The Guatemalan Civil War: Revolution or U.S. Coup? Research Paper example
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The Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted over 30 years, raging from 1960 to 1996, is one of the bloodiest wars to mark this century. During the war, it is estimated that more than 200,0001 people died and more than 50,000 went missing (PRI). Today, many families have still not discovered what happened to their missing loved ones, and mass graves are still discovered, in places like the town Rabinal north of Guatemala City an area populated by native Mayans (Evening Echo). Today, controversy still surrounds the reasons for this war. Media coverage at the time portrayed a very different reality for the reasons behind this war than has more recently been revealed by probes into CIA and military records, both in the U.S. and in Guatemala. For example, in a Time Magazine article published in 1954, the revolution was attributed to communists and agrarian reformers who stole land from the United Fruit Company (Time). The picture painted portrayed by the U.S. government and the U.S. media, showed that the Guatemalan government, run by democratically elected Juan Jose Arevalo, as a communist threat.
However, recently uncovered documents paint a very different picture of the government and the reasons that the U.S. and the United Fruit Corporation had for wanting to get rid of Arevalo. Kate Doyle, of the National Security Archive, a non-profit group in Washington, led the Guatemala Documentation Project, requesting documents under the Freedom of Information Act, beginning in 1994. The information revealed by Doyle prompted her to be quoted as saying, “I have never seen anything like it…the description of our intimacy with the Guatemalan security forces (Farah).” In order to fully understand the reasons and consequences of the Guatemalan Civil War, it is first necessary to understand the political and economic ties that the U.S. had to Guatemala at the time of the war, and why a Guatemalan Civil War was believed to be necessary in order to keep those political and economic structures secure for those that profited from them.
Guatemala has endured many tyrants during the last 500 years of its history, beginning with the brutal Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarada (1485-1541) who conquered the Mayan lands for Spain. The Spanish colonial rule lasted until the 1821 independence. However, despite the supposed independence, much of the Guatemalan land was still under the control of foreign corporations, who continued to own much of the the Guatemalan land on which they operated huge banana and coffee plantations. The native Mayans continued to have their lands confiscated by foreign entities, proving that the country was still, for all rights, under the control of foreign powers (Third World Traveler).
This situation continued on through the 20th century. By the 1920’s, the U.S. had “established military missions in all Latin American Countries. Guatemala’s military was tied to the U.S. military through training, aid, and a commitment to protect US economic interests (Third World Traveler).” At this time there were three main American owned enter prices that had control of much of the resources in Guatemala – the United Fruit Company, International Railways of Central America and Empress Electrica. Guatemalan’s worked to supply the U.S. with goods, as 77% of all exports went to the U.S. In addition, an estimated 65% of the goods imported into Guatemala came directly from the U.S. (Third World Traveler). The economy’s of the two countries were very connected, perhaps and explanation for why the U.S. had such an interest in being involved int eh Guatemalan military.
From 1931 to 1944, Guatemala was under the control of dictator Jorge Ubico. Under Ubico’s run, the United Fruit Company gained control of 42% of Guatemala’s land, effectively owning nearly half of the country. The UFC was allowed the privilege of being exempted from taxes and import duties (Third World Traveler). Despite the fact that the UFC was happy with the rule of Dictator Ubico, the rest of the Guatemalan population was not.
In 1944, Guatemalans showed their disapproval with the regime by overthrowing Ubico. They then implemented a constitution, based on the U.S. Constitution. They then held their first elections in 1945, where they voted for change, and elected Juan Jose Arevalo to presidency in a landslide election (Landmeier). This represented the first time in its history that Guatemala had a democratically elected president. Arevalo, a great socialist and educator, then began a series of social changes, establishing social security and health care systems and even an official government bureau to look after the concerns of the Mayans, who had been sadly neglected by past leaders. He also built 6,000 schools (Landmeier) . Arevalo remained in power from 1945 until 1951, at which time another democratically elected leader took control, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Arbenz continued the liberal policies begun by Arevalo. His policies, however, angered landowners. This was mainly due to an agrarian reform law that he initiated. At the time 2% of landowners (namely the UFC) owned 70% of the arable land. Local Guatemalans were kept in a perpetual state of debt, and thus slavery, by these landowners. In order to even the landowning distribution, Arbenz began by redistributing 160,000 acres of uncultivated land owned by the UFC, for which the UFC was compensated (Third World Traveler).
