In the Western Hemisphere there exists a web of interconnected nations. In the center of this web is the United States of America. Since its creation in the eighteenth century, the U.S. has shown indications of having a self-image of superiority. After creating its Constitution and winning independence from Britain, America’s Founding Fathers believed they had created “the world’s most enlightened form of government.” Perhaps, even in those earliest days, Americans had ideas of spreading their superior system to other nations. In a letter to James Monroe in 1801, Thomas Jefferson said, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond [our current] limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.” There was an idea of Manifest Destiny, of a civilizing mission. Like imperialist Europeans of previous centuries, Americans believed that their government, their culture, was superior, and it was their destiny, their burden, to spread this “correct” form of living to other peoples in a “civilizing mission” (Chace 10-11). This notion, which could be considered noble, went hand-in-hand with another concept that has more sinister connotations: paternalism. In his book The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi calls this mental attitude “charitable racism.” “A paternalist,” he says, “is one who wants to stretch racism and inequality farther” (76). Charitable racism is an all-too applicable term to the actions shown by the U.S. toward the nations of Latin America, and an example of such action can be found in the 1954 U.S.-sponsored coup in Guatemala.
Guatemala earned independence from its colonial ruler Spain in 1821. But this liberation was short-lived; as the cases with so many other countries recently liberated from their colonizers, Guatemala came to be ruled by a long line of successive dictators the next 120 years. The last of these dictators was named General Jorge Ubico. A son of the small aristocracy that had ruled the nation for over a century, he took office in 1931. After a decade of reigning “over a body of passive peasants and indifferent Indians (half of the nation’s population was made up of Indians living in rural enclaves isolated from mainstream Guatemala)” a new movement began to take root in the growing middle class of Guatemalans. The people started to take public issue with their dictatorial government as ideas of unalienable personal rights and democracy spread from their northern neighbor the United States. When a radio broadcast of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech of the “Four Freedoms” (freedoms of speech and religion, and freedoms from want and fear) came to the ears of a population of Guatemalan teachers and other middle-class idealists, they began to organize for a revolution, an escape from tyranny to democracy. In early July 1944, just days after a schoolteacher María Chinchilla was killed among 200 other demonstrators at the largest protest the country had seen, General Ubico, caught completely off-guard, declared a state of siege and complied to the petition of 311 teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other citizens to resign. He turned power over to the military commander General Federico Ponce (Schlesinger/Kinzer 25-28).
In an effort to quell the uprising, Ponce raised teachers’ salaries and instituted modest university reforms, but also intensified governmental surveillance and banned public meetings and demonstrations. After the uncommon assassination of an outspoken journalist in opposition to the government, Alejandro Córdova, two young officers Major Fransisco Arana and Captain Jacabo Arbenz led the “October Revolution” and forced Ponce to relinquish his power and retreat to the Mexican Embassy. In the nation’s first ever free democratic election, the candidate selected by the middle-class base of revolutionaries Dr. Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, took his place as president after a landslide victory of 85% in March of 1945. The young visionary quickly set forth to fight for the working man and “give civic and legal value to all people who live[d] in [that] Republic” with backing of the newly established constitution which provided the Guatemalan republic with numerous progressive liberties and orders (including the division of power between three governmental branches, two-year terms for Congressmen and six-year terms for presidents, checks on the income of government employees, equal pay for men and women, the illegalization of racial discrimination, a ban on monopolies, workers’ rights, the right to unionize, etc.) (29-35).
Arévalo, an ideological man who believed in what he called “spiritual socialism”, had high, and perhaps romantic, ambitions of what he would do with the country in his six-year term, and he set four overarching priorities: agrarian reform, protection of labor, a better educational system, and consolidation of political democracy. He had varied success in each of these, perhaps the most in the latter, helping to establish political parties and promoting freedom of speech and press. One of the biggest problems to fix was the issue of land, however, as a mere “two percent of the landowners held 72 percent of the land, and ninety percent of the people together owned just 15 percent of the productive acreage.” His Law of Forced Rental helped some to give more unused land to the peasants to rent and work, but change was resisted by “pillars of the old order” – those who profited from the unequal distribution of land and wealth. Unfortunately for Arévalo, the base that had supported him during election was slowing crumbling in its own clashes, stimulated partially by the very political parties he helped to form in attempts to create a free society. Also backfiring to work against him was the press who constantly criticized their government. By 1948, his vision of a free a just state was slipping farther and farther from reach, and situations only worsened to the end of his term in 1951. That March, the speech he gave at the inauguration of Guatemala’s next president Jacabo Arbenz Guzmán, bore no resemblance to speeches at the beginning of his campaign, full of excitement and hope for the future. This somber speech directly admitted how “with the deepest despondency and pain” he had realized in his presidency “how perishable, frail, and slippery the brilliant international doctrines of democracy and freedom were” (37-47).
