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Guatemalan Genocide, Courtesy of the USA

We all know the American dream, right? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This dream is supposed to be protected by the U.S. government but you'll never guess what happened in the 1950s and '60s. Or perhaps you can if you've already read Irene's dispatch on Iran. Fearing an international communist conspiracy, the U.S. government and the C.I.A. effectively ousted a democratic president from power (sound familiar?), and installed a new president who immediately started to crack down on the population. Guatemala was turned into "hell on earth" for the next three decades. We bet you think this sounds more like the story of a creative spy novel than the tragic truth of U.S. involvement in Latin America's most brutal armed conflict.

So, what sparked U.S. involvement and how did this whole war start anyway? A big factor in the start of Guatemala's civil war, which lasted from 1960 until 1996, was the American government's fear of a communist presence in Guatemala. During the 1950s, relationships between the U.S. and the communist bloc were extremely tense. In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz was elected President of Guatemala, the same time that in Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh rose to power. He was only the second democratically elected president in Guatemalan history. He pushed through progressive reforms and accepted support from communist friends. Fearful of a country going Communist in our own backyard, policymakers in the U.S. decided that Arbenz needed to be removed from office. In 1954, one year after the CIA successfully installed the Shah in Iran, Castillo Armas was installed as president of Guatemala by the United States government.

In Iran, the nationalizing of Iran's main oil company away from the British was what led to the US becoming involved in the Middle East. What caused Guatemala to be a "Communist" concern for the US government? Not surprisingly, it also had to do with corporate interests. Arbenz, while he was President, enacted Decree 900, which proposed a redistribution of land from wealthy plantation owners to 100,000 peasants. Some of the land that was included in the redistribution was owned by the United Fruit Company (UFCO; now know as Chiquita...as in the bananas). UFCO was an American company and had grown to be the most important corporation in Guatemala. Over 500,000 acres owned by UFCO was expropriated in the redistribution because only 50,000 of its 565,000 acres were actually in use. The Guatemalan government offered UFCO $600,000 for its land, however the company insisted that the land was worth close to $25,000,000. When Arbenz refused to pay this much, UFCO turned to its friends in the United States Government to assist. The foreign policy staff of President Eisenhower, the U.S. President at the time, had several key members who were, or had been legally, financially, or politically involved with United Fruit Company. CIA head Allen Dulles' law firm represented United Fruit.

When United Fruit launched a public relations campaign to depict Guatemala as a communist threat in Central America, the U.S. government took notice and got nervous. The threat seemed more credible to the U.S. when Arbenz received an arms shipment (after the U.S. refused to sell arms to Guatemala) from communist Czechoslovakia. Eisenhower's administration was convinced that they needed to stage a CIA-backed coup to overthrow Arbenz.

At this point, the CIA enacted a "propaganda and destabilization" campaign to get Arbenz out of office (and remember Arbenz was only Guatemala's 2nd democratically elected president). The campaign included rumors that Arbenz was a Communist and it also included the training and arming of a small band of revolutionaries who attacked Arbenz's government from Honduras. Additionally, they hired a number of private pilots to strafe, bomb and drop leaflets on Guatemala City. The final touch was a number of radio broadcasts out of Honduras spreading news of an army marching on toward the National Palace to overthrow Arbenz. All of these threats left Arbenz with little choice but to flee and in June, 1954, he left Guatemala.

With the CIA's backing, Castillo Armas and took over the presidency. Guess what Armas was doing just before he became President of Guatemala? He was working in Honduras as a furniture salesman after a career as a military officer! Armas was flown into Guatemala from Honduras on the personal plane of U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy and was given $80 million from Eisenhower over the next three years to boost his government. Immediately, he suspended the constitution and instituted policies of military repression. Can you believe that the U.S. government was responsible for this? All of the progressive ideas instituted by Arbenz were revoked. Armas was the first in a string of military dictators who would rule Guatemala for the next 35 years. Because these leaders did not address the problems of landlessness and poverty in the country, a revolutionary movement emerged.

In 1962, ex-military officers, Guatemalan communist party members and students banded together to form the first Guatemalan guerrilla group: the Armed Rebel Forces (FAR). In response, the United States began counter-insurgency training for the Guatemalan armed forces. The revolutionary guerrillas fought to secure basic necessities for Guatemalans such as food, access to land, health care, and education. The Guatemalan army tried to put down the revolutionary movement by force and this was the crux of the long and bloody civil war in which the Mayan population undoubtedly paid the highest price. To read more about Guatemala's savage civil war, check out the World Trek's Guatemala section. The war came to an end finally in 1996 (only 5 years ago!) with a peace accord between the guerillas and the government.

1n 1999, the Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala came out with an extensive report chronicling the violence and atrocities that had occurred in Guatemala. One of our own world trekkers was on hand to experience this emotional occasion. The report laid the blame for 93% of the murders on the government and military. 3% were committed by the leftists guerillas. It also concluded that for decades, the United States, since the overthrow of Arbenz, knowingly gave millions in money, training, arms and other support to the Guatemalan government and helped in the genocidal campaign against the Mayan Indians. The peak years of bloodshed occurred under President Ronald Reagan in the 80s. Reagan had even called some of the Guatemalan generals "democrats" whose human rights abuses had gotten them "a bum rap."

After the Commission's report was published, President Clinton, while not offering an outright apology, expressed regret over the US' role in Guatemala. He said, "For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression, of the kind described in the report, was wrong. The United States must not repeat that mistake." The admission was a rare one for a US leader, but left unacknowledged was the CIA's role in overthrowing Arbenz. After successful coups in Iran and Guatemala, the CIA was on a roll and would continue its activities in Cuba and later Congo and Chile. It makes you think, just how supportive is America of democracy and freedom in other countries? And how many more apologies are we going to make?

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Memories from the forgotten war in Korea
Daphne - Up, up and away in an airplane museum in Berlin
Stephanie - When the arms race got real and almost deadly!
MAD- Star Wars: What would YOU do with $70 billion?
Irene - A big, bad bully - and it's not who you think it is!