This was the president who was, according to media outlets of the time like Time Magazine, to be a Communist leader (Time). According the the Time Magazine article that was printed regarding this move, the UFC was given $594,572 for the 160,000 acres. UFC, however, valued the land at $15,854,849. The UFC demanded that the U.S. government intervene on their behalf, claiming that the land was confiscated and they were unfairly compensated. According to Time Magazine:
“The U.S. formally billed Guatemala for United Fruit’s full claim. It was the biggest claim presented to any foreign government on behalf of a private U.S. firm since the Mexican oil expropriation of 1938. Following the principle established then by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the U.S. insisted that, though sovereign governments have the right to expropriate property, the compensation paid must be “adequate, effective and prompt.”
Trouble continued between the United States and its corporations and the newly democratic Guatemalan government. Since much of the infrastructure of the Guatemalan government was owned by the UFC, including the telephone and telegraph system, as well as most of the railroad track, the UFC could have been called a state within the state of Guatemala (Third World Traveler). UFC had much of its profits at stake in Guatemala, since “United Fruit’s Guatemalan operation generated about 25% of the company’s total production (Landmeier)2.”
Since the policies of Arbenz were not friendly toward UFC interest, the UFC used its ties within the U.S. government to convince higher powers to step in on their behalf, fearing a loss of profits if the policies enacted by the new democratic Guatemala continued. This was accomplished due to the fact that the UFC had several close and influential ties to the U.S. government. The law firm owned by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had prepared the UFC’s contracts with Guatemala and that John Dulles brother, Allen Dulles, was the CIA director and also a member of the UFC’s law firm. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs John Moors Cabot was the brother of a former UFC president and President Eisenhower’s personal secretary was married to the head of the UFC’s Public Relations Department (Third World Traveler). “Brother Allen’s CIA was only too happy to take the job, which ended up costing only about $20 million. The agency sponsored a propaganda offensive, and hired about 300 mercenaries who sporadically sabotaged trains and oil supplies (Zepezauer).”
According to Howard Zinn, in his book A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980:
“In 1954 a legally elected government was overthrown by an invasion force of mercenaries trained by the CIA at military bases in Honduras and Nicaragua and supported by four American fighter planes flown by American pilots. The invasion put into power Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, who had at one time received military training at Fort Levavenworth, Kansas.”
At the time, however, the overthrow was painted very differently by the American media, who portrayed the Guatemalan government as a Communist threat, thanks to the propaganda campaign that was fed to them by the CIA and Allen Dulles. Since at the time there was much fear of Communism in the United States, the American people were happy to support a war to overthrow a communist regime that was, relatively speaking, in their own backyard.
The “revolution” to overthrow Guatemalan President Arbenz was carefully executed by covert CIA operations. It was codenamed “Operation PBSUCCESS” (Landmeier). In June of 1954, a propaganda campaign was begun in Guatemala. Unmarked CIA planes began by staging a series of air raids on Guatemala City, and dropping leaflets demanding the resignation of Arbenz. At the same time, CIA-run radio stations warned of the impending invasion of an occupying rebel army, which was actually the 300 mercenaries the CIA had hired for the job. Arbenz, knowing that he was out manned, fled to Cuba (Zepezauer)3.
There were repercussions for the Guatemalan people when the UFC, led by Colonel Castillo Armas, came back to power in Guatemala. For one, a list of 70,000 ‘radical’ individuals was compiled by the CIA and these individuals were, under Armas, arrested and many were tortured and killed (Third World Traveler). UFC got all of its land back and, in addition, the Banana Workers Union was banned. Guatemala was now, under Armas, officially a democracy, but:
“Armas disenfranchised one-third of the voters by barring illiterates from voting. He outlawed all political parties, labor confederations, and peasant organizations. He closed down opposition newspapers and burned subversive books (Third World Traveler).”
The Civil War of Guatemala was, unfortunately, not a single event, but more of an uprising of the Guatemalans to the horrors of the military dictatorships that followed Armas throughout the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s until the eventual peace that was made in 1996.
