Piero Gleijeses

Shattered Hope

As would become clear as PBSUCCESS gathered momentum, it was not difficult to maintain the fiction [that the US was not involved]. The governments of Western Europe and Latin America were willing to overlook U.S. violations of international law, as long as a pretense of compliance was maintained. In the United States, ignorance, anticommunism, and self-righteousness blended seamlessly to generate the comforting conviction in the political and intellectual elites, in the press, in the Congress, and in the public at large that Guatemala was the aggressor and the United States, the long-suffering victim. 248

Every American publication within the liberal-conservative arc blithely dismissed the charge that the United States was plotting against Arbenz. The Nation, which generally offered the most balanced coverage of Guatemalan matters, remained silent. True, the New York Times, after harshly condemning the expulsion of Gruson and Bannell, introduced a sober note: "The swiftness with which events appear to be moving in Guatemala is probably deceptive," a February 9 editorial told the Cassandras. "As in almost all Latin-American countries the ultimate power rests iwth the military, who are not Communists in Guatemala." But the Times was not naive. The plot charges were, of course, sheer fabrication, and the editorial lectured the mendacious Guatemalans: "The Guatemalan Government could help itself and the whole hemisphere by being less sensitive and less prone to carrying a chip on its shoulder. In railing against 'Yankee Imperialism' it is fighting a ghost of the dead past, resurrected only in the imagination of extreme nationalists and Communists. Guatemalans have no right to accuse North Americans of misunderstanding them when their own misunderstandings are so colossal." 262 The depth of the indignation that seized so many in the United States who were usually philosophical about violence in Latin America is somewhat surprising. Arbenz, however, was the enemy. For too long, his government had posed a disquieting paradox for the Americans: riddled with communists, it had nevertheless upheld political democracy and civil liberties to a degree that was highly unusual in Latin America. 318

Those officers who disliked Arbenz even more than they resented Castillo Armas were but a small minority. Had they felt free to choose, most Guatemalan officers would have rallied to Arbenz in June 1954 and crushed the rebels. But fear gnawed at them---fear of the United States. 335

Another bombing error did no financial damage to the United States and was, in fact, a political boon. On June 22, a P-47 dropped a couple of bombs on the Hondruan town of San Pedro de Copan, eight miles from the Guatemalan border. Secretary Dulles, who knew better, transformed this mistake of a rebel pilot into a Guatemalan attack on its peace-loving neighbor. The Honduran government enthusiastically denounced this Guatemalan "aggression" and threatened retaliation. 340

Some have argued that had Arbenz addressed the people on that twenty-sixth of June, had he convoked a mass demonstration, thousands of civilians would have marched on the military barracks in the capital to seize the weapons. But this is highly unlikely. A week of mounting rumors, of growing tensions, had sapped the will of a population bruised by months of psychological warfare. Guatemala City was no Madrid. There were no International Brigades, and the fledgling labor unions had not been hardened in a daily, bloody struggle like their Spanish counterparts eighteen years earlier. Nor was the capital the bastion of the young revolution. It was to the countryside, rather than the cities, that Arbenz had brought the greatest benefits. Thousands of peasants might have fought on that twenty-sixth of June. For them, Arbenz meant freedom and land. But they had no weapons. Unaware that their government was collapsing, they continued to man roadblocks, to search for weapons dropped by rebel planes, and to flood the capital with telegrams pledging their loyalty. 343

The Office of Intelligence Research (OIR) of the State Department had little criticism of the technical aspects of Decree 900. "If the Agrarian Law is fully implemented," it noted, "the impact upon private landholders would be borne chiefly by a minority. ... Of 341,191 private agricultural holdings only 1,710 would be affected. These 1,710 holdings, however, comprise more than half of the total private acreage." The OIR went on to voice its deep concern: successful implementation of Decree 900 would strengthen the government's influence in the countryside and would provide the communists with "an excellent opportunity to extend their influence over the rural population." (152)

While the coverage of the Korean War generally avoided editorial comment on the nature of the conflict, there were significant exceptions, as if the editors had suddenly tired of restraint. When a January 2, 1953 editorial pointedly referred to "the unjustifiable origins" of the war, the meaning could have escaped only the most obtuse readers; nor could there have been much confusion when another editorial argued that the United Nations Charter had been "abused in the Korean case by an interested party." Perhaps the editorial which greeted the armistice at Panmunjom best conveys the DCA's stance: "Mankind is tired of war. We have learned that for Big Business war is profit, but we have also learned that the World Peace Movement is not a futile and weak movement. It is strong and heroic. The Departamento Agrario Nacional, a government agency, felt less compelled to be diplomatic; it firmly praised "the iron will of the people [of North Korea] ... who proved the greatness of their ideals in their struggle to create a truly democratic government" and lambasted "the cynicism of the arms merchants." (180)

