While the world watched
excerpted from the book
by William Blum
To whom does a poor banana republic turn when a CIA army is
advancing upon its territory and CIA planes are overhead bombing
The leaders of Guatemala tried everyone-the United Nations,
the Organization of American States, other countries individually,
the world press, even the United States itself, in the desperate
hope that it was all a big misunderstanding, that in the end,
reason would prevail.
Nothing helped. Dwight Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles and
Allen Dulles had decided that the legally-elected government of
Jacobo Arbenz was "communist", therefore must go and
go it did, in June 1954.
In the midst of the American preparation to overthrow the
government, the Guatemalan Foreign Minister, Guillermo Toriello,
lamented that the United States was categorizing "as 'communism'
every manifestation of nationalism or economic independence any
desire for social progress, any intellectual curiosity, and any
interest in progressive liberal reforms."
The Guatemalan president [Arbenz] , who took office in March
1951 after being elected by a wide margin, had no special contact
or spiritual/ideological ties with the Soviet Union or the rest
of the Communist bloc. Although American policymakers and the
American press, explicitly and implicitly, often labeled Arbenz
a communist, there were those in Washington who knew better, at
least during their more dispassionate moments. Under Arbenz's
administration Guatemala had voted at the United Nations so closely
with the United States on issues of "Soviet imperialism"
that a State Department group occupied with planning Arbenz's
overthrow concluded that propaganda concerning Guatemala's UN
record "would not be particularly helpful in our case".
And a State Department analysis paper reported that the Guatemalan
president had support "not only from Communist-led labor
and the radical fringe of professional and intellectual groups,
but also among many anti-Communist nationalists in urban areas".
The centerpiece of Arbenz's program was land reform. The need
for it was clearly expressed in the all-too-familiar underdeveloped-country
statistics: In a nation overwhelmingly rural, 2.2 percent of the
landowners owned 70 percent of the arable land; the annual per
capita income of agricultural workers was $87. Before the revolution
of 1944, which overthrew the Ubico dictatorship, "farm laborers
had been roped together by the Army for delivery to the low-land
farms where they were kept in debt slavery by the landowners."
The expropriation of large tracts of uncultivated acreage
which was distributed to approximately 100,000 landless peasants,
the improvement in union rights for the workers, and other social
reforms, were the reasons Arbenz had won the support of Communists
and other leftists, which was no more than to be expected. When
Arbenz was criticized for accepting Communist support, he challenged
his critics to prove their good faith by backing his reforms themselves.
They failed to do so, thus revealing where the basis of their
The first plan to topple Arbenz was a CIA operation approved
by President Truman in 1952, but at the eleventh hour, Secretary
of State Dean Acheson persuaded Truman to abort it. However, soon
after Eisenhower became president in January 1953, the plan was
resurrected. Both administrations were pressured by executives
of United Fruit Company -- much of the vast and uncultivated land
in Guatemala had been expropriated by the Arbenz government as
part of the land reform program. The company wanted nearly $16
million for the and, the government was offering $525,000, United
Fruit's own declared valuation for tax purposes.
United Fruit functioned in Guatemala as a state within a state.
It owned the country's telephone and telegraph facilities, administered
its only important Atlantic harbor, and monopolized its banana
exports. A subsidiary of the company owned nearly every mile of
railroad track in the country. The fruit company's influence amongst
Washington's power elite was equally impressive. On a business
and/or personal level, it had close ties to the Dulles brothers,
various State Department officials, congressmen, the American
Ambassador to the United Nations, and others. Anne Whitman, the
wife of the company's public relations director, was President
Eisenhower's personal secretary. Under-secretary of State (and
formerly Director of the CIA) Walter Bedell Smith was seeking
an executive position with United Fruit at the same time he was
helping to plan the coup. He was later named to the company's
board of directors.
