Justice and Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala: 1954 Revisited
The news barely raised a murmur in the US media and the BBC covered it only fleetingly, but last week the Guatemalan government of Álvaro Colom formally apologized to the family of former president Jacobo Árbenz who was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1954 and later died in exile in Mexico. The apology came after a lengthy case in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that ended in a “friendly settlement” between the Guatemalan State and Árbenz’s heirs.
Through the settlement, the Guatemalan State recognizes its responsibility for “failing to comply with its obligation to guarantee, respect, and protect the human rights of the victims to a fair trial, to property, to equal protection before the law, and to judicial protection, which are protected in the American Convention on Human Rights and which were violated against former President Juan Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, his wife, María Cristina Vilanova, and his children…”
The coup against Árbenz – one of the most infamous that the CIA executed during the Cold War – directly led to the brutal thirty-year Civil War that left up to 250,000 Guatemalans dead or disappeared. The conflict saw a right-wing military dictatorship carry out a savage counterinsurgency against anybody vaguely associated with the “Left”, including students, journalists and labor unions, but particularly the country’s majority indigenous population (some 83% of victims of the violence were indigenous Mayans). Death squads routinely massacred Guatemalan peasants, including women and children, in a strategy since classified as genocide by the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission.
The great tragedy of the 1954 coup and all that followed is that the Guatemalan military and the CIA overthrew a democratically-elected reformist with the interests of the country’s impoverished majority at heart. Following the 1944 “October Revolution” that ousted the dictator Jorge Ubico, Guatemala had entered a politically progressive era known as the “Ten Years of Spring”. Jacobo Árbenz, elected in 1950 with 65% of the vote, took the liberal policies of his predecessor Juan José Arévalo a step further by promising to enact agrarian reform to raise the living standards of the primarily rural population.
The other great tragedy is that the coup against Árbenz came about at the whim of one major US corporation: the United Fruit Company, which since the early 1900s had been the largest employer in Central America, buying up vast tracts of land and wielding huge political sway in the region (the origin of the term “banana republic”). By the 1940s, United Fruit held controlling shares in Guatemala’s railroad, seaport, electricity, and telecommunications utilities. The company also owned some 70% of the country’s arable land, of which it utilized a mere 12%.
The agrarian reform passed by Árbenz gave his government power to expropriate only that land which was uncultivated and which belonged to estates larger than 672 acres; land that would then be allocated to individual families via agrarian councils. Árbenz offered compensation to United Fruit and other powerful landowners amounting to the value of the land claimed in their tax assessments, which were often hugely understated. A landowner himself through his wife, Árbenz gave up 1,700 acres of his own holdings in the process.
In response, the United Fruit Company sought to portray Árbenz as a communist and lobbied the US government to have him removed from power. Ironically, Árbenz had stated in his inaugural address as president that his aim was to transform Guatemala from “a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state”. Unfortunately, the US Congress of the day contained many United Fruit shareholders, who were making a steal off the corporation’s dominance and opposed Guatemala’s moves towards economic independence.
The subsequent plot, known as Operation PBSUCCESS, was the brainchild of John Foster Dulles, head of the CIA, and his brother, then-Secretary of State Alan Foster Dulles – both of whom happened to be shareholders in United Fruit. The inspiration was Operation Ajax, the elaborate and highly successful plot the CIA had used to overthrow Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh – another democratically-elected reformist – a year earlier. Operation Ajax in fact became a template for many a CIA-backed coup in the following years – including the Bay of Pigs Invasion – and its execution is the origin of US-Iran hostilities that persist to this day.
The first move, as with Iran, was to convince the US press and public that Árbenz’s nationalist policies were the fruit of an alliance with the Soviet Union. Five years before the Cuban Revolution, Alan Foster Dulles dubbed Guatemala a “Soviet beachhead in the western hemisphere”. In reality, the US later abandoned a post-coup plan called PBHISTORY intended to associate Árbenz with Moscow as they simply could not find sufficient evidence of an alliance.
Operation PBSUCCESS also utilized psychological warfare within Guatemala as the CIA hijacked the country’s airwaves to broadcast anticommunist messages and airdropped leaflets urging Guatemalans to turn against Árbenz. The Catholic Church viewed communism as “God’s enemy” and readily supported the coup. Árbenz resigned as president on June 27, 1954, after opportunistic generals, fearing a US invasion was imminent, turned against him.
Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, whom the US had replace Árbenz as president, was assassinated in 1957 but the Guatemalan military clung onto power for nearly thirty years, banning political opposition, labor unions and social movements, and waging a brutal war against dissidents of the regime from rural peasants to the middle-class. Guerrilla groups such as the Armed Rebel Forces (FAR) sprung up in the 1960s but were powerless to bring down the regime, whose heavily-armed death squads were trained and funded by Washington.
After the UN Peace Accords of 1996 between the guerrilla-based Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the National Advancement Party (PAN) administration of Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen, the Historical Clarification Commission attributed 93% of atrocities that took place during the Civil War to the Guatemalan military and only 3% to left-wing guerrillas. The conflict left around 200,000 people dead and over 40,000 missing as well as creating some 1 million refugees.
Last week, in what The New York Times described as a “muted ceremony” in Guatemala City’s National Palace, President Álvaro Colom told Árbenz’s son Juan Jacobo: “That day [the coup] changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it yet. It was a crime to Guatemalan society and it was an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring.” In addition, the Guatemalan government will revise Árbenz’s legacy within the national school curriculum and he gets a highway and a hall of the National Museum of History named after him.
Ironically, Colom himself was elected on a progressive platform in 2007 as part of the social-democratic National Unity of Hope, but the masses who voted for him have since largely lost faith in his policies. Far from emulating the “Ten Years of Spring”, Colom’s tenure has seen the US-Central America free trade agreement (DR-CAFTA) – which Jacobo Árbenz would have fiercely opposed – have the same devastating effect on Guatemala’s rural population as NAFTA had on Mexico’s.
Although the constant and savage violence of the Civil War is over, reports of human rights abuses by the military and the forced displacement of rural inhabitants are ever-present, while Guatemala is the second most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists after Colombia.
According to UN figures, roughly half of the country’s 13 million people live in poverty and 17% in extreme poverty. Despite the nation’s vast potential for food security, the neoliberal mentality prevails and a wealthy 5% controls 80% of farmland, an almost unperceivable change from the injustice that Árbenz and Guatemala’s liberal revolution railed against.