Repression in Arbenz's Guatemala began only in late May 1954, in dramatic circumstances brought about by the United States. (216)

Somoza had arrived in the United States on April 28, 1952, on a private trip. His visit was marked by great cordiality on both sides. The Nicaraguan dictator was duly effusive in his praise of the United States as the champion of democracy—democracy that he had crushed at home. He was honored with New York City's Medal of Honor and responded appropriately: the Nicaraguan people, he pledged, were and would always be the best friends of the United States in Latin America. (229)

Hope was edged with fear. The Latin Americans were convinced that Washington was preparing to violate the principle of nonintervention. To American journalists, these fears were patently anachronistic: couldn't the Latins see that since FDR, the United States had forsworn interference in the affairs of its sisters? But the Latin Americans saw instead the rising fury of the a United States toward Guatemala and the documents released by Arbenz that pointed to a U.S. conspiracy. At Caracas, they expected Foster Dulles to try to loosen the legal knots that had been woven into the inter-American fabric in order to restrain the United States. To some Latin American governments, this would have been an acceptable price for Arbenz's fall, but a majority sharply disagreed, more in dread of a dangerous precedent than in sympathy with the Guatemalans. (268)

The U.S. Congress, vociferous on behalf of Guatemalan democracy, was apparently unaware that Pérez Jiménez was a dictator. The State Department firmly supported meeting in the Venezuelan capital and denounced any contrary view as interference in the internal affairs of a sister republic. (270)

U.S. reports in the months preceding the invasion stressed that the Guatemalan officers were afraid of Arbenz. This was true. They feared dismissal; they feared disgrace. But there was more than fear. There was also, for many, a sense of nationalism and respect ofr Arbenz; several also felt gratitude for the personal favors they had received. This respect, this gratitude, this warmth, were still evident thirty years later as Colonel González Siguí spoke of Arbenz. Arbenz, he remembered, was a magnificent officer, a charismatic military leader, a man of deep intelligence, a fervent nationalist who dared stand up to the Yankees and the Peurifoy, "the arrogant and abusive ambassador." The same respect for Arbenz was expressed by other officers who, like González Siguí, ultimately betrayed him. (306)

Many rushed to condemn the Arbenz administration to eternal opprobrium. If this required that history be rewritten, so be it. By claiming that the crimes perpetrated in the last weeks of the regime were unusually atrocious ("treatment I had never heard of before, nor imagined"), by claiming that these were "unLatin" acts, they sought to convey the unprecedented nature of the threat: "For a suitable analogy [to these crimes] one must look behind the Iron Curtain." Like the weapons on the Alfhem, they were stamped with a hammer and sickle. (318)

Speaking "with a voice full of emotion," President Arbenz bade farewell to the Guatemalan people: "I say goodbye to you, my friends, with bitterness and pain, but firm in my convictions." He was resigning to eliminate "the pretext for the invasion of our country." He had reached his decision with his "eyes on the welfare of the people" and eh would hand over power to his friend Carlos Enrique Dí with the hope of saving the democratic gains of the October Revolution. ... A government that, although different from mine, is still inspired by our October revolution is preferable to twenty years of bloody tyranny under the men whom Castillo Armas has brought into the country." (347)

But Arbenz's decision must be seen in the light of the alternatives as they appears to him on that fateful twenty-seventh of June: he believed that his timely resignation would lead to the presidency of Carlos Enrique Díaz and thwart the triumph of Castillo Armas. His resignation was not an act of cowardice, but the desperate attempt to save what might still be saved. (350)

Ever since Jefferson cast his gaze toward Cuba, three forces have shaped U.S. policy toward the Caribbean: the search for economic gain, the search for security, and imperial hubris. These were the forces that shaped the American response to the Guatemalan revolution. (361)

Unlike Arévalo, Arbenz did not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. But his agrarian reform as far more dangerous than Arévalo's Caribbean Legion had ever been: "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. (365)

Even without the hazy prospect of a communist takeover of Guatemala—and the more real threat to Guatemala's neighbors—Arbenz posed an intolerable challenge. In the heart of the American sphere of influence, in an upstart banana republic, there stood—proud, defiant—a president whose procommunist sympathies were obvious, a president whose closest collaborators were communists. Worse, this president and his communist friends were successful. The agrarian reform was proceeding well, the PGT was gaining popular support, and basic freedoms were being upheld. It was an intolerable challenge to America's sense of self-respect. Fortuny was right when he said, "They would have overthrown us even if we had grown no bananas."