Under Arbenz, Guatemala constructed an Atlantic port and a
highway to compete with United Fruit's holdings, and built a hydro-electric
plant to offer cheaper energy than the US controlled electricity
monopoly. Arbenz's strategy was to limit the power of foreign
companies through direct competition rather than through nationalization,
a policy not feasible of course when it came to a fixed quantity
like land. In his inaugural address, Arbenz stated that:
"Foreign capital will always be welcome as long as it
adjusts to local conditions, remains always subordinate to Guatemalan
laws, cooperates with the economic development of the country,
and strictly abstains from intervening in the nation's social
and political life."
This hardly described United Fruit's role in Guatemala. Amongst
much else, the company had persistently endeavored to frustrate
Arbenz's reform programs, discredit him and his government, and
induce his downfall.
Arbenz was, accordingly, wary of multinationals and could
not be said to welcome them into his country with open arms. This
attitude, his expropriation of United Fruit's land, and his "tolerance
of communists" were more than enough to make him a marked
man in Washington. The United States saw these policies as being
inter-related: that is, it was communist influence-not any economic
or social exigency of Guatemalan life-which was responsible for
the government's treatment of American firms.
In March 1953, the CIA approached disgruntled right-wing officers
in the Guatemala army and arranged to send them arms. United Fruit
donated $64,000 in cash. The following month, uprisings broke
out in several towns but were quickly put down by loyal troops.
The rebels were put on trial and revealed the fruit company's
role in the plot, but not the ClA's.
The Eisenhower administration resolved to do the job right
the next time around. With cynical glee, almost an entire year
was spent in painstaking, step-by-step preparation for the overthrow
of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Of the major CIA undertakings, few have
been as well documented as has the coup in Guatemala. With the
release of many formerly classified government papers, the following
story has emerged:
Headquarters for the operation were established in Opa Locka,
Florida, on the out skirts of Miami. The Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio
Somoza lent/leased his country out as a site for an airstrip and
for hundreds of men-Guatemalan exiles and US and Central American
mercenaries-to receive training in the use of weapons and radio
broadcasting, as well as in the fine arts of sabotage and demolition.
Thirty airplanes were assigned for use in the "Liberation",
stationed in Nicaragua, Honduras and the Canal Zone, to be flown
by American pilots. The Canal Zone was set aside as a weapons
depot from which arms were gradually distributed to the rebels
who were to assemble in Honduras under the command of Colonel
Carlos Castillo Armas before crossing into Guatemala. Soviet-marked
weapons were also gathered for the purpose of planting them inside
Guatemala before the invasion to reinforce US charges of Russian
intervention. And, as important as arms, it turned out, hidden
radio transmitters were placed in and around the perimeter of
Guatemala, including one in the US Embassy.
An attempt was made to blow up the trains carrying the Czech
weapons from portside to Guatemala City; however, a torrential
downpour rendered the detonators useless, where upon the CIA paramilitary
squad opened fire on one train, killing a Guatemalan soldier and
wounding three others; but the convoy of trains made it safely
to its destination.
After the Czech ship had arrived in Guatemala, Eisenhower
ordered the stopping of "suspicious foreign-flag vessels
on the high seas off Guatemala to examine cargo". The State
Department's legal adviser wrote a brief which concluded in no
uncertain terms that "Such action would constitute a violation
of international law." No matter. At least two foreign vessels
were stopped and searched, one French and one Dutch. It was because
of such actions by the British that the United States had fought
the War of 181.
The Guatemalan military came in for special attention. The
US ostentatiously signed mutual security treaties with Honduras
and Nicaragua, both countries hostile to Arbenz, and dispatched
large shipments of arms to them in the hope that this would signal
a clear enough threat to the Guatemalan military to persuade it
to withdraw its support of Arbenz. Additionally, the US Navy dispatched
two submarines from Key West, saying only that they were going
"south". Several days later, the Air Force, amid considerable
fanfare, sent three B-36 bombers on a "courtesy call"
The CIA also made a close study of the records of members
of the Guatemalan officer corps and offered bribes to some of
them. One of the Agency's clandestine radio stations broadcast
appeals aimed at military men, as well as others, to join the
liberation movement. The station reported that Arbenz was secretly
planning to disband or disarm the armed forces and replace it
with a people's militia. CIA planes dropped leaflets over Guatemala
carrying the same message.
