Reading Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s now classic account of the 1954 Guatemalan coup, Bitter Fruit, comparisons with the United States’ more recent adventures in regime change and nation-building are inevitable.
As in Iraq, toppling the Guatemalan government proved easier than many expected. Indeed, in 1954, and despite some nervous moments, US provision of air power to its small proxy army meant that the overthrow of reforming (and democratically elected) president Jacobo Arbenz was almost too easy. On being debriefed by the CIA operatives who orchestrated the coup, and hearing that the rebel force had suffered only one fatality in the whole process, “Eisenhower shook his head, perhaps thinking of the mass slaughter he had seen in World War II, and muttered ‘Incredible!'” (218).
What’s striking, in fact, is how modern were the methods used to bring down Arbenz. Beyond buzzing the capital and strafing a few provincial towns, the CIA relied for the most part on PR and psychological warfare. In short, their aim was to sow fear–or better, terror–within the country, and to ensure complacency outside. Precisely in its paucity of casualties (and loyalist forces themselves only lost “a total of fifteen soldiers, with another twenty-five wounded” ), the coup was very much a media event, complete with the US ambassador feeding the foreign press (dis)information over drinks at Guatemala City’s American Club (186).
Together with the covert operation to topple Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, the coup against Arbenz marked a departure for the CIA, which under Truman had since its foundation in 1947 mainly confined itself to passive intelligence gathering: but with John Foster Dulles as head of the State Department, the Agency had “embarked on an activist course” (100). One might speculate that had the outcomes of these two operations been different, the US might have thought twice in subsequent years about such aggressive intervention in overseas jurisdictions. As it was, however, “the CIA as an institution got a renewed lease of life” thanks to its apparently almost effortless success (228).
But that success was short lived. Schlesinger and Kinzer quote “the ‘official’ historian of the coup, Ronald Schneider,” as saying that “in the light of subsequent events it might reasonably be considered little short of disaster” (227). They also cite a former advisor in the US Embassy to Guatemala: “Having a revolution is a little like releasing a wheel at the top of a hill. You don’t know where it’s going to bounce or where it’s going to go” (227).
For, in the first place, the US had installed a military class that was almost comically divided and fractious. Though they, in conjunction with the influential United Fruit Company, had set up Colonel Castillo Armas to be the country’s putative “liberator,” soon a rather squalid power struggle erupted. Castillo Armas, chosen in part “because he was a stupid man” was in fact the Americans’ third choice, and he soon had to face the contending claims of various other army leaders, not least General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, who eventually came to power upon Castillo Armas’s assassination in 1957.
Second, and in part because of the precarious legitimacy of the regimes subsequent to the coup, the history of Guatemala since 1954 has been remarkably violent and bloody. The country holds the dubious distinction of being the first place to see the practice of “disappearing” political opponents, a fact that Greg Grandin underscores in The Last Colonial Massacre (which I review here) and also in an interview on the University of Chicago Press website:
In March of 1966 [. . .] over thirty leftists were captured, interrogated, tortured, and executed between March 3 and March 5. Their bodies were placed in sacks and dropped into the Pacific from US-supplied helicopters. Although some of their remains washed back to shore, and despite pleas from Guatemala’s archbishop and over five hundred petitions of habeas corpus filed by relatives, the government and the American embassy remained silent about the fate of the executed.
More generally, though the 1980s genocide in the Guatemalan highlands is relatively well known, as Bitter Fruit (as also The Last Colonial Massacre) makes evident, this was merely the culmination of years of slaughter: more than 30,000 people “abducted, tortured, and assassinated” in the 1960s and 1970s (247); already by 1976 René de León Shlotter can speak of “a spectacular form of violence” over the previous two decades, notable for its “intensity–the high number of victims and the cruelty of the methods used” (qtd. 250).
Third, however, Grandin also argues that the coup was
perhaps the single most important event in twentieth-century US-Latin American relations [. . . leading] to a radicalization of hemispheric politics. [. . .]
The overthrow of Arbenz convinced many Latin American reformers, democrats, and nationalists that the United States was less a model to be emulated than a danger to be feared. Che Guevara, for example, was in Guatemala working as a doctor and witnessed firsthand the effects of US intervention. He fled to Mexico, where he would meet Fidel Castro and go on to lead the Cuban Revolution. He taunted the United States repeatedly in his speeches by saying that “Cuba will not be Guatemala.” For its part, the United States promised to turn Guatemala into a “showcase for democracy” but instead created a laboratory of repression. Practices institutionalized there—such as death squad killings conducted by professionalized intelligence agencies—spread throughout Latin America in the coming decades.
In some ways, the whole cycle of violence that will later lead to such concern for human rights in the region starts here, in 1954. In other ways, it’s in Guatemala more than anywhere else that we see the clearest continuity with the kinds of practices documented by Bartolomé de las Casas as early as the 1530s.
But again, if only the US had taken to heart at the time the lesson that regime change is easy; yet political legitimacy and stability cannot be assured thereafter.