Eisenhower's Guatemala policy was no aberration; it was derailed neither by UFCO nor by Peurifoy nor by Senator Joseph McCarthy. It fit within a deeply held tradition, shared by Democrats and Republicans alike and centered on the intransigent assertion of U.S. hegemony over Central America and the Caribbean. This intransigence, which climaxed in the series of military interventions linking the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, seemed tempered in the 1930s by the Good Neighbor Policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But FDR's neighborliness was tested only once, for the dictators who infested the area during his presidency never questioned Washington's hegemony. The exception was Cuba, where in late 1933 the United States worked for the downfall of a young nationalist government, helping to usher in the long era of Batista's tyranny.

What is certain is that Truman never considered a modus vivendi with Guatemala except on his own terms: an end to the "persecution" of American companies and a comprehensive purge of those whom Washington deemed communists. This is what he had demanded of Arévalo, and this is what he demanded of Arbenz. Truman and Eisenhower, Democrats and Republicans were unable to think of Guatemala in terms other than the relationship between metropole and banana republic. America's imperial hubris was no aberration. It preceded Truman and continues well beyond Eisenhower.

As the Eisenhower administration's broadsides against Guatemala reached their crescendo, Republicans and Democrats sang the appropriate chorus in impressive bipartisan harmony. (367)

If the Congress of the United States mistook the aggressor for the victim, so too did the American press. It had paid very little attention to the country in the Arévalo years. As a result, it had been easy prey for the helpful UFCO representatives. Then came Arbenz. As the "Red Jacobo" became notorious in the United States, journalists began to visit Guatemala more frequently. Many remained ignorant, ethnocentric, and shrouded in Cold War paranoia. Others relied less on obliging sources and gained a better understanding of the country. But even they remained convinced that, whatever the peccadillos of a receding past, U.S. respect for the principle of nonintervention had been exemplary since Franklin Delano Roosevelt,

This self-righteousness became all the more shrill as PBSUCCESS gathered momentum: brutal Guatemala was bullying the long-suffering United States. When, in January 1954, the Arbenz government provided proof that the United States was plotting against it, the American press leaped into collective self-delusion and ardently embraced the lies of the State Department. While the Latin Americans stood transfixed in the weeks that followed Caracas, American journalists scoffed at their fears. (368)

No doubt, geography and history made Guatemala's plight more poignant in Havana than, say, in Buenos Aires. The Guatemalan drama contributed to the radicalization of Che Guevara—who was in Guatemala when Arbenz fell. And it embittered Cuban nationalists like Fidel Castro. The fall of Arbenz, we are told, taught the Cubans and Che Guevara a precious lesson: "We cannot guarantee the Revolution before cleansing the armed forces," Che told Castro. (372)

In fact, Castillo Armas had won before he crossed the border. He had won because the Guatemalan army was convinced that his defeat would trigger a U.S. intervention. (375)

Jacobo Arbenz is not one of history's giants. He made serious mistakes; he was naive. Irrespective of his political beliefs, he should have kept a tight rein on the administration media. The tone of DCA, other government publications, and the radio was needlessly provocative, as were actions such as the minute of silence for Stalin. He underestimated the threat from the United States until late 1953 when the documents provided by Delgado made it irrefutable that the United States was plotting against him.

Arbenz, who had renounced Arévalo's activist foreign policy, failed to grasp how completely the Inter-American system was dominated by the United States, how completely Bolívar had been replaced by Monroe. He believed—tenaciously, naively—that other Latin American governments would stand up to Foster Dulles at Caracas. Later, he turned his hopes to the United Nations, blind to the fact that international law was as impotent to help him as it would be for the Hungarians in 1956, the Dominicans in 1965, or the Czechs in 1968. (379)

Jacobo Arbenz provided Guatemala with the best government it has ever had. He embarked on the first comprehensive development plan in the history of Guatemala whereas his predecessor had not even outlined such a plan, and he presided over the most successful agrarian reform in the history of Central America. Within eighteen months, "the agrarian reform had reached its halfway mark": five hundred thousand peasants had received land without disrupting the country's economy. Decree 900 brought more than land to the poor: it broadened political freedom in the countryside. Serfs were becoming citizens.