President Arbenz did no seem too discouraged by his former president’s message, however, as he dutifully took the reigns to the country that had now been introduced to democracy and the idea of drastic change to existing economic structures. On March 15, 1951 he was sworn is as president and set to work on making his country a fairer place by, in his words, making a “profound change in the backward agricultural production of Guatemala, by way of agrarian reform which puts an end to the latifundios and the semi-feudal practices, giving the land to thousands of peasants, raising their purchasing power and creating a great internal market favorable to the development of domestic industry”. At the time, seventy percent of the land was still owned by 2.2% of the population, and of those four million acres, about three million were going uncultivated. Additionally, the largest segment of the Guatemalan economy, accounting for about $120 million was leaving the country through the United Fruit Company. But by June 1952 he had created a bill that passed in Congress, which he believed would turn the agrarian practices of Guatemala around for the good of the rural peasants, accounting for 90% of the work force (49-54).
Under this bill, Decree 900, the government would seize portions of uncultivated land from large plantations. The government would not touch any crops of land under 223 acres, neither would they take any portion of land between 223 and 670 acres that was at least two-thirds cultivated. The purpose of the bill was not to take away people’s land but to force some of the wealthiest people who sat on hundreds of acres of untouched land to share it with the thousands of peasants who would gladly farm it and produce food for themselves and capital for Guatemala. The government would pay the previous owners for the confiscated land in twenty-five-year bonds bearing a 3% interest rate, and the land would be distributed to landless workers in portions not to exceed 42.5 acres each. The land would not completely be “theirs” either, in that when they died they could pass it on or sell it at a higher price while they were alive; it was not so workers could turn a profit, but simply so they could farm it and feed their families. This bill would be universally applied, even when it took away land from politicians, which it did. Under the law President Arbenz gave up 1,700 of his own uncultivated acreage, and 1,200 acres of his friend the Foreign Minister Guillermo Toriello was also redistributed to landless farmers. An American lawyer visiting Guatemala at the time said of the law, “a fair, impartial and democratic administration of this law would go very far toward destroying the political power of the minority…who are vested property-holding interests, both native and foreign” (54-55). But not everyone was pleased with this destruction of political power, this redistribution of prosperity. As one might suspect, the American-based United Fruit Company was quite troubled by this law, and in fact, for the past seven years they had been growing more and more anxious of the promises of reform the nation’s first democratically-elected presidents had been promising.
In March 1953, the government of Guatemala seized 209,842 acres from United Fruit’s 550 million acres (85% of which were unused) and offered the company $627,572 in bonds, “based on United Fruit’s declared tax value of the land.” But the company had “undervalued its property in official declarations in order to reduce its already insignificant tax liability” and now this falsehood was being used against them. The U.S. State Department issued a formal complaint demanding nearly $16 million in compensation for the land and calling the Guatemalan offer unjust. The offer, however, amounted to about $2.99 per acre, when the Fruit Company had previously paid only $1.48 per acre. But this profit was “unjust” and the U.S. called instead for $75 an acre, a demand that Guatemala did not concede. But this display of strength and sovereignty turned out to be a fatal decision for Arbenz and the progressive government he and so many other Guatemalans had worked to establish, for the United Fruit Company had already been working for years to stage its undoing (75-77).
In 1940 Sam Zemurray, the cunning president of United Fruit hired Edward Bernays, one of the nation’s foremost public relations masterminds to help improve the image of his company, which was known in Central America as el pulpo (the octopus). Bernays began specifically targeting the Guatemalan government when, in 1947, banana workers were permitted to join trade unions, which caused several set-backs that were completely foreign to the company that had traditionally only been aided by the former dictatorial government. The company began working with Massachusetts senator Henry Lodge, a United Fruit stockowner, who argued to Congress against the Guatemalan Labor Code saying it discriminated against United Fruit and caused it to face “serious economic breakdown” through labor unrest. But when Arbenz was elected in 1951, the company realized it would soon have bigger problems than pesky trade unions, so Zemurray told Bernays to increase his PR campaign against Guatemala, a task that he took on with more than sufficient zeal. Soon nearly all major U.S. publications (Time, Newsweek, and Christian Science Monitor to name a few) were sending journalists to Guatemala where “they were shepherded on elaborately choreographed tours of Fruit Company facilities, and talked to local politicians who were sympathetic to the company’s plight (and, not infrequently, were on the company’s payroll).” These media trips were a smashing success; Thomas McCann, a former United Fruit official who worked for the company during this time and later wrote a candid tell-all account of the corporation said, “an avalanche of publicity favoring the United Fruit Company followed the trips.” Their angle was Communism; specifically, they were pushing the idea that the Guatemalan government was quickly falling into the hands of Communism, a timely fear for the U.S. By 1954, with the dedicated assistance of PR giants and politically-tied people like Edward Bernays, Thomas Corcoran, John Clements, and Spruille Braden, the United Fruit Company’s mission was nearly complete – the American people absolutely feared that the Guatemalan government was leaning towards a Communist take-over, and there was little anyone from Guatemala could do to battle the expertly-crafted and highly-funded army of publicity (79-97).