Eventually, at Ambassador Peurifoy's urging, a group of high-ranking
officers called on Arbenz to ask that he dismiss all communists
who held posts in his administration. The president assured them
that the communists did not represent a danger, that they did
not run the government, and that it would be undemocratic to dismiss
them. At a second meeting, the officers also demanded that Arbenz
reject the creation of the "people's militia'.
Arbenz himself was offered a bribe by the CIA, whether to
abdicate his office or something less is not clear. A large sum
of money was deposited in a Swiss bank for him, but he, or a subordinate,
rejected the offer.
On the economic front, contingency plans were made for such
things as cutting off Guatemalan credit abroad, disrupting its
oil supplies, and causing a run on its foreign reserves. But it
was on the propaganda front that American ingenuity shone at its
bright ~t. Inasmuch as the Guatemalan government was being overthrown
because it was communist. the fact of its communism would have
to be impressed upon the rest of Latin America.
Accordingly, the US Information Agency (USIA) began to place
unattributed articles in foreign newspapers labeling particular
Guatemalan officials as communist and referring to various actions
by the Guatemalan government as "communist-inspired".
In the few weeks prior to Arbenz's fall alone, more than 200 articles
about Guatemala were written and published in scores of Latin
Employing a method which was to become a standard CIA/USIA
feature all over Latin America and elsewhere, as we shall see,
articles placed in one country were picked up by newspapers in
other countries, either as a result of CIA payment or unwittingly
because the story was of interest. Besides the obvious advantage
of multiplying the potential audience, the tactic gave the appearance
that independent world opinion was taking a certain stand and
further obscured the American connection.
The USIA also distributed more than 100,000 copies of a pamphlet
entitled "Chronology of Communism in Guatemala" throughout
the hemisphere, as well as 27,000 copies of anti-communist cartoons
and posters. The American propaganda agency, more over, produced
three films on Guatemala, with predictable content, and newsreels
favorable to the United States for showing free in cinemas.
Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, a prelate possessed
of anti-communism, a man who feared social change more than he
feared God, was visited by the CIA. Would his Reverence arrange
CIA contact with Archbishop Mariano Rossell Arellano of Guatemala?
The Cardinal would be delighted. Thus it came to pass that on
9 April 1954, a pastoral letter was read in Guatemalan Catholic
churches calling to the attention of the congregations the presence
in the country of a devil called communism and demanding that
the people "rise as a single man against this enemy of God
and country", or at least not rally in Arbenz's defense.
To appreciate the value of this, one must remember that Guatemala's
peasant class was not only highly religious, but that very few
of them were able to read, and so could receive the Lord's Word
only in this manner. For those who could read, many thousands
of pamphlets carrying the Archbishop's message were air-dropped
around the country.
In May, the CIA covertly sponsored a "Congress Against
Soviet Intervention in Latin America" in Mexico City. The
same month, Somoza called in the diplomatic corps in Nicaragua
and told them, his voice shaking with anger, that his police had
discovered a secret Soviet shipment of arms (which had been planted
by the CIA) near the Pacific Coast, and suggested that the communists
wanted to convert Nicaragua into "a new Korean situation.
A few weeks later, an unmarked plane parachuted arms with Soviet
markings onto Guatemala's coast.
On such fare did the people of Latin America dine for decades.
By such tactics were they educated about "communism".
In late January 1954 the operation appeared to have suffered
a serious setback when photostat copies of Liberation documents
found their way into Arbenz's hands. A few days later, Guatemala's
newspapers published copies of correspondence signed by Castillo
Armas, Somoza and others under banner headlines. The documents
revealed the existence of some of the staging, training and invasion
plans, involving, amongst others, the "Government of the
The State Department labeled the accusations of a US role
"ridiculous and untrue" and said it would not comment
further because it did not wish to give them a dignity they did
not deserve. Said a Department spokesperson: "It is the policy
of the United States not to interfere in the internal affairs
of other nations. This policy has repeatedly been reaffirmed under
the present administration.
