Guatemala: War and Revolution Part II
This painting by Diego Rivera, “Gloriosa Victoria,” tells the story of the 1954 overthrow of the democratically-elected Jacobo Arbenz government. Coup Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas greets secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who holds a bomb with the face of Eisenhower, surrounded by people who were murdered in the coup. To his left is U.S. ambassador John Peurifoy with military officers and CIA director Allen W. Dulles whispering in his brother’s ear. On the right, the archbishop of Guatemala, Mariano Rossell Arellano, blesses the act, while Guatemalans protest.
Guatemala could have become a beacon of hope for Latin America and the third world. In 1944 fascist dictator Jorge Ubico was forced to resign and his hand picked successor was overthrown by a popular mass movement backed by a reformist coup. The coup was carried out by Major Francisco Arana and Captain Jacobo Arbenz and the new Junta promised to restore democracy and carry out land reform. For the first time the people of Guatemala hoped that a new age had dawned. The masses of Guatemala had existed in a state of legalized slavery under Ubico and the dictators who preceded him. Now they were to be empowered to fight for a better world, free to organize to take back the lands that had been stolen from them during the 19th century. Unfortunately their dream of being lifted out of poverty conflicted with the interests of the United Fruit company which owned huge tracts of Guatemalan land, controlled the railways, the port, the telephone and telegraph, all obtained through bribes paid to Ubico and his predecessors. United Fruit Company born of the merger of corporate and mafia power had been able to install and remove Central American governments for decades through bribery and coups. Worse still for Guatemala the United States was secretly preparing for World War 3 (The Cold War) even before the end of World War 2 and would soon openly commit itself to destroying any movement seeking national liberation or socialism. The CIA would soon be created to carry out a secret war on the world and Guatemala would become one of its earliest victims. Instead of a beacon of hope Guatemala would become a nightmare of mass murder, genocide, rape and torture for decades to come. Even today on a smaller scale the dirty war on the people of Guatemala continues.
Before the coming of the Spanish, Mexico and Central America were home to the wealthiest and most sophisticated civilizations in the Americas. One could spend a lifetime studying the Maya and the Aztecs their art, their complex religions, languages, medicines, agriculture and worldviews. Their cities were unrivalled by anything their conquerors had back in Europe. In 1524 the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in Guatemala bringing disease, war, slavery and untold destruction and misery. On the ruins was created the Captaincy General or Kingdom of Guatemala which included all of Central America as well as Chiapas Mexico and would last nearly 300 years until independence. At first the encomienda system made the surviving Indians into virtual serfs of the new landed elite. However to reduce the need to send more troops to constantly put down Indian revolts, in 1542 a reform package, called the new laws, was passed and later implemented by Guatemala’s second Governor Alonso Lopez Cerrato who ruled from 1548-54. Indians were still part of a system of forced labour but now in the new repartimiento system received a tiny payment. More importantly Indian communities were granted self-rule as long as they paid their tribute, and performed their forced labour quota. They also retained control of their communal lands. They appointed their own alcades (mayors) and police. For the next 300 years there were sporadic localized Indian revolts provoked either by raising the tribute or arresting local leaders. The Guatemalan army began as city militias that could be sent out to crush these revolts, wreak a brief revenge murdering Indians and burning houses, and then withdrawing. The Guatemalan military would continue for centuries in its role of terrorizing the countryside into submission. After the fall of Arbenz and its retraining by American counterinsurgency advisers it would be used to wage a genocidal scorched earth campaign that would claim 200,000 lives.
Guatemala declared independence in 1821 and was replaced briefly by the United Provinces of Central America, which dissolved in 1838. It was dominated by Liberal warlords until 1838. Independence brought little change in the lives of the majority of the population who were still subject to forced labour. The Maya had managed to preserve their language and culture. Central America was divided between the Liberal and Conservative parties. The Liberals were anti-clerical and wanted to transform the economy into an export based cash crop system. The Conservatives were pro-church and wanted to maintain the old colonial system. As far as the interests of the Indian majority were concerned the conservatives were the lesser evil since the liberal economic reforms meant the theft of Indian communal lands, and the Indians being turned into debt slaves of the plantations, and eventually of foreign corporations. Guatemala managed to delay this fate when in 1837 a cholera epidemic was blamed by the church on liberal politicians. This led to an Indian revolt that propelled the rise of the conservative General Rafael Carrera, an illiterate Indian military genius, who would rule Guatemala after defeating Honduran Liberal General Francisco. Carrera would rule as dictator until his death in 1865 serving the interests of the church and the big landowners.
In 1871 two Liberal generals would defeat the conservative forces and seize power. Liberal general Miguel Garcia Granados would rule from 1871-1873 and Liberal general Justo Rufino Barrios would rule from 1873-1885. They would create a modern national army (trained by a Spanish military mission), a modern police force (trained by Sergeant Pratt of the NYPD) and completely restructure the economy towards coffee exports. They would expropriate Indian and church lands to create a class of wealthy coffee growers. A new more exploitive and profitable form of slavery was created for the peasants. An 1877 law on farm workers created a system of debt slavery all peasants were required to carry a passbook with their debts and were forced to stay on the plantations until they were paid off which was never. An 1878 vagrancy law forced peasants to prove they were employed on plantations or face prison. The plantation owners had total power over their workers they could whip or imprison their workers and were free to rape any peasant woman on their estates. The military was used to enforce the new order. The police had actually been created initially more for show. President Rufino Barrios would die in battle while attempting to reunify Central America in 1885. His nephew Jose Reina Barrios became President in 1892 but was assassinated in 1898 bringing to an end the period of liberal “reform.”