From that point on, the task of undoing the reform law that had taken away so much land from United Fruit was no longer on the shoulders of the company, but of the United States government. The U.S. eagerly took to the case, promoting it as a fight against the spread of Communism. Both democrats and republicans became convinced that the government of Guatemala had Communist leanings, and for fear that it would soon fall into the grasp of Soviet Russia, U.S. government officials began to devise a plan to surreptitiously overthrow the Arbenz government, codenamed Operation Success.
One of the principal organizers of this plot was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the man who had quickly convinced Eisenhower to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. A man who tended to see things in black and white, Dulles was set on “rolling back the Iron Curtain” and he saw Guatemala as the perfect chance to do so (99). He tried to gain support for Guatemalan intervention from other countries in the hemisphere by pushing a resolution in the Organization of American States (OAS) that would consider any American government controlled by the international communist movement a threat and thereby requiring “appropriate action.” Guatemalan Foreign Minister Toriello boldly defended his nation against the implied accusations and called the U.S. out on its desire to “maintain the economic dependence of the American republics and suppress the legitimate desires of their people, cataloguing as “communism” every manifestation of nationalism or economic independence, any desire for social progress, any intellectual curiosity, and any interest in progressive and liberal reforms.” But Toriello’s eloquent speech, which received a loud burst of applause at the close, was for naught; Dulles and his company spent weeks at the conference in Caracas, Venezuela coercing other countries into supporting the unfavorable resolution, oftentimes by threatening to withhold U.S. aid if they voted against the resolution (142-144).
Even with the passing of the resolution, however, it was clear that the rest of the world saw no threat in Guatemala’s internal reforms and any direct U.S. intervention would have been widely disapproved of. Thus it was necessary that any action to overthrow the government look like it was internal. The CIA set out to find a Guatemalan exile who could pose as “the Liberator,” the leader of the rebel army that would overthrow Arbenz, and would also cooperate fully with the U.S. and United Fruit once in power. The CIA found their man in Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a pliable, non-ideological nationalist who “had that good Indian look about him…which was great for the people,” in the words of the operation’s political and propaganda chief Howard Hunt (119-122). Once chosen for the job, Castillo and his small ragtag militia comprised of Guatemalanss and foreign mercenaries, called the National Liberation Movement (MLN), received some U.S. military training and ample artillery (find the damn quote about UFCo’s help and status of his militia) (cite).
In March 1954, seven months before the planned June invasion, with the “Liberation” waiting across the Honduran border for orders to move, the CIA made its next move to produce “a classic ‘disinformation’ campaign to spread fear and panic inside Guatemala” in the form of a radio station called the “Voice of Liberation.” The propagated and falsely inflated the forces of the MLN, creating the impression that the militia was large, widespread, and “a major insurgent force”, a resolute lie. It also spread rumors of a weakening in the Guatemalan national army, making a take-over seem imminent (167-170).
Finally in May and June of 1954, after many months of careful preparation, the CIA began the final stages of the plot: aerial attacks. American pilots strategically shot and bombed several cities and railways throughout the country, in addition to making a series of drops over the capital city, where they dispersed leaflets calling for the immediate resignation of President Arbenz, signed “National Liberation Forces.” No amount of diplomatic pleas from Foreign Minister Toriello to the heavy-handed U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala John Peurifoy could stop the invasion; as Peurifoy well knew as a key member of Operation Success, it was too late for the Arbenz administration (7-23). It was no concern to Peurifoy that Guatemala lacked sufficient means of defense because of the U.S. arms embargo that had come into effect in 1947, the same year the Guatemalan Congress passed reform legislation that threatened the power of foreign corporations (148). Soon Arbenz realized that he had no choice but to step down. After a confusing series of short-term leaders took the reins of the country’s leadership – all changes of power overseen by Peurifoy – finally Castillo Armas, the CIA’s original choice, took the presidency. As promised, he immediately removed and jailed all members of the Arbenz administration, revoked the 1945 Constitution and all legislation that had harmed the United Fruit Company (that regarding agrarian reform and unionizing), and kept in close contact with the U.S., ready to do its bidding at any time. Other changes included the reinstitution of the dreaded secret police of the Ubico tyranny, the stripping of voting rights from illiterates, the illegalization of political parties, the exile of all Communists, the reinstitution of power to the conservative Catholic Church, and a lift on the ban against foreign oil companies drilling in Guatemala (205-225).
In the beginning of Castillo Armas’ reign, Vice-President Richard Nixon, still elated from U.S. victory, traveled to Guatemala and declared, “This is the first instance in history where a Communist government has been replaced by a free one. The whole world is watching to see which does the better job.” Unfortunately in the decades that followed the coup, a series of progressively worse dictators led the country through a most brutal civil war that lasted nearly 40 years.