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Historical Perspectives


Presentation by Panelist Greg Grandin

June 24, 2004

The CIA's 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz and the ten year democracy he presided over is perhaps the single most important event in 20th-century US-Latin American history. While having devastating domestic repercussions, its importance radiates far beyond national borders, serving as a catalyst of continental political polarization and setting a pattern of political repression emulated by other counterinsurgent states throughout Latin America.

From Langley to Madison Avenue

First, PBSUCCESS, as the operation was called, was the CIA's most ambitious operation to that date, far surpassing anything the Agency did in Iran in 1953. Unlike the six weeks it took the Agency to overthrow the Iranian prime minister Mossadeq in 1953, the CIA spent a year destabilizing the Arbenz government. It was a full-spectrum coup, one that drew not just on military, economic, and diplomatic power, but on innovative techniques borrowed from social psychology and the entertainment and advertising industries. From Langley to Madison Avenue, the United States mobilized every facet of its power to unseat Arbenz. It used the Organization of American States to isolate Guatemala diplomatically, worked with US businesses to create an economic crisis, and funded and equipped an exile invasion force based in Honduras. The CIA applied insights from the new post-WWII behavioral social sciences in order to manipulate public opinion. Agents mined pop sociologies, grifter novels and the entertainment industry for tricks on how to create social paranoia. Radio shows -- which consciously copied dramatic ploys of the kind first used by Orson Wells in his infamous War of the Worlds -- incited government officials and soldiers to treason and attempted to convince Guatemalans that a widespread underground resistance movement existed. Claiming to be transmitted from "deep in the jungle" by rebel forces, the broadcasts were in fact taped in Miami and beamed into Guatemala from Nicaragua.

Anticommunist students (who after the coup would form the MLN) working with the agency posted fake funeral notices to Arbenz, and other government and PGT leaders and pasted stickers "A Communist Lives Here" on the doors of Arbenz supporters. They mailed 'black letters' from a fake "Organization of the Militant Godless" to arouse Catholic fears and spread rumors that the government was about to seize bank accounts, collectivize all plantations, and ban holy week. They sent notes to military officers informing them that their friends were spying on them for the communist party. It was a year-long escalating campaign of sabotage, rumors, and propaganda designed to demoralize Government supporters, create dissension in the military, force Arbenz to crack down on dissent, and energize and unify the opposition.

Second, the overthrow of Arbenz was important not only because it marked the US's first Cold War Latin American intervention and an escalation of its covert operations capability, but because it brought to a definitive close a cycle of post-WWII social democratic politics. Invigorated by the Allies' impending victory in WWII, Guatemala's 1944 revolution was one of brightest stars in a larger, albeit fragile, democratic firmament that took shape throughout Latin America between 1944 and 1946. In 1944, only five Latin American countries (Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, and Colombia) could nominally call themselves democracies. By 1946, only five (Paraguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic) could not.

Dictators toppled throughout Latin America and governments extended the franchise and legalized unions. To varying degrees in different countries, urbanization, industrialization, and population growth had created an emerging middle class and urban working class that joined with students, intellectuals, and, in some cases, a mobilized peasantry to demand democratic reform. Following the war, revitalized labor unions in Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile led strike waves of unparalleled belligerence. In a number of countries populist reform parties, many of them organized in the 1920s, came to power, impelled by this increased mobilization. The more democratic elements of liberalism, which since the mid-nineteenth century had functioned primarily as an elite justification of domination and economic modernization, came to the fore, now advanced not just by urban political elites but by mass movements.

Democracy, as Leslie Bethell and Ian Roxborough put it in their survey of the postwar period, came to mean a "commitment to popular, more particularly working-class participation in politics, and social and economic improvements for the poorer sections of the population. Democracy increasingly became identified with development and welfare." This brief democratic opening was defined by a democratic vision of industrialization which linked industrialization to some form of wealth redistribution and land reform, as a wide array of reformers believed that the best way to weaken the oligarchy was to empower those under its thrall. Throughout the region, governments began to enact social welfare programs and sought to achieve economic development through state planning, regulation of capital, and other initiatives that favored the domestic manufacturing sector, while the Left, broadly understood, grew in popularity and institutional strength.

But an emerging international political and economic regime greatly shortened the life expectancy of postwar democracies. Following WWII the world divided into contending camps represented by the US and the USSR, with Latin America clearly falling under the sway of the former. Desperate to attract capital investment, domestic elites, many of them committed reformers, offered little resistance to or dissent from the twin goals of United States Cold War foreign policy: to halt the spread of Communism and not only advance capitalism but ensure US dominance within that system.