Time magazine gave no credence whatsoever to the possibility
of American involvement in such a plot, concluding that the whole
expose had been "masterminded in Moscow.
The New York Times was not so openly cynical, but its story
gave no indication that there might be any truth to the matter.
"Latin American observers in New York," reported the
newspaper, "said the 'plot' charges savored of communist
influence." This article was followed immediately on the
page by one headed "Red Labor Chiefs Meet. Guatemalan Confederation
Opens Its Congress".
And the CIA continued with its preparations as if nothing
The offensive began in earnest on 18 June with planes dropping
leaflets over Guatemala demanding that Arbenz resign immediately
or else various sites would be bombed. CIA radio stations broadcast
similar messages. That afternoon, the planes returned to machine-gun
houses near military barracks, drop fragmentation bombs and strafe
the National Palace.
Over the following week, the air attacks continued daily-strafing
or bombing ports, fuel tanks, ammunition dumps, military barracks,
the international airport, a school, and several cities; nine
persons, including a three-year-old girl, were reported wounded;
an unknown number of houses were set afire by incendiary explosives.
During one night-time raid, a tape recording of a bomb attack
was played over loudspeakers set up on the roof of the US Embassy
to heighten the anxiety of the capital's residents. When Arbenz
went on the air to try and calm the public's fear, the CIA radio
team jammed the broadcast.
Meanwhile, the Agency's army had crossed into Guatemala from
Honduras and captured a few towns, but its progress in the face
of resistance by the Guatemalan army unspectacular. On the broadcasts
of the CIA's "Voice of Liberation" the picture was different:
The rebels were everywhere and advancing; they were of large numbers
and picking volunteers as they marched; war and upheaval in all
corners; fearsome battles and more defeats for the Guatemalan
army. Some of these broadcasts were transmitted over regular public
and even military channels, serving to convince some of Arbenz's
officers that reports were genuine. In the same way, the CIA was
able to answer real military messages with fake responses. All
manner of disinformation was spread and rumors fomented; dummy
parachute drops were made in scattered areas to heighten the belief
that a major invasion was taking place.
United Fruit Company's publicity office circulated photographs
to journalists of mutilated bodies about to be buried in a mass
grave as an example of the atrocities committed by the Arbenz
regime. The photos received extensive coverage. Thomas McCann
of the company's publicity office later revealed that he had no
idea what the photos represented: "They could just as easily
have been the victims of either side-or of an earthquake. The
point is, they were widely accepted for what they were purported
to be-victims of communism.
In a similar vein, Washington officials reported on political
arrests and censorship in Guatemala without reference to the fact
that the government was under siege (let alone who was behind
the siege), that suspected plotters and saboteurs were the bulk
of those being arrested, or that, overall, the Arbenz administration
had a fine record on civil liberties. The performance of the American
press in this regard was little better.
The primary purpose of the bombing and the many forms of disinformation
was to make it appear that military defenses were crumbling, that
resistance was futile, thus provoking confusion and division in
the Guatemalan armed forces and causing some elements to turn
against Arbenz. The psychological warfare conducted over the radio
was directed by . Howard Hunt, later of Watergate fame, and David
Atlee Phillips, a newcomer to the CIA. When Phillips was first
approached about the assignment, he asked his superior, Tracy
Barnes, in all innocence, "But Arbenz became President in
a free election. What right do we have to help someone topple
his government and throw him out of office?"
'For a moment," wrote Phillips later, "I detected
in his face a flicker of concern, a doubt, the reactions of a
sensitive man." But Barnes quickly recovered and repeated
the party line about the Soviets establishing "an easily
expandable beachhead" in Central America.