In 1898 dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera came to power and would rule ruthlessly the country until 1920. The new police became absorbed by the secret police and became a major tool of oppression. His vast network of secret police terrorized the entire nation. Cabrera halted attempts at military modernization. He was paranoid that young officers might attempt to overthrow him. In 1908 he was the target of a bomb plot, which he blamed on the military academy the Escuela Politecnica. He imprisoned, exiled, and in some cases tortured and killed the cadets. In 1919 he forbade the newly arrived French military advisers from conducting any actual training. However he still managed to expand the military role in enforcing the new economic order in the countryside, crushing any revolts or labour unrest. It was Cabrera who laid the groundwork for the United Fruit Company (UFCO) takeover of the country. In 1902 he passed a tax exemption for bananas. In 1906 he signed his first agreement with the United Fruit Company giving it 170,000 acres in Bananera. In 1912 he granted control of all Guatemalan railways to IRCA Intercontinental Railways of Central America, which was run by UFCO co-founder Minor Keith and was to become a subsidiary of United Fruit in a merger masterminded by future US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In 1920 President Cabrera’s poor relations with the military led to his overthrow in a military coup.
Jorge Ubico Castaneda the future dictator played a major role in the coup and was rewarded with the position of Minister of War. General Jose M. Orellana became the new President. The Rockefellers had brought Ubico to prominence when he was put in charge of an anti-malaria campaign. This campaign had the dual purpose of increasing labour productivity by eliminating malaria and secretly to quarantine Guatemala from any influence of the Mexican revolution. It also gave Ubico an excuse to burn down Indian villages. Ubico had been trained in the United States and as Minister of War turned to America to provide training for the Guatemalan military. In 1925 the National Police and Judicial police would be created both destined to become brutal tools of oppression.
Jorge Ubico became president in 1931 ruling the country as a dictator until June 1944. According to Peter Dale Scott behind the scenes United Fruit may have maneuvered to install Ubico and other dictators like the brutal General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez in El Salvador around this time because of its merger with the rival Cuyamel Banana Company run by future UFCO president Sam “The Banana man” Zemurray. In any case UFCO’s control of Guatemala would expand even further under Ubico. The Guatemalan military backed Ubico because they believed he would modernize the army but ironically by 1941 he had adopted Cabrera’s distrust of the army (with good reason). It was once again as poorly trained and equipped as in Cabrera’s time. In 1932 in neighbouring El Salvador a brief peasant uprising lead the dictator Martinez to conduct a bloody massacre of 32,000 Indians and labour organizers known as the Matanza. Ubico seized the opportunity to launch his own red scare crushing the new communist party, executing ten union leaders and arresting hundreds of people. In 1934 he passed a new vagrancy law that reaffirmed the system of forced labour on plantations. He also revived a law forcing Indians to do 2 weeks forced labour on roadbuilding. In 1935 he passed a new municipal law that made all local government positions appointed by the central government. Mayors were replaced by Intendentes who reported to political chiefs. That same year he passed a military law making the military responsible for law and order in the countryside, appointing military commissioners who also worked as labour recruiters on plantations and had the power to draft peasants into the army if they refused to work for the plantations or attempted to organize. He granted large landowners full police powers to crush their workers. He greatly expanded the role of the national police and the secret police keeping the entire country under constant surveillance. The National Police read every piece of mail in the country before it was delivered. He had his initials stamped into every government bullet so that “malcontents would carry his personal emblem into eternity”. The G2, American military intelligence, wrote admiringly of the tight control he exercised over Guatemala predicting that communism would never be allowed to enter the country. Politically Ubico was pro-American and pro-fascist. An admirer of Hitler and Franco, he allowed the Spanish Falange and the Hitler Youth to operate. In 1930 Ubico made a deal granting United Fruit huge tracts of land in exchange for the promise to build a port on the Pacific. He let them keep the land even though they never built the port. United Fruit owned 555,000 acres, 85% of it uncultivated. Meanwhile most Guatemalans had to make do with tiny plots of land provided by plantations in exchange for unpaid plantation work. Standards of living continued to decline throughout his time in office. Ubico became one of the biggest landowners in the country.
1944-1946 would see the fall of many dictatorships in Latin America. Although historians tend to view this as the last gasp of “New Deal” idealism in American foreign policy, I suspect it had more to do with giving Latin America a democratic facade ahead of the creation of the UN in 1945. The US control over the Latin American voting bloc would be a key weapon in the diplomatic warfare of the early cold war. The US had also made a deal with the Soviet Union to bar pro-axis governments from joining the UN a promise it would soon break. By 1946 the surviving dictatorships like Somoza in Nicaragua and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic would be in the minority. This trend would soon be completely reversed as the US reinstalled dictators throughout Latin America training their military and police to carry out tortures massacres and “disappearances” on an industrial scale. Guatemala would become a textbook example.