Similar to the political constriction that happened in many other parts of the world - including in the US -- 1947 marked the beginning of a continent-wide reaction. In Peru and Venezuela military coups overthrew elected governments. In countries that maintained the trappings of democracy, such as Chile and Mexico, there was a sharp veer to the right. Reform parties lost their dynamism while governments intervened against work stoppages, passed legislation restricting the right to strike, and outlawed or repressed Communist parties. Unions purged militants from its ranks while labor confederations either fractured or came under government control.

The emerging counterrevolutionary coalition took specific forms in different countries but in general was supported by the rural propertied classes, the military, Church hierarchs, and manufacturing and industrial capitalists who previously may have been in favor of reform but now sought political quiescence in order to attract foreign investment. The dual promises of democracy and development, which just a few short years earlier seemed to be intimately linked, were now practically incompatible. In order to create a stable investment climate and absent a Latin American Marshall Plan, local governments cracked down on labor unrest. At the same time, closer political and military relations with the United States steadily strengthened the repressive capabilities of Latin American security forces. Even before the establishment of the CIA in 1947, the FBI began to turn its surveillance away from Nazi and Fascist groups toward Communist parties, an abrupt shift from the US's wartime alliance in Latin America with the Left against the Right. What was convenient in 1944 became unacceptable by 1947. US embassies began to pressure governments to proscribe Communist Parties, which, notwithstanding their internal authoritarianism, were often the most forceful advocates of political liberalization. Local interests took advantage of this sea change to launch a reaction aimed not just on restoring their economic authority but the cultures of compliance they presided over. The importance of the intersection between national and international interests to the containment of Latin American democracy cannot be overestimated. In Guatemala, for example, one of the reasons the October Revolution weathered the first years of the conservative counterthrust is because its Communist Party was not formed until 1949 and therefore could not serve as a lightning rod to join local and foreign opposition.

By 1948, nearly all the social democratic reforms of the immediate post-WWII period had been rolled back. By the late-1940s, dictators once again ruled the majority of LA countries. Cold War anticommunism led to a more conservative industrialization model. In order to attract foreign capital, labor conflict was absorbed either in a clientalistic bureaucracy or under the yoke of dictatorships. Any serious attempt at wealth redistribution or land reform was abandoned.

The ongoing mobilization associated with the October Revolution in Guatemala thus can be considered the last holdout of the more democratic industrialization model established in the 1944-1946 reform cycle - one which imagined development coming about through an extension of political power to the marginalized. This was the goal of the land reform, which got Arbenz into so much trouble.

Third, Arbenz's overthrow was a decisive step forward in the radicalization of continental politics, signaling as it did the destruction of one of the last, and arguably the most influential, democracies. Well before the Cuban Revolution, it contributed a hardening of positions on both sides of the Cold War divide. On the one side, it convinced many Latin American reformers, democrats, and nationalists that the US was less a model to be emulated than a danger to be feared, bringing to a definitive end a period of good will engendered by the Good Neighbor Policy and the popular front. Even before the overthrow of Arbenz, the US's increasingly heavy hand in hemispheric and world affairs reawakened anti-imperialist resentments that had lain dormant during the wartime popular front. Che Guevara, for example, was in Guatemala working as a doctor and witnessed first-hand the effects of US intervention. He fled to Mexico where he would meet Fidel Castro and go on to lead the Cuban Revolution. He repeatedly taunted the US in his speeches that "Cuba will not be Guatemala." An increasingly militant left became the primary bearers not only of democratization - a project Latin American liberals had long since abandoned - but social democratization.

Fourth, the US, after 1954, turned Guatemala into a laboratory of repression. Practices rehearsed in Guatemala -- such as covert destabilization operations, the construction of a counterinsurgent state, and death squad killings conducted by professionalized intelligence agencies -- spread throughout Latin America in the coming decades. The CIA's 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, for example, was not only launched from Guatemala but modeled on the 1954 operation.

Throughout the course of Guatemala's civil war, the state and its military, according to the UN Truth Commission, executed 200,000 Guatemalans, committed over 600 massacres, and tortured untold thousands more. Except for a brief period under Jimmy Carter, the US blindly supported the executors of this carnage.

