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Latin America Team Dispatch

U.S. Responsibility for Guatemalan Genocide

Conspiracies, cover-ups and acts of genocide uncovered. On Thursday, the Historical Clarification Commission released its long-awaited report, which finally told a story of truth about tortures, kidnappings and executions against the indigenous people of Guatemala. Abeja was in Guatemala City to witness this historic event so don't miss her eyewitness account! You all know the American dream, right? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This dream is supposed to be protected by the U.S. government but you'll never guess what happened in the 1950s and '60s. Fearing an international communist conspiracy, the U.S. government and the C.I.A. (that ultra-secretive intelligence branch of our government) gave money and training to the Guatemalan army, thereby spurring events that started the 36-year civil war and left 200,000 people dead. The U.S. effectively ousted a democratic president from power, installed a new president who immediately implemented mechanisms of repression and trained soldiers of the Guatemalan army in counterinsurgency tactics. We bet you think this sounds more like the story of a creative spy novel than the tragic truth of U.S. involvement in Latin America's most brutal armed conflict.

So, what sparked U.S. involvement and how did this whole war start anyway? A big factor in the start of Guatemala's civil war, which lasted from 1960 until 1996, was the American government's fear of a communist presence in Guatemala. During the 1950s, relationships between the U.S. and the communist bloc were extremely tense. In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz was elected President of Guatemala. He was only the second democratically elected president in Guatemalan history. He pushed through progressive reforms and accepted support from communist friends. Policymakers in the U.S. decided that Arbenz needed to be removed from office. In 1954, Castillo Armas was installed as president of Guatemala by the United States government and was given $80 million by President Eisenhower to strengthen his political hold.

You're probably wondering how the United States had the ability to yank a Guatemalan president out of power and put a new one into power. Good question. Arbenz, while he was President, enacted Decree 900, which proposed a redistribution of land from wealthy plantation owners to 100,000 peasants. Some of the land that was included in the redistribution was owned by the United Fruit Company (UFCO; now know as in the bananas). UFCO was an American company and had grown to be the most important corporation in Guatemala. Over 500,000 acres owned by UFCO was expropriated in the redistribution because only 50,000 of its 565,000 acres were actually in use. The Guatemalan government offered UFCO $600,000 for its land, however the company insisted that the land was worth close to $25,000,000. When Arbenz refused to pay this much, UFCO turned to its friends in the United States Government to assist. The foreign policy staff of President Eisenhower, the U.S. President at the time, had several key members who were, or had been legally, financially, or politically involved with United Fruit Company. When United Fruit launched a public relations campaign to depict Guatemala as a communist threat in Central America, the U.S. government took notice and got nervous. The threat seemed more credible to the U.S. when Arbenz received an arms shipment (after the U.S. refused to sell arms to Guatemala) from communist Czechoslovakia. Eisenhower's administration was convinced that they needed to stage a CIA-backed coup to overthrow Arbenz.

At this point, the CIA enacted a "propaganda and destabilization" campaign to get Arbenz out of office (and remember Arbenz was only Guatemala's 2nd democratically elected president). The campaign included rumors that Arbenz was a Communist and it also included the training and arming of a small band of revolutionaries who attacked Arbenz's government from Honduras. Additionally, they hired a number of private pilots to strafe, bomb and drop leaflets on Guatemala City. The final touch was a number of radio broadcasts out of Honduras spreading news of an army marching on toward the National Palace to overthrow Arbenz. All of these threats left Arbenz with little choice but to flee and in June, 1954, he left Guatemala.

With the CIA's backing, Castillo Armas and took over the presidency. Guess what Armas was doing just before he became President of Guatemala? He was working in Honduras as a furniture salesman after a career as a military officer! Armas was flown into Guatemala from Honduras on the personal plane of U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy and was given $80 million from Eisenhower over the next three years to boost his government. Immediately, he suspended the constitution and instituted policies of military repression. Can you believe that the U.S. government was responsible for this? All of the progressive ideas instituted by Arbenz were revoked. Armas was the first in a string of military dictators who would rule Guatemala for the next 35 years. Because these leaders did not address the problems of landlessness and poverty in the country, a revolutionary movement emerged. In 1962, ex-military officers, Guatemalan communist party members and students banded together to form the first Guatemalan guerrilla group: the Armed Rebel Forces (FAR). In response, the United States began counter-insurgency training for the Guatemalan armed forces. The revolutionary guerrillas fought to secure basic necessities for Guatemalans such as food, access to land, health care, and education. The Guatemalan army tried to put down the revolutionary movement by force and this was the crux of the long and bloody civil war in which Mayan population undoubtedly paid the highest price. If you missed our detailed article about Guatemala's civil war, click here to read it.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the C.I.A. had no comment for the press regarding the release of the truth commission's report, which confirmed that the C.I.A. aided Guatemalan military forces. The U.S. role in this atrocity is inexcusable and it should make us all think again about our government's willingness to protect the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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