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.