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Guatemala, 1954

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In 1950, Guatemala overwhelmingly elected a reformist government under Jacobo Arbenz, a well-educated landowning idealist of Swiss descent. His government — “the most democratic Guatemala ever had,” according to the historian Howard Zinn — fought against corruption, ended racial discrimination, encouraged a free press, introduced a forty-hour work week and legalized unions. In 1952, a disastrous career move, Arbenz enacted Decree 900, a reform that took idle land away from some of the country’s biggest estate owners — his included 1,700 acres of his own land — and redistributed it to poor peasants.

Among the landowners dismayed by this development was the United Fruit Company, which had run Guatemala as a private fiefdom since the nineteenth century. The American company owned nearly everything of consequence — the ports, the railroads, the communications networks, banks, stores and some 550,000 acres of farmland. Some 85 percent of this land was left more or less permanently idle, to keep banana production artificially low, and prices high. In February 1953, the Arbenz government confiscated a quarter of a million acres of company land, offering in return government bonds worth $1,185,000 — the exact sum to which the United Fruit had discounted the land’s value for tax purposes.

Now, the United Fruit had decided the land was worth $16 million — a sum the Guatemalans couldn’t afford to pay. The company also won its case in the Guatemalan Supreme Court, which struck down the nationalization as unconstitutional, but Arbenz fired the judges. “One can live without tribunals but one can’t live without land,” one trade union leader declared. But the United Fruit had friends in higher places than the Guatemalan Supreme Court: the United States Government. One of its former attorneys was the-then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, whose brother was the-then Deputy Director of the CIA. With the help of the US Embassy in Guatemala, the United Fruit successfully lobbied to convince American politicians that Arbenz’s government had Soviet support — a claim still unsubstantiated today. In June 1954, President Esienhower finally underwrote a coup. The anti-Communist coup/invasion was almost a fiasco, it gave the Guatemalan army an opportunity to seize power from Arbenz.

The new military government received quick blessings from Washington. Always willing to help, the CIA gave the junta a list of seventy thousand “questionable individuals” — teachers, doctors, government employees, union organizers, priests — who had supported the land reforms. Thousands of them were never seen again. Arbenz got a safe passage to Mexico, but before he departed, he had to strip and be searched (above) by customs — an ultimate indignity. Among many left-wingers to flee to Mexico was an impressionable young Argentine doctor who had just arrived in Guatemala before the coup; his name: Che Guevara.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 17, 2011 at 11:14 pm

13 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Juned Sonido, Nice Links. Nice Links said: Guatemala, 1954 http://bit.ly/i5XtHW […]

  2. […] hogy hogy jön ide az Iconic Photos? Legutoljára azt a fotót választotta a szerkesztő, amin Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala katonai (és persze UFC és CIA segítséggel) […]

  3. General Butler as always right.


    February 22, 2011 at 7:33 pm

  4. What a great quality article! This is awesome content with thoughtful viewpoints and persuasive content. I’ve learned some new things about this subject. I am totally impressed with your writing style and presentation. Thank you. I will certainly post a link to https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/guatemala-1954/ on my site.

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    October 29, 2011 at 7:57 am

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    January 5, 2012 at 7:17 am

  6. You talk about writing style and presentation, bla, bla… but what about what the U.S.A. government did to Arbenz. Shame on the United States and the United Fruit Company pigs.

    John Logo

    February 5, 2012 at 4:19 am

  7. “Five years earlier, while still a Communist hobo in Guatemala, Che had seen the Guatemalan officer corps with CIA assistance rise against the Red regime of Jacobo Arbenz and send him and his Communist minions hightailing into exile. (For those leftists who still think that Arbenz was an innocent “nationalist” victimized by the fiendish United Fruit Company and their CIA proxies, please note: Arbenz sought exile not in France or Spain or even Mexico — the traditional havens for deposed Latin-American politicians — but in the Soviet satellite, Czechoslovakia. Also, the coup went into motion, not when Arbenz started nationalizing United Fruit property, but when a cargo of Soviet-bloc weapons arrived in Guatemala. “Arbenz didn’t execute enough people,” was how Guevara explained the Guatemalan coup’s success.)” — Discover The Networks

    Arbenz, like Allende, was a communist. I wonder, would you be so quick to soft-peddle fascism?

    Che is dead

    May 7, 2012 at 4:08 pm

  8. As soon as I originally commented I clicked on the Notify me whenever new comments are added checkbox and currently each and every time a comment is added I get 4 email messages with the exact same comment.


    May 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm

  9. Hard to take the writer of this article seriously when he quote the marxist Howard Zinn as a reputable source……unreal…..


    June 29, 2012 at 4:45 am

  10. I went and read up on the guy’s Wiki entry and factually Che is Dead isn’t particularly accurate since Arbenz first went to several other countries before he ended up in a communist country. As far as Devon is concerned, calling someone a communist doesn’t mean that their analysis of the situation is wrong. Also, why is it that you think that Zinn was a communist? Because he critizes the U.S. government for overthrowing or supporting the overthrow of democraticly elected governments to replace them with governments that are subserviant to U.S. Corporations?

    Or perhaps it is that you feel that large foreign corporations should control all the land of any country we chose.


    June 29, 2012 at 1:40 pm

  11. Reblogueó esto en Un café en las rocasy comentado:
    Mi presidente favorito, una persona con los pantalones bien puestos que hicieron hasta lo impensable por defender sus ideales y trabajar por el bien común..

    Alex Salazar

    May 17, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    • I totally agree. The only spring Guatemala has ever known was with presidents Arevalo and Arbenz. But the government of the U.S.A. screwed everything up.

      Juan Godoy

      May 18, 2013 at 1:50 am

      • Agree with you. Unfortunately people don’t care about this anymore, younger people don’t know any of this happened here and they don’t know we had this kind of people who fought for the people. I’d love to see someone like Arevalo or Arbenz running this country again.

        Alex Salazar

        May 21, 2013 at 3:14 pm

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