John Kennedy and Cuba, Lyndon Johnson and the Dominican Republic, Richard Nixon and Chile — US-Latin American relations in the 20th century have long been characterized by interventions aimed at halting social, economic, and political change, each justified by a dubious need to counter communist threats. Nevertheless, President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1954 coup d’état in Guatemala stands out as a frequently forgotten foreign policy tragedy. Within the context of the Cold War, rising tensions with the Kremlin led the Eisenhower Administration to adopt a more confrontational and aggressive approach to exerting American influence. In a covert exercise named Operation PBSUCCESS, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) deposed democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz — accused of communist sympathies — in favor of the dictatorial, pro-American, Castillo Armas. Though masked by a supposed interest in promoting democracy, US intervention in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état reflected the Eisenhower administration’s prioritization of hemispheric hegemony as well as American business interests over democracy and human rights.
Once the heart of Mayan civilization, Guatemala had been eroded by centuries of foreign interference into a nation plagued by wealth inequality and economic dependency. Since the country’s independence from Spain in 1821, a series of dictatorial Caudillos — military strongmen who aligned themselves with US trade interests — had ruled the indigenous population with belligerence and manipulation. When military general Jorge Ubico became the nation’s next dictator in 1931, Guatemala faced significant economic pressures, both domestically and abroad. Approximately two percent of the population controlled 72 percent of Guatemala’s arable land, while American corporations, in particular the United Fruit Company (UFCO), monopolized critical aspects of economic infrastructure including railroads and energy. Wealth inequality of this scale culminated in the vast underutilization of resources: of all privately held land, less than 12 percent was under cultivation. Under Ubico’s despotism, the peasantry — comprising 70 percent of the population — worked for five to 20 cents a day in large latifundios plantations owned by foreign companies. Such a neo-feudal system of economic imperialism resulted in extensive malnourishment, a low life expectancy (>40 years), and the highest infant mortality rate in Latin America.
Led by middle-class intellectuals and junior army officers, the Guatemalan Revolution of 1944 overthrew Ubico to establish a economic democracy inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Revolution’s primary objectives were three-fold: to rearrange the traditional social structure; to decentralize governing institutions; and to replace the old system with a modern capitalist mode of production. Juan José Arévalo, elected in 1945 as the first post-caudillo president, sought to stimulate and diversify Guatemala’s economic base by creating various government agencies, including the Bank of Guatemala, the National Production Institute, and the Ministry of Economy and Labor. Despite doubling government expenditures over the course of his presidency (mostly to fund hospitals and schools), Arévalo’s reforms nevertheless remained moderate. His Social Security Law, which funded public works and medical facilities, imitated sections of Roosevelt’s New Deal, while the most controversial policy of his administration — the Labor Code of 1947 — only sought to legalize unions in the same way the New Deal’s Wagner Act did. In general, Guatemala’s post-revolutionary reform emulated existing American policies rather than Stalinist collectivization or anything more radical and alien.
However, any disturbance to the status quo alarmed American business interests, who had previously enjoyed tax exemptions under the Ubico regime. One consequence of the newly established Labor Code was a series of bitter strikes throughout the Arévalo administration, directed chiefly at the largest and most resented employer — United Fruit. As early as 1947, UFCO reported union strikes at its plantations in Puertos Barrios as suspected Communist behavior, even pressuring the Office of American Republic Affairs to issue a formal protest against Arévalo’s “discriminatory” policies. Since then, all efforts by UFCO workers to confront the company were reported in the CIA as purely political disputes, the result of deliberate government or “Communist intrigues” rather than genuine worker complaints. Due to UFCO’s lobbying efforts and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ personal affiliation with the company (he was the firm’s legal representative prior to his secretaryship), such accusations were always recognized.