Ubico had failed to modernize his army and his pro-fascist views were an embarrassment. In addition Ubico had turned down Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American affairs Nelson Rockefeller’s offer of development loans a scheme to further increase the economic dependency of Latin America. Rockefeller was allowed to run Latin America as his own private fiefdom during World War 2. It was for these reasons that Ubico had outlived his usefulness to the US. In El Salvador the dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez was overthrown in May 1944 leading to a brief relaxation of repression. This sparked hope in Guatemala for Ubico’s overthrow. Ironically it was Nelson Rockefellers massive Latin American propaganda apparatus the Council on Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) which helped pave the way by blanketing the country in FDR’s speeches about the four freedoms, the new deal and the fight against fascism. Guatemalan’s were also inspired by the example of President Cardenas in Mexico who had empowered unions and nationalized the property of Standard Oil.
It was returning exiles and middle class teachers, lawyers, doctors, and small businessmen who made up the movement to overthrow Ubico. Protests began in May 1944. The teachers sparked off events by announcing in advance that they would refuse to march in an upcoming Teachers’ Day parade scheduled for 30 June 1944. What began as a series of small protests had grown by 29 June into the most massive rally in Guatemalan history to date in Guatemala City. Ubico responded by sending in the cavalry, which killed or injured 200 protestors. A few days later 311 teachers, lawyers, doctors and small businessmen signed a petition in support of the protests that became known as the Petition of 311. Shocked that the middle class had turned on him and probably secretly under pressure from the US embassy, Ubico decided to resign on 1 July 1944. However he appointed a handpicked successor General Federico Ponce as the new President. Ponce would last only 108 days.
Ponce believed that Guatemalans merely wanted a new strongman and that things would soon return to normal. He raised teachers’ salaries and instituted modest reforms to placate the protestors. At the same time, he tightened control, increasing political surveillance and banning private meetings and public demonstrations. However in late summer-early fall journalist and politician Alejandro Cordova began to write a series of articles attacking Ponce that electrified the nation. Then Cordova made a fiery speech in the National Assembly attacking Ponce and was assassinated days later in early October, infuriating the nation. Earlier in the year Ponce had promised to hold a free election. The opposition decided to pick Dr Juan Jose Arevalo as their candidate. Arevalo had been living in exile in Argentina for 14 years as a professor of philosophy but was well known in Guatemala as the author of a number of textbooks. He was a familiar name to the teachers that had launched the protests. He was surprised to be chosen and didn’t even have the money for a ticket to return. His supporters wired him the money for the ticket and assured him that they had already organized a political movement that could elect him. Arevalo returned on 2 September 1944 to a hero’s welcome as massive crowds showed up to greet him. However Arevalo immediately had to go into hiding as Ponce ordered his arrest. What the results would have been of a “fair” election where one candidate was a wanted man would never be known. On 20 October 1944 Major Francisco Arana and Captain Jacobo Arbenz launched a military uprising at Fort Matamoros, executed their superior officers and armed the cadets. They launched attacks on police stations and soon much of the army was revolting in support and civilians were also rising up. Ponce begged the American embassy to supply bombs for his air force but they refused. Instead on 22 October 1944 the embassy mediated his resignation with the rebels and Ponce fled to the Mexican Embassy. As he headed into exile $16,000 dollars was confiscated from his luggage. Ubico, who had hoped to seize power again, was forced to flee to the British Embassy. This was Guatemala’s “October Revolution” in which less the 100 people died. The new Junta was run by Major Arana, Captain Arbenz, and businessman Jorge Toriello and it announced its support for Arevalo.
Arevalo was elected with 85% of the vote in Guatemala’s first democratic election that December. The country adopted a new constitution, which included term limits, equal pay for women, a 40-hour workweek, a minimum of one day off a week, free speech and the right to organize but only in the cities. Arevalo was a “Spiritual Socialist” which basically meant a mild form of social democracy modelled on Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. He denounced communism and was pro-American. When he was inaugurated on 15 March 1945, Roosevelt’s special envoy Spruille Braden initially praised him in the press. Braden would later be hired as a lobbyist for United Fruit, becoming one of Guatemala’s loudest critics. Arevalo appointed Major Arana as Army Chief of Staff and Captain Arbenz as his defence minister.
