Guatemala 1954

The coup against Árbenz – one of the most infamous that the CIA executed during the Cold War– directly led to the brutal 30 year Civil War that left up to 250,000 Guatemalans dead or disappeared.

Paul Imison

Paul Imison
"Justice and Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala:
1954 Revisited."

In 1944, Guatemala entered what was known as the Ten Years of Spring– a politically progressive era that followed the end of a dictatorship. In 1951, Jacobo Árbenz Guzman was elected with a huge majority vote due to his liberal policies. He promised agrarian reform, where unused land owned by companies and the wealthy would be distributed amongst the country’s rural population, specifically landless farmers who made up 90% of the population.

The United Fruit Company had been Latin America’s largest employer for decades, and at this point controlled Guatemala’s railroad, seaport, electricity, and telecommunications. United Fruit, along with other wealthy landowners, owned about 70% of Guatemala’s arable land and used less than 12% of it.

Árbenz’ agrarian reform gave his government power to expropriate only that land which was uncultivated and which belonged to estates larger than 672 acres; this land would then be distributed to workers and families who needed it.

In return, the Guatemalan government would compensate those who gave up land by giving them the value they had claimed in their tax assessments. These numbers were often hugely understated as a way for companies to get away with paying less tax.

The United Fruit Company was threatened by the idea of agrarian reform and feared losing control of the country’s land and economy. At the time, the US Congress included many United Fruit shareholders who opposed Guatemala’s move towards economic independence, and the Cold War had a lot of people heavily fearing communism. Representatives lobbied the US government, claiming that Árbenz was a communist in Latin America and urging them to remove him from power.

Under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA launched “Operation PBSUCCESS” to remove Árbenz from power. In 1952, they recruited Carlos Castillo Armas, an anti-Árbenz military officer who agreed to launch the operation. On June 17, 1954, the US government and CIA supported Armas in an invasion on many fronts: the CIA began broadcasting anti-Árbenz propaganda messages through a secret radio station, taking over radio signals. American pilots bombed strategic points in Guatemala City. The CIA planted spies within the Guatemalan government and military, meant to undermine Árbenz’ authority and block efforts to defeat Armas.

On Sunday, June 27, 1954, President Jacobo Árbenz resigned from office and fled Guatemala. After being replaced by now Colonel Armas, whom the CIA designated the “liberator” of the Guatemalan people, a military dictatorship ensued.

The civil war that followed caused the deaths of over 200,000 people. In 1999, the UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission released a report recognizing the role that the United States played in Guatemala’s civil war– from it’s anti-communism foreign policy, to the training of counterinsurgent soldiers. As stated in the report, US-trained Guatemalan security forces were behind 93% of all human rights atrocities committed during the 30-year civil war– a civil war sparked by conflict and the desire for corporate control over banana producing lands.

Image: Cable to Director from Guatemala Re: Guatemala 1954 Coup. April 3, 1954. Central Intelligence Agency, Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room.