By the end of Arbenz's term, hundreds of thousands of peasants would have been solidly established on land granted them by Decree 900. In a fundamental sense, Arbenz's successor would have inherited a Guatemala far different from that Arévalo had bequeathed to him in 1951. But the Pax Americana prevailed. Nowhere in Central America or the Caribbean has U.S. intervention been so decisive and so baneful in shaping the future of a country.

By the time Castillo Armas died, in July 1957, he had accomplished, in the words of a close aide, a "herculean feat": all but two hundred of the "squatters"—the beneficiaries of Decree 900—had been chased off the land they had received under Arbenz. (381)

There was no way, however, that the United States could have replaced Arbenz with a centrist, moderate government—even if it had truly wanted to—for the center and the moderates had supported Arbenz. The only Guatemalans who had been eager to overthrow him, and the only Guatemalans who were not tainted by collaboration with his regime, were those bitterly opposed to all social reform. To oust Arbenz was to return them to power. (381)

In October 1954, Castillo Armas had himself enthroned as president for a six-year term after a plebiscite in which he received 99.99 percent of the vote. He ruled with the support of the upper class, a purged army, and the Eisenhower administration until his death in a murder that has never been solved. By then, the peace and social harmony that Arbenz had disturbed had returned to Guatemala, and the country had long ceased to be news in the United States. It was again the joy of American tourists with its pro-American elite, its Mayan ruins and its smiling, humble Indians who lived their quaint traditional life.

This comforting image masks the reality of Guatemala since the "liberation." Guatemala is a foreboding world of repression and violence; it holds the macabre record for human rights violations in Latin America.

Torture and death have been the final arbiters of Guatemalan society, the gods that determine behavior. Fear torments the oppressed and the oppressor. Fear gnaws even at the upper class: fear of the communists and fear of the Indians, fear of the military and fear of the future. Guatemala is ruled by the culture of fear.

It is the keynote that cuts through the cacophony of the many Guatemalan cultures—the Indian and the Ladino, the elite few and the miserable many, the town dweller and the peasant, the civilian and the military. It hails from the long night that began with the Spanish conquest, a conquest that is, for the Indians, a trauma from which they have not yet recovered.

The Guatemalan revolution—Arbenz, above all, with his communist friends—challenged the culture of fear. In eighteen months, five hundred thousand people were given land. The culture of fear was loosening its grip over the great masses of the Guatemalan people. In a not distant future, it might have faded away, a distant nightmare.

The Guatemalan upper class responded with cries of pain and anger and fear, and the United States intervened. Arbenz was overthrown, the communists were persecuted, the army was purged, the peasants were thrown off the land they had received. As the culture of fear descended again over the great many, the elite few strengthened their resolve. Never had they felt as threatened as they had under Arbenz; never before had they lost land to the Indians; never would it happen again. For them, the 1944–1954 interlude had confirmed that democracy was dangerous, that reformers were communists, that concession was surrender. To this believe they have held, with fierce resolve, to this day.

And so Guatemala has grown—like a deformed body, wracked with pain and fear—with a land tenure system that is the most skewed in Latin America, a fiscal system that is among the most regressive in the hemisphere, a labor force that suffers from illiteracy, malnutrition, and ill health. Meanwhile, barbarians press at the gates, threatening the enchanted world of the Guatemalan upper class: guerrillas, seeking to destroy the system; middle-class politicians, seeking to reform it; priests, who no longer seek charity from the rich, but justice for the poor.