When Arevalo became president the richest 2% of Guatemalans owned 72% of the land while 90% of Guatemalans owned only 15% of the land. 75% of Guatemalans were illiterate and 95% of Indians were illiterate. Life expectancy was only 50 years for Ladinos and only 40 years for Indians. The average peasant made between 2 and 5 cents a day. The country was in desperate need of economic reforms. Arevalo was under constant pressure from the right and especially in danger of coup plots and threats by Major Arana. Thus he was able to carry out only minor economic reforms. He created a social security system in 1946. In 1947 he passed a new labour law that set a minimum wage and allowed for unions and strikes in the cities while still banning unions in the countryside except on very large plantations like those owned by United Fruit. However with Ubico’s repression lifted peasants formed labour confederations and syndicates anyways. Even under Ubico local Indian leaders had used patronage networks and informal legal knowledge to resist the plantation owners’ forced labour and conscription. Now under Arevalo some Indian leaders were joining in alliance with the labour movement to demand reform. The new labour code enraged United Fruit who claimed it was being unfairly singled out. The Truman administration had the State Department begin to pressure Guatemala and in 1948 put Guatemala under an arms embargo for failure to sign the Rio Pact. The seeds of the coup were being planted with United Fruit launching a massive PR campaign demonizing Guatemala, lobbying congress, and launching a number of failed coup attempts. In 1948 Arevalo created a National Production Institute to supply credit, expertise, and supplies to small farmers. In 1949 he passed a law of forced rental allowing landless peasants to petition for the right to rent unused land from plantations at low prices. Arevalo also redistributed some lands that had been seized during the war from German planters. During the 19th century, while busy dispossessing the Indians, the liberals also tried to lure in white immigrants from Europe with cheap deals on the stolen land and for a time German planters had dominated the coffee business, ruling over the Indians like feudal lords. During World War 2 the US pressured Ubico into seizing their lands, as they were rabidly pro-Nazi. On the topic of fascists, Arevalo the spiritual socialists lifted restrictions on foreign priests, which Archbishop Mariano Rossell Arellano used to open up a Guatemalan ratline for fascist priests fleeing socialist countries, who would play a minor role in the coup against Arbenz. Arellano would play a major role.
Arevalo would survive over two dozen coup attempts thanks to Arbenz. Major Arana was suspected to be involved in many of them, as he had become the favoured candidate of the rich who opposed reform. He openly threatened President Arevalo and the congress with a coup. Arevalo complained that in Guatemala there were two presidents and one (Arana) was always threatening the other with a machine gun. Arana had more influence in the military than Arbenz and was a better public speaker. Arbenz’s wife Maria Vilanova was the daughter of wealthy Salvadoran planters who rebelled, horrified at the inequality in Central America and flirted with communism. She turned the Arbenz home into a left wing salon. She was slowly radicalizing her husband. She was the unsung hero of the October Revolution having urged Arbenz to take part in the coup and plotting his rise to power. What role she and her husband played in the fate of Arana is still unknown but her chauffeur was widely believed to have killed him. Arbenz’s supporters had decided to arrest and exile Arana when he was inspecting an arms cache that had been discovered. As he left the town of Amatitlan he was stopped at a checkpoint set up by Arbenz supporters. Instead of surrendering he pulled his gun and died in the ensuing shoot out. There was a military uprising in Guatemala City for 3 days after they learned of Arana’s death. However, it was eventually put down. His death became a favourite rallying point for right wing Guatemalans. Arevalo declined to investigate his death. Arbenz would run in the 1950 election against Ubico supporter Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes and win by a wide majority. To flash forward briefly to part two: in order to appreciate the irony of the 1950 election. After the coup of 1954 Ydigoras would later come to power in the late 50’s and provoke a military uprising by supplying bases to the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. To quell the uprising the CIA bombed the rebels who after fleeing and returning became the leaders of a guerrilla movement. Ydigoras would be overthrown in a coup to prevent the possible re-election of Arevalo by a US-backed, counterinsurgency trained, military junta. It would be better able to carry out the dirty war that would claim 200,000 lives.
Arbenz was inaugurated 15 March 1951. He immediately began trying to pass some ambitious reforms. He wanted to create a highway that would break the transportation strangle hold United Fruit had over the railways. He wanted to build a port on the Atlantic to compete with United Fruit’s port at Puerto Barrios. He also wanted to build a dam to supply electricity to compete with the American-owned electric company. Most importantly he spent the first year getting a land reform program passed. On 27 June 1952, his land reform was passed. It was less extreme then the land reform that Mexico and the US had already carried out. Arbenz’s law expropriated uncultivated lands of farms larger then 670 acres. Farms that were at least two thirds cultivated and were between 223-670 acres were exempted as were all farms of less then 223 acres. The owners were compensated with bonds at the tax value of the lands. Since United Fruit had lied about the value of the lands for tax purposes it had in effect cheated itself. Arbenz gave the expropriated lands to 100,000 families who each received a maximum of 42.5 acres. Arbenz expropriated 1,700 acres of his own lands in the process as well as the lands of his Foreign Minister Guillermo Torriello. For the first time October Revolution reforms truly benefited the poor majority in the countryside. Local peasant labour leaders were often put in charge of implementing the land reform as they were recruited to head up land reform commissions. Two rival communist parties, one the Communist Party of Guatemala led by Jose Manuel Fortuny and the Revolutionary Party of Guatemalan workers led by Manuel Gutierrez merged to form the PGT the Party of Guatemalan workers. They were energetic organizers and were one of the four parties in Arbenz’s coalition Government. Unions largely banned under Ubico exploded in membership under Arevalo and the number of unions greatly expanded under Arbenz. In the countryside and the city radical forces demanding change were uniting behind Arbenz. The seeds of the “Mayan Marxism” of the 70’s and 80’s were being planted. The Arbenz years provided a brief period of prosperity for the people of Guatemala that sadly they would never achieve again. Standards of living would be lower in the 1980’s then in the 1950’s, and even today Guatemalans were arguably better off under Arbenz. This is of course putting aside the issue of the decades long dirty war and the nightmarish horror it brought to Guatemalans.
