Friday, 10 November 2017

The CIA's First Coup in Latin America - Guatemala 1954

The CIA is notorious for its operations in Latin America. Its hard to argue that any other organisation has done more to attack and restrict democracy around the world. Their operations to topple the Presidency of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 was the first of many operations carried out that lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans, and even managed to get several US citizens killed too.


 The ideological justification for the death squads and mercenaries that terrorised the continent was of course the claim that Communism would take control of the region. Of course this wasn't true, Communists of various ideologies were always in the minority even in Cuba the rebels who overthrew Batista were a coalition of very different political groups, if anything US hostility to the new regime gave the small Communist faction the opportunity to grow and become dominant.

Many of the governments targeted for coups and destabilisation were punished solely for wanting to carry out limited social and economic reforms. Some of the governments weren't even left wing but moderate right wing Christian Democratic administrations. Arbenz was not a communist, his crime was cutting into the profits of United Fruit and pursuing an independent policy. The wars fought in Latin America in the 20th century were always about protecting profits and influence.


Program Producer Max Pierson:

We’re going to begin in Guatemala and the coup that signalled that Uncle Sam was determined to play tough in the face of any perceived threat from Leftist governments in America’s backyard. The period between 1944 and 1954 was known in Guatemala as the ten years of spring. Free elections had been held and resulted in a left-leaning government under President Jacobo Arbenz, which had introduced reforms designed to share the country’s wealth more evenly.

Some in Washington saw that as a “Red threat” creeping communism. So in 1954 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered a change in government in Guatemala, it was the first CIA backed coup in Latin America. Michael Lanchin has been speaking to the son of Jacobo Arbenz who was forced to flee into exile along with his father.

[Archival Radio Announcer with an English accent]

Carrying anti-communist banners jubilant soldiers celebrate victory following their two-week revolt in Guatemala. Colonel Carlos Armas the rebel leader is embraced by some of his supporters who helped him overthrow the Red regime in Guatemala.

Michael Lanchin:

It’s the summer of 1954 and the victorious coup leaders are gathering in Guatemala City after their successful overthrow of the country’s leftist President. A group of Guatemalan army officers, trained and financed by the CIA are now in power.

[Another Archival Radio Announcer with an English accent]

Arriving from Guatemala City is Colonel Elfego Monzón, head of the temporary Junta. He has high hopes of becoming President of Guatemala, but so has Colonel Armas. Then when the few Red outlaws who still menace the city have been quelled, free elections will again be held in Guatemala.

Michael Lanchin:

It’s the end of ten years of civilian rule in the Central American country. And President Jocobo Arbenz and his family are forced to flee.

Juan Jocobo:

When we went into exile, he was extremely bitter about what had happened. For the betrayal he suffered, his struggle was for the good of the people of Guatemala. He had great ideals, he was left feeling very, very bitter.

Michael Lanchin:

Juan Jocobo was the only son of President Arbenz, he was just five years old when his father was elected in 1950.

Juan Jocobo:

It was quite hard for me as a child because both my parents were involved in politics from when I was born. So, I rarely saw them, I didn’t really understand why until later on. We lived in a large estate which my father had bought with his own money. I remember that it had a huge garden, I had a nanny, and a bodyguard who also became my tutor. When I was three or four, I didn’t go to kindergarten, because I later found out there had been some kidnapping threats. For my own security I grew up pretty much alone at home because my older sisters all went to school, it was a difficult childhood.


Michael Lanchin:

Guatemala had a largely feudal system since colonial times where the majority indigenous Mayan population lived in poverty, while wealthy landowners took charge of governing with the support of the United States. But in the mid 1940’s the US-backed Dictator was overthrown in a popular revolt. And the country’s first free elections were held.

Jacobo Arbenz a progressive former army Colonel became Guatemala’s second democratically elected leader. Once in office Arbenz pushed ahead with a reformist agenda; at the forefront were radical land reforms granting peasants access to vast swathes of arable land. The move infuriated Guatemala’s largest foreign investor, the United Fruit’s company one of America’s most powerful corporations. And it set alarm bells ringing in Washington where President Dwight Eisenhower had pledged a worldwide fight against the spread of Communism.

