1954 Guatemalan Coup D'état
The 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état (18–27 June 1954) was the CIA covert operation that deposed President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (1950–54), with Operation PBSUCCESS — paramilitary invasion by an anti-Communist “army of liberation”. In the early 1950s, the politically liberal, elected Árbenz Government had effected the socio-economics of Decree 900 (27 June 1952), the national agrarian-reform expropriation, for peasant use and ownership, of unused prime-farmlands that Guatemalan and multinational corporations had set aside as reserved business assets. The Decree 900 land reform especially threatened the agricultural monopoly of the United Fruit Company (UFC), the American multinational corporation that owned 42 per cent of the arable land of Guatemala; which landholdings either had been bought by, or been ceded to, the UFC by the military dictatorships who preceded the Árbenz Government of Guatemala. In response to the expropriation of prime-farmland assets, the United Fruit Company asked the US Governments of presidents Harry Truman (1945–53) and Dwight Eisenhower (1953–61) to act diplomatically, economically, and militarily against Guatemalan President Árbenz Guzmán, which, in 1954, resulted in the Guatemalan coup d’état that provoked the thirty-six-year Guatemalan Civil War, from 1960 to and 1996, in which were killed 140,000 to 250,000 Guatemalans.
Initially, the US saw neither political nor economic threat from President Árbenz Guzmán, because he appeared to have “no real sympathy for the lower classes”. Yet, he soon continued the progressive elimination of the historic economic feudalism of Guatemala, which had been initiated by the predecessor Government (1945–51) of President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo; which although “favorably disposed, initially, toward the United States, was modeled, in many ways, after the Roosevelt New Deal”; nonetheless, such relative political and economic liberalism, in the governing of a Latin American country, was worrisome to American corporate and political interests.
From the dismissive cultural perspective of the CIA, the socio-economic development of Guatemalan society effected by the Árbenz Government was only “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the Banana republic”; thus the geopolitical opinion of the US State Department, wherein the Inter-American Affairs Bureau officer Charles R. Burrows explained the perceived threat to US interests:
Guatemala has become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador. Its agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social program, of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises, has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors, where similar conditions prevail.
— Shattered Hope: the Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944–1954 (1992) p. 365.
Because Central America is a small, densely populated geographic area, with porous national borders, political news travelled quickly, and “it was impossible to escape the contagion”, said the right-wing journalist Clemente Marroquín Rojas when the general strike paralyzed the north coast of Honduras in May 1954. Moreover, from El Salvador, President Óscar Osorio (1950–56) sent a fearful message of warning that his country would be “next on the list” for agrarian reform and progressive social change.
In the geopolitical context of the US–USSR Cold War (1945–1991), the secret intelligence agencies of the US deemed such liberal land-reform nationalization as government communism in Latin America, instigated by the USSR. The intelligence analyses aggravated the fears of CIA Director Allen Dulles that Guatemala would become “a Soviet beach head in the Western Hemisphere”, and thus was a backyard challenge to US hegemony. In the US national context of the aggressive anti–Communism of the Red Scare McCarthy era (1947–57), the US Government, the CIA, and the American populace feared the Soviet Union’s ideologic, military, and economic infiltration of the Western Hemisphere. Although the Eisenhower Administration (1953–61) had been spying on the Árbenz Government, interpreted his liberal politics and agrarian reform as dangerous to US economic interests, and had planned a coup d’état in 1952, there was no feasible excuse for a paramilitary régime change. Yet the Decree 900 expropriations from the American fruit companies proved a fortuitous political opportunity, especially as presented by CIA Director Dulles and his brother, John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, who each owned capital stock in the United Fruit Company; their conflation of personal conflict of interest with the Cold War geopolitics of the Western Hemisphere made feasible the secret invasion to change the government of Guatemala by force of arms. (See: The Monroe Doctrine.)
The Guatemalan coup d’état began with Operation PBFORTUNE (September 1952), the partly implemented plan to supply exiled, right-wing, anti–Árbenz rebel groups with operational funds and matériel, to form a counter-revolutionary army of liberation to depose the Árbenz Government. The Guatemalan paramilitary invasion was contingent upon the confirmation, by the secret intelligence agencies of the US, that President Árbenz was a Communist; lack of proof cancelled Operation PBFORTUNE. Nonetheless, two years later, in June 1954, Operation PBSUCCESS realised the anti–Árbenz coup d’état, and installed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas as President of Guatemala. Afterwards followed Operation PBHISTORY (July 1954), with the intelligence-gathering remit to find and publish documentary evidence — from the Árbenz Government and from the national Communists of the Guatemalan Labour Party — that would confirm the geopolitical opinion of the CIA: under the Árbenz Government, Guatemala was a pro–Communist puppet state of the USSR, and part of the Soviet hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. In the event, the CIA document-analysis team of Operation PBHISTORY failed, because they found no government or communist documents that supported the mistaken, ideologic assumption, by the US, that the Árbenz Government had been infiltrated by Guatemalan Communists controlled from the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the PBHISTORY intelligence analyses of the Árbenz Government documents contradicted the CIA’s pro-communist-infiltration assumptions; the document analysis team reported that President Árbenz Guzmán had abided Guatemalan constitutional law by respecting the right of national Communists to form political parties and to participate in national politics, in the senate of the Republic of Guatemala; and reported that Guatemalan Communists were nationalists, ideologically independent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The paramilitary invasion of Operation PBSUCCESS (1953–54) featured El ejército de liberación, an army of liberation recruited, trained, and armed by the CIA, composed of 480 mercenary soldiers under the command of Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, an exiled, right-wing Guatemalan army officer. The CIA army for the liberation of Guatemala was part of a complex of diplomatic, economic, and propaganda campaigns. To disseminate the propaganda and the disinformation (black propaganda) that misrepresented the Árbenz Government as Communist, the CIA established Voz de la liberación (Voice of Liberation, VOL), a radio station that transmitted from suburban Florida, USA — whilst claiming to be in the Guatemalan jungle with Col. Castillo Armas's liberacionista army. The liberationist propaganda and disinformation misrepresented the VOL as the spontaneous voice of domestic, counter-revolutionary Guatemalan patriots who opposed “the Communism of the Árbenz Government”.
The compelled resignation of President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán on 27 June 1954 ended the liberal, political experimentation of the Ten Years of Spring, which had begun with the October Revolution of 1944, which established representative democracy in Guatemala. In 1957, three years after the Guatemalan coup d’état, President Col. Castillo Armas was assassinated by a presidential bodyguard, and replaced by another military government. In 1960, three years later, began the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War (1960–96), featuring brutal counterinsurgency operations and massacres that conflated historical ethnic conflict between ladino (mestizo) Guatemalans and ethnic Maya Guatemalans, who were accused of being either communists or “fellow travellers”, passive communist sympathizers. In the post–civil war period, the Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (Historical Clarification Commission, CEH) reported and classified such counterinsurgency killings of the Guatemalan civil populace as genocide.