Arbenz’s land reforms were the final straw as far as the United Fruit Company and the United States were concerned. They were also outraged by Arbenz’s neutral stance on the Cold War at the very moment the US was trying to impose anti-communism as the guiding principal of its Latin American neo-colonial empire and the rest of the world. They wanted Arbenz to purge all communists in government and arrest all communists in the country. Truman authorized the CIA to carry out a coup behind the State Departments back called PB/FORTUNE a massive shipment of arms was to be sent to Somoza so he could arm a proxy army to overthrow Arbenz. However Undersecretary David Bruce learned of the coup plot and warned Secretary of State Dean Acheson who convinced Truman to cancel it at the last minute. But Truman was soon to be replaced by President Eisenhower. Allen Dulles was promoted to head the CIA. Allen Dulles old boss CIA director Walter Bedell Smith became Undersecretary of State. His brother John Foster Dulles became Secretary of State. The Dulles Brothers had business ties to United Fruit that went back decades through their work for Sullivan and Cromwell. John Foster Dulles had negotiated United Fruit’s deals with Ubico and UFCO’S merger with IRCA (financed by the Nazi Schroder Bank to which the Dulles brothers had close ties.) Allen Dulles had been on United Fruit’s Board. Walter Bedell Smith had made a secret deal with United Fruit’s Lobbyist Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran. Smith wanted to be appointed United Fruit’s President but had to settle for a position on the board. Corcoran was also the lawyer for the CIA drug smuggling airline Civil Air Transport (CAT) and for T.V. Soong the power behind Chiang Kai Shek and the China Lobby. Corcoran was also UFCO’s liaison to the CIA. Two other figures closely involved with CAT would take part in the coup William Pawley as a “civilian” adviser and State Department Liaison to the Pentagon and CAT co-founder Whiting Willauer who would be appointed Ambassador to Honduras so he could help set up a CIA air force to bomb Guatemala. CAT pilots would bomb and strafe Guatemala piloting the CIA air force.
In Latin America United Fruit had become infamous as El Pulpo “the Octopus” and its tentacles reached not only across Latin America but within the US as well. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, known as the “Senator from United Fruit”, would be appointed UN ambassador prior to the coup. The Eisenhower administration was filled with over a dozen people with close ties to United Fruit. Eisenhower’s personal secretary Anne Whitman was the wife of UFCO’s PR man Edmund S. Whitman. The Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America John Moors Cabot was the brother of former UFCO president Thomas Cabot. UFCO employed Edward Bernays the father of PR to manipulate liberal opinion and the press. It hired John Clements Associates to manipulate the right wing McCarthyite press. The United Fruit Company ran a press bureau and was the media’s main source of information on Central America. Bernays arranged for press tours of Guatemala carefully stage-managed so that they interviewed only American United Fruit managers. He was in close contact with the New York Times owner Arthur Hays Sulzberger who was also close to Allen Dulles and the CIA. Guatemala was portrayed as a Soviet puppet that was the first step towards the Soviet conquest of the Americas. The Arevalo and Arbenz years were the first time Guatemala had any semblance of democracy and civil rights. The media portrayed him as a brutal dictator anyway. The United Fruit Company orchestrated propaganda campaign went on for years paving the way for the CIA coup. During the coup it would use its rail lines to smuggle weapons.
In August of 1953 the National Security Council’s 10/2 committee (Which supervised the covert war on the planet later known as the 5412 committee, the Special group etc.) authorized the CIA to launch the coup in Guatemala code named PB/SUCCESS. Frank Wisner CIA Deputy Director of Plans, the euphemism for covert operations) together with Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith selected Ambassador “Pistol Packing” John Peurifoy “The Butcher of Greece” to be the new ambassador to Guatemala. In Greece Peurifoy had worked closely with the CIA in solidifying a fascist government as it worked to crush the Greek Communists. In Guatemala he would work to pressure the military to overthrow Arbenz while cynically denying any US role in what was unfolding. He became Ambassador in October 1953. To run the coup Frank Wisner recruited Al Haney and his side kick Rip Robertson to who were responsible for running the covert war in Korea sending CIA trained paramilitaries to operate behind North Korean lines. Wisner sent Tracy Barnes to supervise Al Haney. The base of operations was in Opa Locka Florida. The CIA approached Miguel Fuentes Ydigoras the loser of the 1950 election to lead the coup. He turned them down because their terms of complete surrender of sovereignty offended him and because he wanted to protect his image back in Guatemala hoping to become president one day. However he would secretly take part in the coup having made a deal with Armas back in 1952. He suggested Colonel Castillo Armas to lead it. Armas had trained in the US at Ft. Leavenworth. Arevalo appointed Armas to head the military academy. Armas had resigned as head of the Military Academy after Arana was killed. In November of 1950 he lead a failed military uprising, leading 70 men in a disastrous attack on a military base where 16 of them died. Armas was arrested and sentenced to death but escaped or more likely bribed his way out. After seeking asylum in Colombia he ended up in Honduras and got $250,000 in funding from Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo hated Arevalo and Arbenz for allowing his enemies, the Caribbean legion, to operate in Guatemala. Trujillo was a notorious sadist and racist genocidal maniac who slaughtered thousands of black people. After the coup Trujillo would send advisers to Guatemala to help train torturers and killers. Armas was also backed by the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza.