Phillips never looked back. When he retired from the CIA in the
mid-1970s, he found the Association of Retired Intelligence Officers,
an organization formed to counteract the flood of unfavorable
publicity sweeping over the Agency at the time.
American journalists reporting on the events in Guatemala continued
to exhibit neither an investigative inclination nor a healthy
conspiracy mentality. But what was obscure to the press was patently
obvious to large numbers of Latin Americans. Heated protests against
the United States broke out during this week in June in at least
eleven countries and was echoed by the governments of Ecuador,
Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile which condemned American "intervention
Life magazine noted these protests by observing that "world
communism was efficiently using the Guatemalan show to strike
a blow at the U.S." It scoffed at the idea that Washington
was behind the revolt. Newsweek reported that Washington "officials
interpreted" the outcry "as an indication of the depth
of Red penetration into the Americas". A State Department
memo at the time, however, privately acknowledged that much of
the protest emanated from non-communist and even pro-American
On 21 and 22 June, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Toriello made
impassioned appeals to the United Nations for help in resolving
the crisis. American UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge tried to
block the Security Council from discussing a resolution to send
an instigating team to Guatemala, characterizing Toriello's appeals
as communist maneuvering. But under heavy pressure from UN Secretary-General
Dag Hammarskjold, the Council convened. Before the vote, while
Lodge worked on the smaller nations represented on the Council,
Eisenhower and Dulles came down hard on France and Great Britain,
both of whom favored the resolution. Said the President of the
United States to his Secretary of State: "The British expect
us to give them a free ride and side with them on Cyprus. And
yet they won't even support us on Guatemala! Let's give them a
As matters turned out, the resolution was defeated by five
votes to four, with Britain and France abstaining, although their
abstentions were not crucial inasmuch as seven votes were required
for passage. Hammarskjold was so upset with the American machinations,
which he believed undercut the strength of the United Nations,
that he confided that he might be forced "to reconsider my
present position in the United Nations".
During this same period, the CIA put into practice a plan
to create an "incident'. Agency planes were dispatched to
drop several harmless bombs on Honduran territory. The Honduran
government then complained to the UN and the Organization of American
States, claiming that the country had been attacked by Guatemalan
Arbenz finally received an ultimatum from certain army officers:
Resign or they would come to an agreement with the invaders. The
CIA and Ambassador Peurifoy had been offering payments to officers
to defect, and one army commander reportedly accepted $60,000
to surrender his troops. With his back to the wall, Arbenz made
an attempt to arm civilian supporters to fight for the government,
but army officers blocked the disbursement of weapons. The Guatemalan
president knew that the end was near.
Castillo Armas celebrated the liberation of Guatemala in various
ways. In July alone, thousands were arrested on suspicion of communist
activity. Many were tortured or killed. In August a law was passed
and a committee set up which could declare anyone a communist.
with no right of appeal. Those so declared could be arbitrarily
arrested for up to six months, could not own a radio or hold public
office. Within four months the committee had registered 72,000
names. A committee official said it was aiming for 200,000.
Further implementation of the agrarian reform law was stopped
and all expropriations of land already carried out were declared
invalid. United Fruit Company not only received all its land back,
but the government banned the banana workers' unions as well.
Moreover, seven employees of the company who had been active labor
organizers were found mysteriously murdered in Guatemala City.
The new regime also disenfranchised three-quarters of Guatemala's
voters by barring illiterates from the electoral rolls and outlawed
all political parties, labor confederations, and peasant organizations.
To this was added the closing down of opposition newspapers (which
Arbenz had not done) and the burning of "subversive"
books, including Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Dostoyevsky novels,
and the works of Guatemala's Nobel Prize winning author Miguel
Angel Asturias, a biting critic of United Fruit.
