June 21, 2004
A nightmare has haunted Latin America for 50 years.
On June 27, 1954, the CIA, working with a small number of Guatemalan right-wing activists, overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. Brutal repression followed for decades. And Washington sent a loud message throughout the region: Moderate change in small nations would not be tolerated if it challenged U.S. interests.
Arbenz's government was moderate and nationalistic. Its reforms were designed to bring Guatemala into the 20th century. It abolished forced labor for the indigenous (Maya) majority of the population, encouraged labor unions and peasant leagues, stimulated new areas of the economy (beyond coffee and bananas), permitted all political parties to participate in elections, undertook land reform and followed an independent foreign policy.
Unfortunately, both time and place worked against Guatemala.
The time was the early 1950s, the height of the Cold War, when the United States saw Soviet threats everywhere -- even in this small country that was attempting, above all, to establish its nationhood.
And geography placed Guatemala in a zone of strategic interest to Washington -- "so far from God, so near to the United States," as the Mexican saying goes.
The Arbenz government had one more strike against it: The moderate land reform called for confiscation, with compensation, of unused lands in large holdings, and the largest owner of unused lands was the U.S.-based United Fruit Company.
For this and other reasons, the Eisenhower administration (with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA chief Allen Dulles, both previously lawyers for United Fruit's law firm) used the "threat of Communism" as the pretext for overthrowing the Arbenz government and replacing it with a compliant pro-U.S. military dictatorship.
The CIA-orchestrated coup -- code-named "Operation PB Success" -- was followed by a witch-hunt against virtually everyone associated with the Arbenz government, and cost some 8,000 lives. The military burned books in the streets indiscriminately and persecuted teachers as well as political and labor leaders mercilessly. The McCarthyite repression permeated Guatemalan politics, leaving a legacy of extreme polarization.
The military government annulled all of the modernizing legislation, as if to erase any memory of the revolution. Inside Guatemala, however, the 1944-1954 non-socialist revolution has been remembered as the "10 years of Springtime," and has been a touchstone for progressives ever since.
Washington's apparent easy success showed right-wing military governments throughout Central America that they could count on unconditional U.S. support.
From the opposite perspective, progressives concerned with social equality and democracy also drew lessons: Since moderate change would not be tolerated and since leftist electoral options were closed off, their only alternative was to seek radical change through armed uprisings.
Hence, it is not surprising that Guatemala and Nicaragua were among the first Latin American nations after the Cuban revolution to see the rise of armed insurgent movements that lasted for decades.
Even for Washington, the "success" was short-lived, as the United States found itself having to intervene again in Guatemala in 1966-1968 -- this time indirectly, to train, advise, equip and fund the Guatemalan army, transforming it into a disciplined killing machine to counter the insurgents. The Guatemalan army came to be known as the most brutal in Latin America. Its "dirty" counterinsurgency warfare was marked by such practices as death squads and "disappearances," which soon spread to other Latin America countries.
Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended only in December 1996, left some 200,000 unarmed civilians dead, most of them victims of the army's genocidal "scorched earth" massacres in the Mayan highlands during the 1980s. Nearby, Nicaragua and El Salvador also lived through deadly civil wars during the 1970s and 1980s.
What would have ensued if the U.S. had decided to leave the Arbenz government in place?
Guatemala's moderate, capitalist land reform could have served to stabilize the country by bringing its dispossessed majority into the economy. Not only Guatemala but all of Central America might have experienced a nonviolent modernization process -- and avoided the wars of the 1980s -- if the Guatemalan example had been permitted to survive, even to spread in Central America.
Fifty years ago, the intervention in Guatemala was a defining moment for U.S.-Latin American relations. It brought the Cold War to this hemisphere.
Today, as we debate the U.S. interventions in other regions of the world, we should remember the lessons of Guatemala.
Susanne Jonas, who has written about Guatemala for 35 years, is a professor of Latin American & Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book on Guatemala is "Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala's Peace Process" (Westview, 2000). She can be reached at email@example.com.