In March of 1954 the 10th Inter-American Conference was held in Caracas Venezuela and John Foster Dulles went down to put in place the diplomatic framework for the coup. He bullied the delegates into adopting his Caracas declaration, which targeted but did not name Guatemala. It declared that any country that threatened to go communist was a threat to the region and that the OAS must unite to turn back the “invasion.” In other words any country John Foster Dulles labelled communist could be overthrown and this would be portrayed not as an offensive violation of the OAS Charter, the UN charter and international law but as defensive measure. Guatemala was still a capitalist country. Arbenz had not seized the UFCO owned railroads, the UFCO owned port, the American electric company. He had not seized the property of the Guatemalan oligarchy. Not a single soviet or Chinese soldier was stationed in Guatemala. But of course facts were and are irrelevant to the State Department and the American press.
Tracy Barnes hired E. Howard Hunt to run the propaganda campaign against Guatemala. Hunt brought in David Atlee Philips. They launched a massive psychological warfare campaign. They set up the Voice of Liberation Radio station, which went on the air 1 May 1954, luring listeners with a variety show of pre-recorded clips of Latin American celebrities. Its slogan was “work, bread, and country.” Their strategy was to demoralize and terrify Arbenz supporters into inaction, move neutral listeners into the opposition and motivate the opposition to join the CIA campaign of terrorism and sabotage. A key goal element was to destroy Arbenz’s support in the military by accusing him of planning to disband the army and arm civilian militias. Arming unions and students could have played a decisive role in foiling the coup plot. Transmitters were placed in Nicaragua, Honduras, and even within the American Embassy in Guatemala City. CIA radio operations were even able to falsify military radio traffic which would prove decisive during the coup, fooling the Guatemalan military into believing they were losing when they were winning. The US Information Agency (USIA) also played a key role in the propaganda campaign producing movies, printing 100,000 pamphlets, and planting hundreds of CIA funded stories in the press across Central America. The CIA also turned to Cardinal Spellman in New York (He would play a key role as patron of fascist émigrés and backer of the Diem regime in south Vietnam). Spellman contacted the fascist Guatemalan Archbishop Mariano Rossell Arellano who was already a bitter foe of Arbenz and a key anti-communist Ideologue who had been importing fascist priests to lecture people on the evils of communism. Spellman had the Archbishop write a manifesto demanding Guatemalans rise up to overthrow Arbenz as part of a holy war against godless communism. The CIA then printed his statement on thousands of leaflets and dropped them over the countryside. Within Guatemala city the CIA worked with a right wing student group CEUA one of whose leaders, Mario Sandoval Alarcon, would later become notorious as the “Godfather of the Death Squads” in Central America, mentoring Roberto D’Aubuisson in El Salvador, helping the Nicaraguan Contras regroup, leading Armas’ political party MLN and representing Guatemala in the World Anti-Communist League. During 1954 Sandoval and CEUA led a campaign of propaganda terrorism and sabotage.
Meanwhile the CIA was training Armas tiny army, which was never larger then 400 men, but which the CIA convinced the world was 5,000 strong and recruiting ever more people. Arbenz was under an arms embargo dating back to 1948 and the CIA and US State Department managed to sabotage any of his attempts to buy arms in Latin America and Western Europe. The CIA was busy planting phony Soviet Arms cache in Nicaragua and Guatemala when it learned that a Swedish freighter, the Alfheim, was delivering a Czech arms shipment on May 13 1954. It had been tipped off about the arms deal the year before but despite its massive surveillance had lost track of the ship during its voyage. By 15 May, it had leaked the story to the press and John Foster Dulles warned the media privately that Arbenz was now planning to launch an offensive and seize Panama, an absurd lie. On 16 May, Rip Robertson led a commando team into Guatemala to blow up the rail lines carrying the arms but heavy rains defused the bombs. Within days Eisenhower had signed a mutual defence pact with Honduras and sent a massive weapons shipment as a cover for arming Armas forces. He sent nuclear bombers down to Nicaragua to intimidate the Guatemalan military. Throughout the coup plot US military forces were put on standby for a possible invasion of Guatemala. On 24 May 1954, Eisenhower ordered the US Navy to search all ships heading into Guatemala. It was illegal under international law and some at the State Department joked about America having fought the war of 1812 to prevent similar treatment at the hands of the British. Now it was the Americans harassing the British and French. By 26 May, the CIA air force was dropping leaflets and warning of the coming bombing campaign. At the end of May, Arbenz arrested a number of coup plotters while others sought asylum in various embassies. One of Armas’ couriers had defected and revealed the entire plan of PB/Success. Arbenz and his Foreign minister tried to expose the plot. The media mocked their claims as an absurd fabrication.