The fighting began after the assassination of Armas in 1958. General Ydigoras Fuentes seized power and continued the policies of Armas. A revolt in 1960 by a group of junior military officers officially stared the insurrection against the government which would last for the next 36 years. The men who led the failed coup then fled to Cuba, where they established close ties to the government there and continued to lead the rebellion over the next three decades (Global Security).
The U.S. ties with Guatemala did not end with the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954, but continued unabated until the eventual Peace Accord in 1996. This was revealed by an investigation by the non-profit organization National Security Archive, led by Kate Doyle. The investigation began in 1994 to aid human rights investigations being undertaken by the URNG and the Human Rights Accord and the Historical Clarification Commission in Guatemala. The project also sought to find those responsible for the human rights violations in Guatemala over the history of the civil war, since the Clarification Commission had prohibited the naming of names, not wanting to individualize responsibilities for the human rights violations over the years (Doyle). The investigation also sought to fully understand the role of the U.S. in the Guatemalan civil war, since officially:
“In the United States, analysis of U.S. policy in Guatemala tends to begin and end with the coup in 1954. Much less is known or understood about the complex, intimate and enduring role played by successive U.S. administrations in Guatemala throughout the course of the long civil conflict (Doyle).”
Several rebel groups within Guatemala formed to fight the fascist regimes that controlled the government after the 1954 CIA coup. These included the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Revolutionary Organization of Armed People (ORPA), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) and the Guatemalan Labor Party (PGT), all of whom organized guerrilla strikes and economic sabotage targeted at government installations (Global Security). In 1982, these groups combined to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG).
Records revealed by the investigation of the National Security Archive showed that the U.S. government gave the Guatemalan government $33 million in aid throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. A particularly starling secret State Department cable that was uncovered, dated October 23, 1967, details secret covert Guatemalan security operations that included kidnapping, torture and summary executions4. According to the report from the National Security Archive:
“The cable said that “in the past year . . . approximately 500-600 persons have been killed; with the addition of the ‘missing’ persons this figure might double to 1,000-2,000.” It also described the government’s Special Commando Unit, which used civilians as well as military personnel and carried out “abductions, bombings, street assassinations and executions of real or alleged communists (Farah).”
While relations seemed to wane in the 1970’s, since the Guatemalan government rejected a $2.1 million U.S. military aid package in 1977, because it was conditioned on improved conditions of human rights, relationships were renewed under the Reagan administration, despite being aware of extensive human rights abuses (Farah).
A 1992 CIA cable that uncovered revealed that entire indigenous villages had been targeted for destruction, due to the belief that the Indians supported guerrillas5. Today, mass graves found in Rabinal and other parts of Guatemala attest to the reality of the attempted genocide that occurred during the Civil War. In 2003, a mass grave found in Rabinal containing 74 of the estimated 5,000 members of that community who were killed during the war (Evening Echo). In order to cover up the evidence, not all victims of the resistance were kept around as future evidence. “An April 1994 Defense Intelligence Agency report outlined how, in the 1980s, as U.S. aid grew, Guatemalan military intelligence agents dumped suspected guerrillas – dead and alive – out of airplanes into the ocean (Farah).” Based on the evidence uncovered by the alternative media, it is apparent that the role of the U.S. government in the 36 year Civil War is one that supported a fascist regime and suppressed an uprising of revolutionaries, and which was sold to the public as just the opposite.
The bloody civil war that racked the country of Guatemala for over 3 decades finally came to an end, at least officially, in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords. At that time, 200,000 paramilitary troops were disbanded and 3,000 guerillas were demobilized and were resettled and re-integrated into the country (Global Security). This was done under President Alvaro Arzu who was democratically elected to power in November of 1995. Arzu’s administration undertook peace negotiations that ended the conflict officially in December of 1996.
