above all, in a Banana Republic.
Fortunately, we have evolved. Exposure to such horrors as concentration camps, or the Soviet Gulag, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or the mere sight of instruments used to punish fleeing slaves in Brazil (to say nothing of the killing of Indians in western Sao Paulo in the 20th century), almost inevitably led to a widening circle of morality. Beings that were inferior before – Blacks, women, murderers, fetuses, Indians, foreigners, children, adulterers, and perhaps even animals – have acquired rights and dignity.
The lesson I draw from this little story is that there is no great index for morality. We tend to consider our own convictions as the most universal and valid, but they, too, always end up changing. Just give it time.
For now, we have to content ourselves with the fact that experiments like Tuskegee, Guatemala or Auschwitz are already seen as obviously criminal and disgraceful. It is one more step – but it is far from the last.
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