On 17 June, Armas finally joined his forces and they were flown in CIA cargo planes to the Guatemalan border. On 18 June, Armas forces invaded Guatemala. CIA planes began bombing and strafing targets in Guatemala: small towns, the airport, and military barracks. One of the victims of the airport attack was a three old girl. Arbenz had been forced to ground his tiny air force for lack of parts and to avoid defection. He had no air defences. The CIA had created a secret air force flown by CIA contractors that was the largest in Central America. It was this air superiority along with the threat of an American invasion that would eventually convince the Guatemalan military that the cause was hopeless. Armas took Esquipulas 6 miles from the Honduran border on 19 June. It had enormous symbolic value as the home to the shrine of the black Christ. It was the last victory Armas would win in battle. His next targets were Zacapa and the Porto Barrios where he was soundly beaten and forced to retreat back to Esquipulas. To save face he held a mass of Thanksgiving on 21 June. The day before, the coup had another setback when CIA bombers bombed Southern Guatemala but then ran out of fuel and crash-landed in Mexico. Allen Dulles had to lobby Eisenhower to send down replacements, which arrived on 23 June. The new CIA planes went on a 72-hour rampage including bombing a campus and the barracks at Zacapa. Zacapa would later become the laboratory for the CIA and Special Forces scorched earth strategy.
On 21 June 1954, Arbenz had Foreign Minister Torriello attempt to appeal for help to the UN. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold was sympathetic to Guatemala’s plight and Britain and France wanted to send in UN observers on a fact-finding mission. This enraged Eisenhower, who threatened to withdraw support in Indochina and Egypt. They quickly caved in. The American UN ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge demanded that the case be transferred to the OAS of which Guatemala was not even a member. Thanks to American bullying the UN was powerless to interfere. Dag Hammarskjold considered resigning in disgust. He would later be killed by the CIA for interfering with their plans in the Congo and Indonesia. Attempts by Guatemala to negotiate with the US directly were met with cynical denials from Ambassador Peurifoy. He denied that the interests of United Fruit played any role; instead demanding Arbenz purge the Communists. Earlier on 3 June, Peurifoy had convinced Arbenz’s military to demand he purge all Communists. When Foreign Minister Toriello mentioned the CIA bombing campaign Peurifoy denied that any bombs had been dropped. He consistently treated any mention of US involvement as a baseless attack and a reason for further hostility.
The bombings, and the false reports of Armas victories threw the Arbenz government into a panic. The CIA had set up a sophisticated psychological warfare campaign that was faking military radio traffic making it appear that Armas forces were much larger and more successful then they really were. Fake reports came in reporting imaginary defeats and demanding reinforcements. The American embassy started a rumour campaign that the US was about to invade. Secretly the CIA was panicking about Armas lack of success. That didn’t stop CIA man E. Howard Hunt from gambling on the success of an audacious “big lie.” Three days of bombing by the replacement air force had completely demoralized the military as soldiers and cadets were blown up in their barracks. Hunt used the Voice of Liberation to fake a massive invasion heading for the capital in Guatemala City on the Weekend of June 26-27 giving a minute-by-minute account of an imaginary invasion. Armas’ forces were in reality still just 6 miles into Guatemalan territory. When Arbenz arrived at the National Palace on 27 June, he received news that the Americans had sunk a British freighter. Supposedly the bombing was carried out on Rip Robertson’s orders in defiance of the CIA but at the insistence of Somoza. Arbenz had no way of knowing this, if the Americans were willing to attack a powerful ally like Britain there was no telling how far they might go. Arbenz sent his Foreign Minister Toriello to meet Peurifoy to work out a surrender. The ambassador demanded Arbenz resign before a ceasefire could be worked out. Arbenz’s Chief of Staff of the Army met with the Ambassador to work out a coup plan. He promised to crush the Communists and Peurifoy sent him back to issue an ultimatum to Arbenz from the military to resign. Arbenz surrounded by armed men loyal to Diaz had no choice but to resign. But he got Diaz to promise never to negotiate with Armas. That night a heartbroken Arbenz made his farewell address which the CIA jammed. Diaz the new president made a speech promising to resist Armas and to protect the gains of the October Revolution. This outraged Peurifoy and former Time magazine journalist turned CIA Enno Hobbing decided Diaz had to go. Hobbing went over to tell Diaz to resign. Diaz complained that he had an agreement with Peurifoy. Hobbing warned him there was diplomacy and there was reality and Hobbing represented reality. Diaz demanded to hear it from the Ambassador. At 5 Am Peurifoy demanded Diaz negotiate with Armas and that he begin killing subversives and Diaz refused. Peurifoy wired Opa Locka to restart the bombing campaign and recruited Elfegio Monzon to launch a coup against Diaz. On 29 June 1954, Monzon overthrew Diaz while he was meeting with Peurifoy. On 30 June, Monzon was flown on Peurifoy’s official plane to meet with Armas in El Salvador. John Foster Dulles ordered Peurifoy to stay behind but then changed his mind when negotiations broke down and Peurifoy arrived in El Salvador “to crack some heads”. Within an hour Monzon had formed a Junta with Armas. By 4 July, they were all back in Guatemala celebrating at the American Embassy. Peurifoy paid Monzon’s supporters 100,000 dollars each to resign from the Junta. On 8 July, the remaining Junta members elected Castillo Armas president. He promised to preserve the gains of the October Revolution. Arbenz meanwhile was publicly strip searched and humiliated at the airport as he went into exile. Even in exile the CIA continued to hound, pressuring countries to deny him asylum. After wandering from Mexico to Switzerland he was forced to seek asylum in the eastern bloc living in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. After the Cuban revolution, he was invited to stay there but grew tired of hearing Fidel promise that Guatemala would not become another Cuba. Most historians claim he died accidentally, drunkenly drowning in a bathtub. More likely he was murdered in Mexico on CIA orders: held under water that was scalding hot covering his body in burns as he drowned.
