Guatemala: A Rotten Apple

In 1944, a popular revolution in Guatemala overthrew the US-backed dictator, a vicious tyrant named Jorge Ubico. Out of the revolution came Guatemala’s first democratic election, won by Juan José Arévalo. The new leader, Arévalo, established a liberal, capitalist society, basically modelled on Roosevelt’s New Deal. He implemented a minimum wage law, increased educational funding and introduced near-universal suffrage.

Six years later, in 1950, Arévalo’s defence minister Jacobo Árbenz was elected President. Árbenz continued the social reforms and granted land to peasants who were victims of debt slavery before Arévalo. Together, the two post-Revolution leaders had brought about the most democratic government Guatemala had ever had. All was relatively good, it seemed. But policy makers in the US were not happy. Despite the policies born out of the Revolution being moderate and, despite the fact that only four out of fifty seats in Congress were held by communists, the US government saw the new society as exactly that – communist. Why? Because of the United Fruit Company.

The United Fruit Company was a US corporation trading in bananas grown on Central American plantations and sold in the US and Europe. It maintained a virtual monopoly in Guatemala. Critics accused it of exploitative neo-colonialism, of exploiting the natural resources of Guatemala. And it made huge profits doing so. It is today seen as the archetypal example of the influence that multinational corporations have over the internal policies of banana republics.

The corporation was the largest landowner in Guatemala. You can imagine what they thought of Árbenz’s land reform. He expropriated 40% (234,000 acres) of United Fruit’s land – they called the offered compensation “unacceptable”. The minimum wage law also hurt United Fruit; they were Guatemala’s largest employer.

The new, elected government was directing its country’s natural resources to its own population; it posed a threat to United Fruit’s profits. Accordingly, the corporation’s directors persuaded the Truman and Eisenhower administrations that Árbenz intended to align Guatemala with the Soviet Bloc. The problem was that US officials had little proof to support claims of a growing communist threat within Guatemala; that United Fruit succeeded demonstrates the influence that corporate interest had on US foreign policy.

The ties between corporate America and the White House were strong. The US Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles; his law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, had represented United Fruit; and his brother, Allen, was the head of the CIA as well as a United Fruit board member. Many other individuals who influenced US policy towards Guatemala in the 1950s also had direct ties to United Fruit.

The effectiveness of United Fruit’s lobbying proves startling when one takes a look at a CIA memorandum from 1952. It warned that Guatemala had “recently stepped-up substantially its support of Communist and anti-American activities in other Central American countries.” The memo cited an alleged gift of $300,000 to Jose Figueres as a prime example. Jose Figueres was the founder of Costa Rican democracy. He was not very “anti-American”; in fact, Figueres had cooperated enthusiastically with the CIA; had called the United States “the standard bearer of our cause”; and the US ambassador to Costa Rica regarded him as “the best advertising agency that the United Fruit Company could find in Latin America”. But, according to Noam Chomsky, he had “independent streak” in the eyes of US policy makers; therefore, it was possible that he was, in US political rhetoric, a “communist”. And if Guatemala funded his election campaign, they supported communists. That’s how it was seen in the White House, anyway.

In What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Chomsky quotes the worst of the memo:

… the “radical and nationalist policies” of the democratic capitalist government, including the “persecution of foreign economic interests, especially the United Fruit Company,” had gained “the support or acquiescence of almost all Guatemalans.” The government was proceeding “to mobilize the hitherto politically inert peasantry” while undermining the power of large landholders.

Furthermore, the 1944 revolution had aroused “a strong national movement to free Guatemala from the military dictatorship, social backwardness, and ‘economic colonialism’ which had been the pattern of the past,” and “inspired the loyalty and conformed to the self interest of most politically conscious Guatemalans.” Things became still worse after a successful land reform began to threaten “stability” in neighboring countries where suffering people did not fail to take notice.

As Chomsky points out, the Guatemalan government was not communist and did not support communism. The memo shows how US policy makers saw the new Guatemalan government; redirecting resources to its own citizens was a “persecution” of United Fruit’s interests. The US government’s future actions shows they feared what was mentioned in the memo: the mobilisation of the peasantry; the freeing of Guatemala from dictatorship and social backwardness; and the possibility that this new way of life would threaten “stability” in neighbouring countries.

The White House has its own special definition of “stability”, as a US State Official explained in 1954:

Guatemala has become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador. Its agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon: its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors where similar conditions prevail.

In other words, Guatemala was a rotten apple – it had to be removed. If not, other countries in the region may try to emulate a Latin American nation which had managed to defy its northern hegemon and redirect its resources to its own population, rather than a US corporation.

Subsequent actions by the White House corroborate that this was the thought process. In 1952, Truman authorised the toppling of Árbenz, though the plan was aborted when too many details became public. The election of Eisenhower produced no different a result; in fact, he promised a harder line in the fight against communism. Eisenhower’s staff members, the aforementioned Dulle brothers, predisposed him to act against the Guatemalan government; in mid-1953, he duly authorised the CIA to enact Operation PBSUCCESS.

Operation PBSUCCESS involved the CIA arming, funding and training 480 mercenaries led by Carlos Castillo Armas, who had once been trained on American soil. The force was supported by four US fighter planes flown by US pilots.

The covert operation occurred in 1954, backed by a heavy campaign of psychological warfare; planes bombed the capital, Guatemala City, while an anti- Árbenz radio station propagated what it claimed to be genuine news. Whereas the invasion force fared poorly, the psychological warfare and the possibility of a US invasion intimidated the Guatemalan army, which refused to fight. And so, on 27 June, nine days after the invasion began, Árbenz was forced to resign. Following negotiations in San Salvador, Armas became the new President of Guatemala.

On coming to power, the new US-backed dictator did the following: he banned all political parties; eliminated the secret ballot; tortured and imprisoned thousands of political opponents; reversed the Revolution’s social reforms; gave land back to United Fruit; and abolished tax on interest and dividends to foreign investors.

The next few decades offered little in the way of change. A series of US-backed authoritarian governments continued to rule until 1996.  A civil war against leftist guerrillas led to massive human rights violations by the Guatemalan government, including genocide against the Maya peoples. Military aid from President Carter’s “human-rights” administration did not abate during the worst of the atrocities. When Congress blocked Reagan from giving military aid, he funnelled it through Israel and Taiwan. And whenever things threatened to get out of line, the US would step in.

In 1988, a newly-opened Guatemalan newspaper was blown up by government forces. After the bombing, Julio Codoy, a journalist working for the paper, fled the country. A year later, after returning for a brief visit, he contrasted the situation in Central America with that in Eastern Europe. He wrote that Eastern Europeans are “luckier than Central Americans” because, “while the Moscow-imposed government in Prague would degrade and humiliate reformers, the Washington-made government in Guatemala would kill them.”

“One is tempted to believe,” Godoy continued, “that some people in the White House worship Aztec gods-with the offering of Central American blood.”

Joe McKenzie, Political Editor

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