Since then, investigations have been underway both in Guatemala and the U.S. to determine the real story of the conflict, how it began and what happened during the almost four decades that it took place. In July of 2005, an enormous cache of documents was discovered at an old National Civil Police compound, revealing millions of secret papers from the years of the civil war. The National Civil Police was disbanded with the Peace Accord in 1996. This discovery was somewhat socking, due to the fact that officials at the time of the Peace Accord denied that such records existed. Upon further searching, 30 more such archives were discovered in other regions of the country, which will hopefully shed even more light on the true story of the Guatemalan Civil War (Harrison). Conclusions however are slow in coming, due to the immense amount of data that must be review d and the relatively few number of reviewers who are dedicated to the task.
The story of the Guatemalan Civil War and the role that the U.S. played in its inception and throughout its 36 year history shows how important it is for alternative media to exist. Investigations by the U.S. media at the time was insufficient to expose the details of the conflict. At the time, before the days of the Internet, and due to a lack of travel to the area, the real story did not make it to the American public. Today, however, the real story emerges, through the dedication of non-profit organizations such as the National Security Archive and human rights groups like the one being by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group with the National Police Archive Project. While most people trust the media to report an unbiased and truthful account of world events, this is shown to not always be the case, which is why it is important that alternative media and investigators continue to be the watch-dogs of the mainstream media and ensure that the real story is eventually known.
The exact number of people that died during the years of the Guatemalan Civil War is highly debatable and varies depending on the source. According to the article, A Killing Field: US Policy in Guatemala, the number may be as low as 150,000, with hundreds of thousands more displaced, widowed and orphaned. Other sources may claim the number to be higher. Due to the nature of the conflict, it is difficult to determine an exact death toll, though the current Guatemalan National Police Archive Project by the Human Rights Analysis Group may be able to, eventually, give a better estimate of the death toll from the conflict.
It is important to note that though UFC had a history of abusing its role in Guatemala it did also bring some sort of wealth and prosperity to Guatemala. According to Landmeier, the United Fruit Company paid its full-time employees better than most businesses in the country, built schools and housing for its employees, hospitals and research laboratories. However, if a group of workers opposed UFC policy or attempted to unionize, it would typically abandon the work site and tear down all the buildings it had built before departing.
Part of the reason why Arbenz was forced to flee was that the Guatemala military refused to back him during the coup. This was because “despite most Guatemalans’ attachment to the original ideals of the 1944 uprising, some private sector leaders and the military viewed Arbenz’s policies as a menace. The army refused to defend the Arbenz government when a U.S.-backed group led by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas invaded the country from Honduras in 1954 and quickly took over the government (Global Security).”
In 1968, U.S. Ambassador John Gordon Mein was assassinated by guerrilla rebels in Guatemala City. It is perhaps understandable why with the revelation of these CIA documents, which described CIA actions against guerrilla forces in the earlier part of the 1960’s.According to documents unearthed by Doyle, whole Indigenous villages were burned to the ground. One document reported, “The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is [pro-guerrilla] has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and noncombatants alike (Farah).”
A Killing Field in the Americas: US Policy in Guatemala Third World Traveler (2010). Web. 20 November 2010.
Chomsky, Noam. Making Guatemala a Killing Field Third World Traveler (1993). Web. 20 November 2010.
Doyle, Kate The Guatemalan Military: What the U.S. Files Reveal The George Washington University (June 1, 2000). Web. 20 November 2010.
Farah, Douglas Papers Show U.S. Role in Guatemalan Abuses Washington Post (March 11, 1999). Web. 20 November 2010.
Guatemala Civil War 1960-1996 GlobalSecurity (2010) Web. 20 November 2010.
Guatemala’s Civil War Records PRI’s The World: Global Perspectives for an American Audience (2010). Web. 20 November 2010.
Guatemala: Square Deal Wanted Time Magazine (May 3, 1954). Web. 20 November 2010.
Harrison, Ann Guatemalan National Police Archive Project Human Rights Data Analysis Group (2010). Web. 20 November 2010.
Landmeier, P. Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company Maya Paradise (August 20, 2010). Web. 20 November 2010.
Mass Grave Prompts Criminal Probe in Guatemala Evening Echo News (October 20, 2007). Web. 20 November 2010
Zepezauer, Mark Guatemala: From the Book The CIA’s Greatest Hits Third World Traveler (2010) Web. 20 November 2010.
Zinn, Howard A Peoples History of the United States 1945-1960 University of Pennsylvania (1980). Web. 20 November 2010.
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