Meanwhile, John Foster Dulles, who was accused by Toriello
of seeking to establish a "banana curtain" in Central
America, was concerned that some "communists" might
escape retribution. In cables he exchanged with Ambassador Peurifoy,
Dulles insisted that the government arrest those Guatemalans who
had taken refuge in foreign embassies and that "criminal
charges" be brought against them to prevent them leaving
the country, charges such as "having been overt Moscow agents".
The Secretary of State argued that communists should be automatically
denied the right of asylum because they were connected with an
international conspiracy. The only way they should be allowed
to leave, he asserted, was if they agreed to be sent to the Soviet
Union. But Castillo Armas refused to accede to Dulles's wishes
on this particular issue, influenced perhaps by the fact that
he, as well as some of his colleagues, had been granted political
asylum in an embassy at one time or another.
One of those who sought asylum in the Argentine Embassy was
a 25-year-old Argentine doctor named Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Guevara, who had been living in Guatemala since sometime in 1953,
had tried to spark armed resistance to the invading forces, but
without any success. Guevara's experience in Guatemala had a profound
effect upon his political consciousness. His first wife, Hilda
Gadea, whom he met there, later wrote:
"Up to that point, he used to say, he was merely a sniper,
criticizing from a theoretical point of view the political panorama
of our America. From here on he was convinced that the struggle
against the oligarchic system and the main enemy, Yankee imperialism,
must be an armed one, supported by the people."
In the wake of the coup, the United States confiscated a huge
amount of documents from the Guatemalan government, undoubtedly
in the hope of finally uncovering the hand of the International
Communist Conspiracy behind Arbenz. If this is what was indeed
discovered, it has not been made public.
On 30 June, while the dust was still settling, Dulles summed
up the situation in Guatemala in a speech which was a monument
"[The events in Guatemala] expose the evil purpose of
the Kremlin to destroy the inter-American system ... having gained
control of what they call the mass organizations, [the communists]
moved on to take over the official press and radio of the Guatemalan
Government They dominated the social security organization and
ran the agrarian reform program ... dictated to the Congress and
to the President ... Arbenz ... was openly manipulated by the
leaders of communism ... The Guatemalan regime enjoyed the full
support of Soviet Russia ... [the] situation is being cured by
the Gualemalans themselves."
When it came to rewriting history, however, Dulles's speech
had nothing on these lines from a CIA memo written in August 1954
and only for internal consumption no less: "When the communists
were forced by outside pressure to attempt to take over Guatemala
completely, they forced Arbenz to resign (deleted). They then
proceeded to establish a Communist Junta under Col. Carlos Diaz."
And in October, John Peurifoy sat before a congressional committee
and told them:
"My role in Guatemala prior to the revolution was strictly
that of a diplomatic observer ... The revolution that overthrew
the Arbenz government was engineered and instigated by those people
in Guatemala who rebelled against the policies and ruthless oppression
of the Communist-controlled government."
Later, Dwight Eisenhower was to write about Guatemala in his
memoirs. The former president chose not to offer the slightest
hint that the United States had anything to do with the planning
or instigation of the coup, and indicated that his administration
had only the most tangential of connections to its execution.
(When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs were published
in the West, the publisher saw fit to employ a noted Kremlinologist
to annotate the work, pointing out errors of omission and commission.)
Thus it was that the educated, urbane men of the State Department,
the CIA and the United Fruit Company, the pipe-smoking, comfortable
men of Princeton, Harvard and Wall Street, decided that the illiterate
peasants of Guatemala did not deserve the land which had been
given to them, that the workers did not need their unions, that
hunger and torture was a small price to pay for being rid of the
scourge of communism.
The terror carried out by Castillo Armas was only the beginning.
It was ... to get much worse in time. It has continued with hardly
a pause for 40 years.
In 1955, the New York Times reported from the United Nations
that "The United States has begun a drive to scuttle a section
of the proposed Covenant of Human Rights which poses a threat
to its business interests abroad." The offending section
dealt with the right of peoples to self-determination and to permanent
sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources. Said the
newspaper: "It declares in effect that any country has the
right to nationalize its resources ..."