Building upon Arévalo’s pursuit of economic independence, President Árbenz proposed a comprehensive system of economic reform designed to expand agricultural production and undercut UFCO’s transportation monopoly. The most radical aspect of his program was vocalized in 1952 as Decree 900, a proposal of land redistribution aimed at expanding the utilization of Guatemala’s land and labor resources. Modeled after Mexican land reforms in the previous decade, the decree permitted only the expropriation of uncultivated land on farms more than 223 acres. Compensation took the form of bonds, with the amount based on declared value for tax purposes as of May 1952. Predictably, this decree outraged UFCO, which at the time owned 42 percent of Guatemala’s arable land but cultivated less than ten in order to inflate the price of bananas. To CIA observers, land reform resembled a dangerous weapon for the expansion of communist influence. Decree 900 threatened to weaken the power of conservative landowners while solidifying support for the Arbenz coalition.
In response to these agrarian reforms, suspicions of communism in Guatemala began to occupy the arenas of American politics and media. With the death of Stalin in 1953, the ongoing Korean War, and the bellicose leadership that had coalesced around Nikita Khrushchev, the general Cold War atmosphere increased American paranoia. Years of temporizing (as it appeared) by Washington has resulted in millions of Europeans being dragged behind the Iron Curtain; as such, the Eisenhower Cabinet rejected the Truman Doctrine as timid and defensive. In a 1954 televised address, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles articulated his administration’s biggest fear: that Guatemala may become a “solid political base in this hemisphere” from which Soviet inductees could “extend Communist penetration to other peoples of the other American Governments.” Accusing the popularly elected Árbenz of “Soviet despotism” and “Communist dictatorship,” Dulles identified communist activity in Guatemala as a “threat to US security” and a “challenge to our Monroe doctrine.” The idea of a Soviet conspiracy in America’s own backyard unnerved liberals and conservatives, academics, journalists, and government officials alike. Already keenly attuned to the issue of communist infiltration because of domestic McCarthyism, American media embraced the government portrayal of Guatemala as an oppressive, communist regime. Articles in the Reader’s Digest, the Chicago Tribune, NBC News, and the Saturday Evening Post all painted frightening images of Guatemala as a Marxist haven, while public relations firms hired by UFCO launched extensive campaigns villainizing President Árbenz. All these efforts secured political and popular support for overthrowing the Árbenz administration and bolstered the plausible deniability of the CIA’s involvement. But to what extent was this Red Scare warranted?
Admittedly, the communists enjoyed greater freedom and capabilities under the Arévalo-Árbenz administrations. Born from the Labor Code of 1947, half of Guatemala’s 600,000 workers and peasants became organized, 100,000 in trade unions and 200,000 in peasants’ unions. Unions, peasants’ associations, and labor-oriented parties certainly emerged as powerful entities under the new government’s reforms. Moreover, the Communist Party of Guatemala (PGT) gained formal political recognition in 1952 as part of Árbenz’s campaign to promote free speech. Now legalized as a political entity, the PGT proceeded to seat deputies in all major committees of the Guatemalan government. Rumors even alleged Árbenz’s personal advisors as communist sympathizers.
Yet despite President Árbenz’s tolerance for communist activity and representation, some serious limitations rendered communist leverage in Guatemala vastly overstated in the American narrative. Most obvious of all obstacles was the lack of domestic public support for PGT. The Communist Party of Guatemala (PGT) had no more than 500 members, of whom about one-third were militants. Only four out of 56 members of the Guatemalan Congress were communist, a ratio less than that found in France during the same period. Even within unions, where communist ideas traditionally thrived, CIA observers accounted that “the rank of Guatemalan union members… [were] essentially non-Communist.” Furthermore, President Árbenz resembled a staunch nationalist and occasional political opportunist, not a PGT sympathizer. In lieu of setting up a communist safe haven, he desired to exploit left-wing support in his attempt to establish a “modern democracy” through social reforms. His dismissal of numerous pro-communist cabinet members, including a Minister of Education, reaffirms this assessment. Beyond these domestic complications, a complete lack of Soviet involvement in Guatemala invalidates the fear of hemispheric encroachment. Agency officials scrutinized the travel records of Guatemalan officials for signs of enemy contact and attempted to uncover the workings of an imaginary courier network connecting Arbenz to the Kremlin. Yet contrary to the assumption of Soviet infiltration, years of intelligence reports in addition to over 50,000 pages of captured PGT documents confirmed no official diplomatic representation between Guatemala and Russia. Even within the PGT, no evidence of communication signified the influence of international communism. Eisenhower was not wrong to spy Communist influence in Guatemala, but he misapprehended both its extent and its relationship to Moscow.
