"Glorious Victory," by Diego Rivera. Recounts the 1954 CIA coup against the democratically elected government of Guatemala.

Guatemala Syphilis Experiments, Another Crime Against Humanity by the U.S.

-by Antonio Moreno and Terryn Shit Up

Recent news has brought to light another example of the heinous treatment inflicted on the peoples of the world by imperialism.  The Tuskegee experiments, a 40 year old officially-condoned “study” during which over 600 Black men with syphilis were tracked by U.S. health officials, is well known. These men were never given adequate treatment, even though penicillin was available. It is now apparent that similar inhumane experiments were inflicted on the peoples of Guatemala as well. These experiments were funded by the US government.  The people in Guatamala were purposefully inoculated with syphilis and other diseases and were offered less-than-standard treatment.  This is just one of many incidents of unethical medical experiments done against oppressed peoples by U.S. imperialism.

In June 2011 the Guardian(UK) published accounts of survivors of the forced inoculations in Guatemala.  One survivor is a 74 year old woman now.  She was a 9 year old orphan when she was forcibly inoculated with syphilis in 1946 by U.S. doctors.  Orphans, along with prisoners, prostitutes, and conscripted soldiers, were purposefully infected with syphilis and other diseases.  Many survivors passed it on to spouses, lovers, and descendants.  Survivors call them “the devils experiment.”(1)

From 1946 to 1948, Amerikan medical testing ended up infecting 1,500 Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancrioid in order to test penicillin, then a new treatment for these diseases.  They wanted to find out if penicillin would not only cure many STD’s but also prevent the diseases.  Since prisons in Guatemala allowed conjugal visits, the experimenters used prostitutes to infect prisoners without their knowledge.  Often the cooperation of Guatemalan authorities was all that was given.  When normal exposure failed to create symptoms in the victims, the doctors gave direct inoculations to them.  They used prisons, orphanages and soldiers barracks to get unwilling victims.  Like so many other medical experiments to advance the lives of those in the First World the victims often are of the Third World.

The story about these experiments first broke in October of 2010 through the research by Susan Reverby, a women’s studies professor at Wellesley college, who also wrote two books on the infamous Tuskegee experiment.  Reverby found in the university archives the research papers of one of the medical researchers in Tuskegee, John Cutler, who defended his research there into the 1990s.  The papers showed that he was also involved in STI research in U.S. prisons and in Guatemala.(2)  Under experiments approved by the Public Health Service (PHS) they used prisoners in Terre Haute federal penitentary to test prophilactics by infecting “volunteers” with gonorrhea.  Cutler and other physicians took their research to the South, setting up in Guatemala.  He and others tested nearly 700 subjects from the Guatemala National Penitentary.  Unlike Tuskegee the subjects were deliberately infected.  Also unlike Tuskegee they were given penicillin, but the intention was never to give adequate treatment.  After it ended in 1948 the experiments were hushed up and never heard of again until now.

When the story was publicized in October 2010 the fallout was immense in the U.S. government, which called the experiments “clearly unethical.”(3) Both Secretary of State Clinton and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued official apologies, and Obama himself called the president of Guatemala, Alvaro Colon, to issue a personal apology.  Both governments promised investigations.  Meanwhile a class action lawsuit on behalf of the victims and their survivors is also pending.(4)

Other unethical medical experiements were revealed also.  It was shown that the U.S. government intentionally made healthy people sick, using prison inmates and disabled people as guinea pigs.  Like in Guatemala they used people that were seen as expendable and without full rights.  A 1973 congressional hearing, held after Tuskegee and these other experiments were revealed, had pharmaceutical companies admit that they used prisoners because they were cheaper than chimpanzees for test subjects.(5)  One wonders how many other illegal medical experiments have yet to be revealed.

This complete disregard for human life and dignity can be seen in almost any facet of the imperialist project. De-humanizing colonized and oppressed nations is a vital component for the maintenance of empire. Imperialists have justified their treatment of oppressed nations, to themselves and the world, by thinking of them as subhuman, primitive. The syphilis experiments demonstrate this chauvanist view that oppressed peoples are subhuman.

Other medical atrocities include over 60,000 women forcefully sterilized in officially sanctioned eugenics programs, mostly Black and Latina women.(6)   This inhumanity can be seen today in the use of Depleted Uranium weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan. (7)  Medical personnel have also been involved recently in the “enhanced interrogation techniques” done by the CIA which include illegal experimentation and torture. (8)  The U.S. and other imperialist nations operate with no regard for law or human rights.

