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Cover story

U.S. presence began with CIA overthrow of Arbenz

NCR Staff

The introduction of the Central Intelligence Agency into Guatemalan affairs, and, subsequently, into the affairs of neighboring Central American countries, can be traced to the U.S.-designed overthrow of the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954.

The CIA, under Allen Dulles, put together a rather unimpressive “army” of 300 irregular soldiers with Col. Carlos Castillo Armas in command and, through a variety of deceptions, some of them bordering on comical, managed to kick Arbenz out of office.

It was, perhaps, a predictable reaction during the Eisenhower era, when anti-communist fervor, whipped to a frenzy by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was the primary consideration in all foreign relations.

Arbenz, a leftist who had some Communist Party members in his government, brought down the wrath of the CIA when he began to expand existing economic and social reform programs, most notably with the 1952 Agrarian Reform Act. Under that law, the government expropriated significant uncultivated holdings of United Fruit Co. in exchange for long-term bonds and redistributed the land to peasants.

Ironically, according to common historical accounts, the overthrow of Arbenz inspired the beginning of the Guatemalan resistance, the first guerrilla movement in Latin America after Cuba’s rebels.

According to Victor Perera’s Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy, (University of California Press, 1993), “Since both Castro and Che Guevara had received part of their political education in Guatemala during Arbenz’s presidency, their formative influence on Guatemala’s guerrilla organizations amounts to a repayment of an ideological debt.”

Although the rebels were ignored for most of a decade, the Guatemalan military, with the aid of a thousand U.S. Green Berets and joined by “vigilantes and death squadrons composed largely of ranchers and off-duty police units,” wrote Perera, conducted a counterinsurgency campaign.

In an almost eerie foreshadowing of the next two-and-a-half decades, the two-year campaign took the lives of 8,000 people, including students, professors, journalists and scores of innocent peasants, sent the survivors packing for the cities where they formed Latin America’s first urban guerrilla bands “whose terrorist operations culminated with the kidnapping and assassination of the U.S. and German ambassadors.”

The civil war was on in earnest, and the killing would reach hellish proportions before a tenuous peace was declared.

During those decades, dozens of Guatemalan officers, most of them generals, would receive training at the U.S. School of the Americas. Some would receive counterinsurgency training.

The CIA would continue to operate in Guatemala, aiding the military in its campaign against the rebels, which, according to the report by the Commission for Historical Clarification, turned into a genocidal campaign against the country’s Mayan population.

Because Guatemala is the largest country in Central America and certainly one of the richest in natural resources, business concerns from the United States and other nations have always figured into the equation and generally supported the traditional Guatemalan social structure dominated by a rich class and the military.

Military aid to Guatemala ceased in the mid-1970s during the administration of Jimmy Carter, who publicly condemned the government’s human rights abuses. During those years, however, Israel, among others, filled the position of arms trader and kept the military and death squads well-equipped.

U.S. military aid resumed in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan took office. It was during that decade that violence by the military against the mostly Mayan rural population reached its greatest proportions.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999