Instead, substantial portions of the CIA’s conclusions were based on unfounded inferences and fallacies. Due to the limited breadth and depth of CIA infiltration in Guatemala, intelligence on Arbenz’ government and society was limited. As such, investigators and reporters increasingly relied on misinterpreted evidence and loose comparisons to other Communist parties and revolutions. A 1950 Department of State memo, for example, emphasized Guatemala’s refusal to sign the Rio Pact of 1947 as evidence of Communist infiltration in the government. However, that defiance stemmed from a long-standing controversy over the sovereignty of Belize. Such generalizations and inferences illustrate the effects of Cold War agitation on US foreign policy: judgments relating to the political orientation of foreign countries were frequently haughty and misleading; as a result, any government opposing the US, or even independent of it, was often viewed as inherently pro-Soviet.
Notwithstanding its dubious conclusions, the Eisenhower administration launched Operation PBSUCCESS in late 1952 to devise a covert coup d’état. The success of TPAJAX, an operation that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq of Iran in the previous year, elevated the CIA’s reputation for covertly thwarting Soviet expansionism. Encouraged by recent accomplishments, Eisenhower entrusted the CIA with executive responsibility over the operation. Notably, Officer Kermit Roosevelt Jr., who had directed TPAJAX, refused to oversee the project due to his concern about the state’s overreliance on covert intrusions. Despite Kermit’s warnings, the CIA began to look for a suitable ambassador to Guatemala who could coordinate land-based operations during the spring and summer of 1953. In December of that year, CIA Director Allen Dulles, the brother of Sec. of State John Foster Dulles, authorized $3 million for the project and established field bases in Opa Locka, Florida and Honduras; by January 1954, Castillo Armas, a pro-American general appointed as the leader of the revolutionary forces, reported regularly to U.S. officials. During this delicate period of planning and anticipation, two political developments catalyzed the inevitable US intervention.
First, developments at the Tenth Inter-American Conference of the OAS (Organization of American States) in 1954 isolated Guatemala from its Latin American neighbors. The central agenda of this convention was to pass the Declaration of Caracas, an uncompromising resolution which asserted that communist infiltration in any American country would justify “appropriate action.” Such a proclamation vilified Guatemala and enlivened the potential of American military intervention in Latin America. To assure passage of this declaration, John Foster Dulles threatened economic reprisals to any country who hesitated. Regardless, Jorge Toriello, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Guatemala, rebutted with steadfast ferocity: “how could they invent an umbrella before it rained?” he asked plaintively. Despite an acrimonious debate, Dulles’ resolution passed with a resounding 17-1 affirmation.
Second, the discovery of a shipment of Czechoslovakian arms to Guatemala became the official justification for intervention. As rumors of a CIA operation spread among the Guatemalan elite, Árbenz felt a growing need for arms to defend his government from internal revolt and external attack. The 15,000 unmarked crates and boxes, discovered by CIA spy ships in the spring of 1954, contained about 2000 tons of small arms and light artillery pieces – more than all Central America had received in the previous 30 years. However, acquiring them from the Soviet bloc strayed far from Árbenz’ original intentions. In truth, the United States had refused to sell arms to Guatemala since 1948, and the US, along with Britain, prevented arms sales by third parties to Guatemala. Having been rebuffed in similar requests by Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and Switzerland, Arbenz’ almost successful attempt to make a purchase from Denmark also resulted in a last-minute cancellation. With no arms to defend itself and facing a potential invasion, Czechoslovakia thus seemed like a last resort. Regardless of the intentions of Árbenz, this fatal political blunder confirmed American suspicion.