Under such conditions, violence alone could maintain the status quo. Journalists, professors, priests, men and women of the political center lost their lives to feed the culture of fear. They died alongside members of rural cooperatives, grassroots organizers, labor leaders, left-wing students and armed guerrillas. "Tortures and murders are part of a deliberate and long-standing program of the Guatemalan Government," Amnesty international stated in 1981. Periods of selective violence have alternated with waves of greater violence. The particular characteristics of the man who sat in the presidential palace have not been decisive. The intensity of the repression has depended on the intensity of the fear felt by the upper class and the military. (384)

the Cuban drumbeat

From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, more than 1,000 Cuban military advisers were stationed in Nicaragua but, once again, it was to Africa that the bulk of the Cuban soldiers went: tens of thousands remained in Angola and 12,000 went to Ethiopia between December 1977 and March 1978. It was a policy without equal in modern times. During the cold war, extra-continental military interventions were the preserve of the two superpowers, a few West European countries, and Cuba. And West European military interventions in the 30 years between the rise of Castro and the end of the cold war pale in size and daring compared to those of Cuba; even the Soviet Union sent far fewer soldiers beyond its immediate neighbourhood. In this regard, Cuba was second only to the US. (33)

Progress has always been achieved at a price, often at the price of suffering and bloodshed .. . The Cuban revolution was not the work of one man or one generation. It was a historical process, started in the independence struggles of the nineteenth century. Thousands had died fighting for it. It was the duty of the present generation to save the Revolution, however arduous the task. Even in capitalist countries, many people looked to Cuba as a beacon of hope ... Cuba would not disappoint them. --- fidel castro

We feel it is deeply immoral to use the blockade [the US embargo] as a means of pressuring Cuba. There should be no mistake-we cannot be pressured, impressed, bribed, or bought ... Perhaps because the US is a great power, it feels it can do what it wants and what is good for it. It seems to be saying that there are two laws, two sets of rules and two kinds of logic, one for the US and one for other countries. Perhaps it is idealistic of me, but I never accepted the universal prerogatives of the US--I never accepted and never will accept the existence of a different law and different rules. [ . .. ] I hope history will bear witness to the shame of the United States which for twenty years has not allowed sales of medicines needed to save lives .... History will bear witness to your shame.65 --- castro

Che Guevara believed that only revolution could rescue the people of Latin America from the abject misery in which they were mired and transform their countries from US vassals into independent nations.

The conditions against which Che fought--abject poverty and the obscene gap between rich and poor--still hold sway in Africa and Latin America. Against this tragic backdrop, the memory of Che is a beacon to a great many people. It is the image of a young man, a dreamer and an activist, who renounced honours and comforts and a family he deeply loved to seek the victory of his dream of justice. Forty years after the Bolivian military murdered Che, the government of Bolivia, led by the first Indian president in the history of Latin America, erected this monument to honour his memory.

Any fair assessment of Castro's foreign policy must recognize its impressive successes, and particularly its role in changing the course of southern African history in defiance of Washington's best efforts to stop it There is no other instance in modern history in which a small underdeveloped country has changed the course of events in a distant region humiliating one superpower and repeatedly defying another. There is no other instance in which an underdeveloped country has embarked on a programme of technical assistance of such scope and generosity. The cold war framed three decades of Castro's revolutionary zeal, but Castro's vision was always larger than it. For him, the battle against imperialism--his life's raison d'être more than the struggle against the US: it is the war against despair and oppression in the Third World. In July 1991, Nelson Mandela visited Havana and voiced the epitaph to the story of Cuba's aid to Africa during the cold war. His words set off 'a gusher' of criticism in the US. 'We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba,' Mandela said. 'What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?'107

At the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, a few miles west of Havana, thousands of underprivileged youths from Latin America and Africa are studying, all expenses paid, to become Doctors--a different breed of doctors, Cuba hopes, with a social conscience that will inspire them to return to their countries to take care of the poor in the rural areas and urban slums. And tens of thousands of Cuban aid workers have returned to the Third World. For very poor countries the aid is still free; the others pay a modest amount. Castro's soldiers have returned home, but Cuba's unique foreign policy--its war against despair and oppression in the Third World--continues. P. 74

US officials and pundits ponder what conditions to demand of the errant Cubans before Washington lifts its embargo, forgetting that it is the US that tried to assassinate Castro, carried out terrorist actions against Cuba and continues to occupy Cuban territory--Guantanamo, the filthy lucre of 1898. Their 'selective recall'--so critical to the maintenance of the myth of the City on the Hill- allows them to transform Cuba into the aggressor and the US into the victim. It is not love of democracy or concern for the welfare of the Cuban people that motivates the Americans. The desire for revenge, nothing more, explains US policy towards Castro's Cuba. (78)

In 1995 Nelson Mandela said, 'Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonizers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and Apartheid. Hundreds of Cubans have given their lives, literally, in a struggle that was, first and foremost, not theirs but ours. As Southern Africans we salute them. We vow never to forget this unparalleled example of selfless internationalism.'109