Another accurate comparison to the syphilis experiments by U.S. doctors is the medical “research” conducted by Nazi scientists on the occupants of concentration camps. These were done under the auspices of improving Nazi combat and medic technology. The experiments were therefore brutal mimics of war.  Subjects were exposed to various gases, infectious diseases, subjected to extremes in climate. Many subjects died as a result of these experiments and many more were executed or vivisected.  Ironically the experiments in Guatemala were conducted by the United States at the same time they were trying Nazis as war criminals in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity.  The Nazi imperialist project was as brutal as it was brief. The US imperialist project is as brutal as it is long.

The imperialist nations and their populations, particularly Amerikkka, have no concern for the majority of human life. One may brush aside this incident in Guatemala with the idea that medical ethics have improved and practices better regulated. The fact remains, Amerika commits various atrocities across the globe and is morally bankrupt in its veracity. Human experimentation is one of the abounding examples of United States barbarism in the guise of advancement.


1. Carroll, Rory.  “Guatemala victims of US syphilis study still haunted by the ‘devil’s experiment’.”  The Guardian (UK).  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/08/guatemala-victims-us-syphilis-study?mobile-redirect=false

2. http://www.wellesley.edu/WomenSt/Synopsis%20Reverby%20%27Normal%20Exposure%27.pdf

3.  “U.S. Apologizes for Syphilis Tests in Guatemala.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/02/health/research/02infect.html

4.  Ed Payne and Cristy Lenz, CNN.  “Lawyers: U.S. faces suit on syphilis tests in Guatemala.” CNN online. http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/americas/03/09/guatemala.syphilis.lawsuit/index.html?hpt=T1;  and
“Guatemalans sue U.S. over non-consensual medical experiments.” http://articles.cnn.com/2011-03-15/world/guatemala.syphilis.lawsuit_1_experiments-tuskegee-testing-lawsuit?_s=PM:WORLD

5.  “America’s shocking secret: Pictures that show how U.S. experimented on its own disabled citizens and prison inmates.”  Daily Mail Online (UK).  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1361275/Americas-shocking-secret-US-experimented-disabled-citizens-prison-inmates.html

6. “Sterilisation: North Carolina grapples with legacy.”  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13700490

7.  Depleted Uranium is used in ammunition because of its armor piercing ability. On impact it turns into a fine powder which can easily be disbursed in the air, contaminate ground water, and become integrated in the food chain. Not only is DU radioactive it is also a toxic heavy metal. The effects of DU are known to cause various health problems. Now, birth defects and various forms of cancer, such as lukemia, are far more prevalent in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan where DU is known to have been used. (http://www.xs4all.nl/~stgvisie/VISIE/du-afghanistan.html)
Cancer and birth defect rates increased many times in Iraq just from the DU used during the Gulf War. (http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0330-02.htm)

8.  http://phrtorturepapers.org/

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Oh please. What were we supposed to test it on, Americans? Plus, now there there is a whole population of armor-piercing Guatemalans.

  2. @Eggs100

    Your glib (and chilling) dismissal of the USA’s crimes is typically American. Josef Mengele would be proud.

    The Nazi imperialist project was as brutal as it was brief. The US imperialist project is as brutal as it is long.

    The comparisions between America and Nazi Germany are very apt and hit much closer to home than most pro-Americans would want to admit.

    War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race

    Welcome to the American Reich.

  3. More recent news on this case. From Reuters:

    “U.S. government researchers must have known they were violating ethical standards by deliberately infecting Guatemalan prison inmates and mental patients with syphilis for an experiment in the 1940s, according to a presidential commission.

    The U.S.-funded research in Guatemala did not treat participants as human beings, failing to even inform them they were taking part in research, as was the case for a similar study in the United States, the commission said on Monday.”

    The Guatemalan government called these experiments crimes against humanity. Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is expected to give out a final report in December. The Amerikans had to admit the wrong on this case because of its exposure, and now trying to brush it over and move on.

    This of course raises the question of how many other similar experiments on Third World peoples are waiting to come to light. Not to mention the pharmaceutical companies using Third World peoples as guinea pigs for their newest drugs. This is just one more way the imperialists exploit the rest of the world. This whole system has to come to an end.


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