Lacking substantial military funding, operation PBSUCCESS instead relied on psychological warfare and illusions of military prowess to quickly demoralize the Arbenz administration. Beginning in May 1954, Guatemalan exiles trained and financed by the CIA distributed anti-Árbenz, pro-Castillo leaflets and produced broadcasts across Guatemala City. Calling themselves the “Voice of Liberation,” the militants would soon control virtually all communications within the country and adopted the slogan “Trabajo, Pan, y Patria” — work, bread, and country. Pro-Castillo propaganda was so expansive that it even reached the religious sector: Catholic priests were convinced by the revolutionary faction to preach anti-Arbenz messages in Mass. Through this combination of rumor, confusion, and implicit threat, the CIA aimed to create the illusion of an incoming large-scale invasion. The appearance of three obsolete American bombers along with large cargo planes carrying ammunition further agitated the Árbenz coalition. When Castillo Armas crossed over the Honduran border to invade Guatemala on June 18th, he was accompanied by a mere 150 troops, most of whom had no prior military experience. Nevertheless, the impression created by CIA propaganda and bomber flights was enough to convince Arbenz of an American plan to escalate assistance. After a three-week stalemate during which neither party was willing to advance, a B-26 planes flew over the capital and dropped a single bomb. This act mortified the Guatemalan military, and the ensuing mayhem reinforced the public sense that Arbenz’ leadership has failed. Losing support from his army and the peasant population, Arbenz resigned on June 27th and fled into exile.
The persistence of US financial aid to Castillo Armas and his dictatorial successors demonstrates the Eisenhower Administration’s disdain for democracy or human rights. If the Arévalo-Árbenz administration symbolized democracy and progress, Castillo Armas represented reaction and oppression. Immediately after assuming the presidency, the general abrogated the 1947 Labor Code and canceled registration of 500+ unions. Welding unlimited powers of arrest, the dictator outlawed all criticism of the government as part of a program to combat communism.” Under the new regime, Guatemala imposed no income tax or real estate tax, but rather relied on American support to fund its oppressive measures. Despite these violations of personal liberty, US financial aid to Guatemala skyrocketed from $463,000 in 1954 to $10,708,000 in 1955. Ironically, Castillo Armas embodied the very “dictatorship,” “mass arrests,” and “suppression of constitutional guarantees” which John Dulles had previously denounced as communist offenses that the American intervention was seeking to mitigate. Subsequent dictators, whose tactics bore even more bloodshed and horror, received continuous US support as well. From 1954 to 1980, more than $12 million was channeled by the CIA to fund these autocratic governments against leftist insurgencies. By the mid 1980s, 150,000 civilians had been killed in the decades-long civil war. Considering America’s continued support for dictatorial and oppressive regimes in Guatemala, it is reasonable to conclude that the maintenance of US hegemony and hemispheric stability rather than the promotion of democracy served as the primary motivator behind Cold War Latin American foreign policy. As historian Bowen Gordon surmised, “the Communists were too successful at democratic politics for the United States to allow democracy to survive.” Instead, America centered on supporting obsolete political regimes that had long become objects of contempt among their citizens.
The Eisenhower biographer William Hitchcock once asked, “why did Eisenhower order such brutal and ultimately damaging secret operations?” and attributed it “to a failure of the moral imagination.” This conclusion rings true in the case of the Guatemalan coup. Founded on a McCarthyite theme of overdramatization, Operation PBSUCCESS reversed the economic progress made by Arévalo and Árbenz; stripped away the only involvement the indigenous population had earned in politics in the last four hundred years; and ended what Guatemalans so optimistically called the ‘ten years of spring.” While the CIA succeeded in removing a government, it failed to install an adequate substitute. Guatemala would not see another democratically elected government until 1996. Ultimately, the story of Guatemala demonstrates the harms of a realist approach to Cold War foreign policy. The Eisenhower administration overlooked the need for democracy and human rights in the face of regional instability and Soviet infiltration. Diplomacy had failed; instead, victory had been achieved through bloody subversion. As a result, Guatemala was dyed a sea of red.
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 It is interesting to observe that American reaction to Mexican land reappropriations in the previous decade were unfavorable but far less severe than the repercussions faced by Guatemala.
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