In August of 1953 President Eisenhower gave his approval for an operation codenamed PBSuccess, authorising the Central Intelligence Agency the CIA to begin organising and arming an opposition to President Arbenz.

Juan Jacobo:

I first realised that the situation was serious when they told us we had to leave Casa Presidencial the Presidential Palace because of the threat of bombing from aircraft. I remember being told “get your stuff ready, the toys you want to take with you”. We went to a house in Zone 10 of the city, it had a big garden, at times we had to hide under the beds. It was an anxious time.

Michael Lanchin:

The first group of anti-government rebels -former Guatemalan soldiers- had crossed the border from CIA bases in neighbouring Nicaragua and Honduras in mid-June of 1954. Newsreel from that time cast them as plucky freedom fighters.

[Another Archival Radio Announcer with an American accent]

Guatemalan insurgents stand guard at a Honduras airstrip while newspapermen press near a lone plane seeking passage over the rocky wooded hills to the border town of Esquipulas, capital of the Free Guatemalan Government.

Michael Lanchin:

The Guatemalan army though still loyal to President Arbenz feared that an all-out American invasion would soon follow. By late June the Guatemalan top brass had lost their nerve and senior officers urged President Arbenz to go.

On the night of June 27th 1954 an emotional and exhausted President Arbenz announced his decision in a radio message.

[Extract from Arbenz Radio Speech Announcing his Resignation]

Our enemies have used the pretext that we are communists, though the reality is very different.

Michael Lanchin:

The next day the deposed President, his family and dozens of his closest associates took refuge in the Mexican Embassy in Guatemala City.

Juan Jocobo:

People were sleeping in the corridors, in the stairways, both floors of the embassy were full of people. I remember us having to go to the rooftop to play, my parents didn’t like us going up there because there weren’t any railings. Sometimes when we went to look out of the windows – which we weren’t allowed to- I remember seeing demonstrations out on the streets, people with banners against Arbenz.

Michael Lanchin:

So, you were with your parents inside the Embassy for about three months, did you see much of your father during that time?

Juan Jocobo:

I saw very little of him, he was always locked away, smoking, drinking coffee and in meetings with all his associates who were hiding in the Embassy with us.


Michael Lanchin:

The family were eventually granted safe passage out of the country. First to Mexico then to France, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and then to the Soviet Union where Juan Jocobo still not even ten years old was sent to a boarding school.

Juan Jocobo:

One of the things that really affected me was that it got to a point where I didn’t really understand what was happening. I didn’t want to ask my parents, they looked so anxious. It was starting to affect my schooling, to the point that my mother had to teach me to read and write in Spanish. After that I began learning Czech, then I had to start learning Russian, at boarding school in Russia I used to look out of the windows when it snowed.

Everybody else spoke Russian, nobody spoke Spanish, I felt isolated and lonely, cut off from my family and my country.

Michael Lanchin:

In 1956 the family moved to the relative stability of Uruguay. Later they went to live in Cuba on the invitation of Fidel Castro. Juan Jocobo says that his father never really recovered his spirits and he died a broken man in Mexico in 1971 aged just 57. But there is one more tragic detail to this story which Juan Jocobo only mentioned at the very end of our conversation.

Juan Jocobo:

The pressures from being in exile was so great that my eldest sister killed herself when she was just 25. My other sister killed herself in 2004, it was all terribly difficult for the family. We’d been separated from all our childhood friends, our relatives, because of the circumstances of our situation. We lost everything that you normally have growing up, stability, school, family around you.

When I look back now and try to make some sense of it, all that we’ve suffered I’ve often thought about it in quiet moments and wondered why, why, why?

Michael Lanchin:

Juan Jocobo Arbenz later returned to his native Guatemala and in 2003 he ran unsuccessfully for the Presidency. He’s now 69 and he lives in Costa Rica.

Max Pierson:

Michael Lanchin was speaking to Juan Jocobo Arbenz whose life and the lives of so many others was turned upside down by that CIA backed coup in Guatemala in 1954.

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