Saturday, June 20, 2009

The world was watching

This is part three of a series. Parts one and two are linked.

30 years ago today it was an outwardly quiet day on the streets of Guatemala City. I had gone into the city for my morning class at the Instituto Guatemalteco Americano and had come back to my Guatemalan family's house for a typical lunch -- frijoles negros (served at every meal, even breakfast), fish and fruit. The conversation at the table, which was often muted at best, was almost funereal. I didn't understand everything they were saying, but I sensed something bad had happened in Nicaragua. It had.

The word had already reached Guatemala that a Nicaraguan soldier had stopped an ABC News reporter, Jim Stewart, at a checkpoint and killed him. Here is how Time magazine described the scene:

Arriving at a national guard outpost in northeast Managua, the heart of the fighting last week in strife-racked Nicaragua, ABC Correspondent Bill Stewart sensed it would be safer to approach on foot. Though his van was emblazoned with FOREIGN PRESS signs, he did not want to do anything that might spook the government troops. In one hand Stewart carried his government-issue press pass; in the other, he held a white flag. His interpreter walked several yards ahead, explaining that they meant no harm.

One of the soldiers raised his rifle, and Stewart dropped to his knees. The guardsman motioned to him to lie down and kicked him sharply in the side. Then the soldier stepped back a few paces and calmly took aim, and shot the correspondent behind the right ear, killing him. Out of sight near by, Interpreter Juan Francisco Espinoza was also murdered. The grisly episode was filmed from the back of the van by ABC Soundman Jim Cefalo and Cameraman Jack Clark, who were not molested.

That evening, Stewart's assassination flickered across millions of U.S. television screens, shocking viewers and touching off a series of official condemnations in Washington.

As we watched the evening news on Canal 3, I saw the footage myself. I knew it was happening hundreds of miles away, but I also knew that my parents would be terrified by what they saw. I asked the father if I could make a call home to tell my parents I was all right. He thought that would be okay, but suggested that I wait until after dinner, which would be served in a half-hour. Five minutes later, the phone rang.

It was my mother. She had seen the film. Everyone had seen the film. Although Bill Stewart worked for ABC, all the networks had the footage and Uncle Walter Cronkite had told her all about it. I assured her that I was safe, hundreds of miles away from the fighting, and that the Sandinistas weren't in Guatemala City. I wasn't convinced that she was convinced I was safe, but she knew that I would be home in a month.

The next day, as the father drove me back to the IGA for more lessons, I noticed that there were a lot of soldiers on the Avenida de la Reforma. Dozens, in fact, all heavily armed. The father explained to me that the presence of soliders on the streets meant that we were safe. This time, I tried very hard to be convinced.


Anonymous said...

BTW, I am thoroughly enjoying your Guatemala series. I remember watching that footage repeatedly in the days following the murder of Stewart. What most of us didn't realize at the time was that this homicidal act was the beginning of the end for the Samoza regime. When all you have left in your bag of tricks is the ability to brutally suppress the flow of information, your time is up. I also can't help but draw a couple of parallels between your stories, and events unraveling right now.


my name is Amanda said...

Wow, I don't think I knew that happened (or if learned, not retained). How sad.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't there another Revolution going on in 1979 somewhere on the other side of the world? Here's to hoping that we will be witnessing its denouement soon.


Mark Heuring said...


I'm not surprised you didn't know about this, because after Somoza fell (about which I'll probably have something to say later in this series), the Sandinistas became the story, and a big one. The scandal that beset Reagan's second term tied the events in Nicaragua to what was going on in Iran, ironically enough.

And Rich, you are right -- it was 1979 when all the stuff went down in Iran. It was a hell of a year.

Gino said...


you were in guatemala, so i dont know why you'd be worried about upheaval in another country.

i'm with rich: i think the time for the mullahs is up.

but, if smart, they might offer some reforms, a new election, but still retain power in a more moderate manner.

it was excessive secularism that led to the previous revolution, so i think we need to keep in mind that persians love their islam, and want to keep it front/center, just not so strict, maybe.

and happy father's day.

Mark Heuring said...


I can tell you why I was maybe a little worried. There was a low-level civil war going on in Guatemala, too. I'm getting to that part.

A little bit about the history involved: just as the CIA intervened in 1953 in Iran, they intervened in Guatemala around the same time and upended the regime of Jacobo Arbenz, who was a leftist, perhaps Marxist, who had been elected. That never sat well in certain parts of Guatemala and the result of the CIA's intervention was a series of military dictators.

The leadership in Guatemala in 1979 had much reason to fear Sandismo.

As far as Iran, who knows. I hope the mullahs' time is up. And while Iran is a Muslim country, it has a much stronger secular history than some others. The most important mullah right now might be Sistani, who is in Iraq.

Mark Heuring said...

And happy Father's Day to you, Gino. And to you, Rich!