On 2 August 1954, the cadets at the military academy rebelled in protest of Armas forces being allowed to join the army. They appealed to Monzon for support, but on US advice he refused. On 31 August, Monzon resigned from the Junta. The CIA game of musical chairs was over and Armas was now in charge. He resisted the efforts of John Foster Dulles to force him to arrest the Arbenz supporters and communists that had sought asylum in foreign embassies. Among them was Ernesto “Che” Guevara who had arrived in January of 1954 attempting to join the defence of Guatemala. He would escape to Mexico; befriend Fidel Castro and fight to liberate Cuba from American imperialism. Cuba learned the lesson of Guatemala well. The CIA Bay of Pigs invasion, modelled on the Guatemalan coup of ‘54 and advised by many veterans of that coup plot, would be crushed.
On everything else however Armas was suitably obedient to his American masters. He outlawed trade unions, confiscated the lands Arbenz had given to the peasants and returned them to United Fruit. Seven labour leaders active on United Fruit Plantations were shot in Guatemala City. Dozens and possibly hundreds of labour leaders and Arbenz supporters were assassinated. Thousands were arrested and tortured. Communism was made illegal. The CIA seized all the labour records to compile a massive list of “subversives” anyone that had joined a peasant confederation was put on a black list. As CIA, military, USAID, and Special Forces advisers transformed the Guatemalan military and police into ruthless tools of counter-insurgency the black list became a death list. Armas brought back Ubico’s ruthless secret police chief, infamous as a sadistic torturer, back from exile. The CIA helped Armas set up the President’s National Security Council a precursor to the infamous Regional Center of the 1970’s and 1980’s that supervised the mass assassination campaign.
Armas restored the privileges the Church had lost in the 19th Century. This would lead ironically to his downfall. United Fruit had helped bring Armas to power now its rival Standard Fruit would eliminate Armas. Standard Fruit was run by Seymour Weiss, who ran New Orleans for the Meyer Lansky syndicate with Carlos Marcello. Weiss was the former bagman for Huey Long and was close to Frank Costello. After the 1954 coup United Fruit used its control of the IRCA railways to make things difficult for Standard Fruit. Guatemalan gambling was controlled by Ted Lewin, a gangster with ties to Standard Fruit, who had worked closely with the CIA in the Philippines. On the advice of the Church, Armas began to crack down on Ted Lewin’s casinos. Gangster and fixer for Standard Fruit John Rosselli, who had made a number of trips to Guatemala the year before, arrived in 1957 and met with the Guatemalan military to plot Armas assassination. On 27 July 1957, Armas was assassinated by his bodyguard. Rosselli’s army contact Lieutenant Colonel Enrique Trinidad Oliva was appointed the new head of the secret police. Rosselli would later be recruited by the CIA to assassinate Castro and would be murdered after testifying about the JFK assassination to the House Committee on Assassinations in 1976. He was one of many like, William Pawley, E. Howard Hunt and David Atlee Philips who would be linked to both Guatemala and the Kennedy assassination.
Unfortunately Armas death would bring no relief to the people of Guatemala. Their nightmare had only just begun. The growing of cotton and the discovery of oil would provide new economic motives to rob the poor of their tiny plots of land massacring them and sending the survivors to Vietnam style model villages. Soon the Cuban revolution and the escalating war in Vietnam would inspire an obsession in Washington to spread the techniques of counter-insurgency across the world. Guatemala would become yet another textbook example this time of how CIA, AID’s Office of Public Safety and military advisers train the military and police to wage a dirty war on. Special Forces and CIA advisers rotated between Guatemala and Vietnam setting up assassination programs and creating death squads. US military planes would napalm the Guatemalan countryside at the same time the US was waging the Vietnam War. As Vietnam was ending the violence in Guatemala was still escalating. The war in Guatemala would continue well into the 1990’s and continues today on a smaller scale. Part two will tell the story of this largely unknown dirty war in Guatemala that claimed 200,000 lives.
My main source was the classic “Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala“, by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer.
“The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala”, by Michael McClintock, covers the evolution of the system of exploitation and repression from the 19th Century through the 1980’s.
“The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War“, by Greg Grandin, is a study of the Alta Verapaz region focusing on the lives of Indian labour leaders and revolutionaries.
“Deep Politics and the Death of JFK“, by Peter Dale Scott, covers the ties between the fruit companies the CIA and the mafia and the assassination of Castillo Armas.
My article on El Salvador
My article on the Dulles brothers law firm Sullivan and Cromwell
My article on Allen Dulles and the origins of the CIA