While government repression steadily escalated from 1954, there is one event that perhaps can be considered the inauguration of Cold War terror, not only in Guatemala but throughout Latin America. Of all the lethal measures used by Latin American military regimes to eliminate dissent during the Cold War, the most infamous is the practice of "disappearances" - the extrajudicial kidnapping and execution of political activists by government security forces. Although this signature act of state terror is usually associated with Argentina and Chile in the 1970s, recently declassified US government documents reveal that Washington helped pioneer this practice in Guatemala in 1966.

Operacion Limpieza

Following the costly Korean War and the radicalization of the Cuban Revolution, in the early 1960s, the United States focused on strengthening the domestic security forces of nations like Guatemala it deemed vulnerable to Communism. For despite the easy overthrow of Arbenz, Guatemala ten years later stood on the brink of chaos. The regime the US had put in place in 1954 was corrupt and cruel, pushing many reformers to support a Cuban-inspired armed insurgency. In 1962, the Guatemalan Communist Party (PGT) through its armed wing, the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), had reluctantly decided to pursue armed struggle, having realized that all peaceful attempts at restoring the October Revolution would not be tolerated.

In December 1965, US security advisor John Longan arrived in Guatemala City to restore stability. Hoping to professionalize Guatemala's intelligence system, Longan and other American advisors centralized the operations of the police and military, training them to gather, analyze and act on intelligence in a coordinated and rapid manner. Longan identified a need for "fundamental elementary work in organization, coordination, and basic police activity." On December 5, he held the first in a series of workshops with the heads of the Judicial and National Police, military officers, including Colonel Rafael Arriaga Bosque, and two other US public safety advisors. Longan laid out plans for combined "overt" and "covert" operations collectively called "Operacion Limpieza" - Operation Cleanup. In the overt phase of the operation, the "Army, the Judicial Police, and the National Police" would carry out sweeps in "suspect areas in hope that some criminal or subversive elements could be caught in net and lead to further openings." Longan instructed the officers in a maneuver dubbed the "frozen area plan," which entailed the cordoning off a four block radius, establishing an outer perimeter, and searching the secured area for subversives and information. On the covert side, Longan recommended the creation of a small "action unit to mastermind campaign against terrorists which would have access to all information from law enforcement agencies. . . ." A team of "trusted investigators" would work from a "special room to be called 'The Box,'" a 24-hour nerve center equipped with telecommunications and electronic surveillance equipment staffed by military colonels and captains and located at Matamoros, the military's general headquarters in downtown Guatemala City. Responsibility for the full operation, including command of "The Box," was given to Arriaga Bosque, the commanding officer of Matamoros. The overt and covert sides of the proposed operation complemented each other. Intelligence picked up from wide sweeps using the frozen area plan was to be sent to 'The Box' to be analyzed and deployed in more focused clandestine raids, which in turn would provide information for larger dragnets.

Equipped with state of the art telecommunications and surveillance equipment and operating out of military headquarters, Arriaga began to carry out widespread raids. By the end of February, eighty operations -- and a number of extrajudicial executions -- had taken place. Then between March 3 and March 5, Operacion Limpieza netted its largest catch. On March 2, the military and police picked up three guerrilla leaders. On the third, the police captured Leonardo Leonardo Castillo Flores, who headed the national peasant union under Arbenz, and three other PGT-FAR members on the south coast. The next day, the fourth, special security officers from Guatemala City arrived to interrogate the prisoners, which according to a CIA document apparently yielded information on Guatemala City safe houses. The following day, the police and military detained a number of PGT leaders, including Victor Manuel Gutierrez - the head of the national labor union under Arbenz . By March 5, security forces had captured scores of members of the PGT, FAR, and MR-13 (a Trotskist split from the FAR) in coordinated operations throughout the country, including the capital and the southern coast. The oft stated US goal of effective use of intelligence and coordinated operations between police and military and between the countryside and the city was now a reality.

Judicial Police took Gutierrez to their downtown headquarters, where they submitted him to a torture dubbed la capucha. They covered his head with cowl and shocked him with electric currents, which according to one witness quickly proved too much for Gutierrez, who suffered from a frail heart. Security forces transferred most of the rest of those captured in Guatemala City to the Matamoros military base, where 'The Box' was located. They were interrogated, tortured, executed, and their bodies placed in sacks and dropped into the Pacific. Years later, Longan recalled that some of their remains washed back onto shore. The exact number is not known, but, along with Castillo Flores and Gutierrez, the police and military murdered at least thirty people over the course of four days. In July, a defector from the national police told the newspaper El Grafico that execution orders came from Arriaga Bosque, the man in charge of the new US "action unit." US embassy officials admitted that the killings were carried out under the auspices of Operacion Limpieza. The embassy's March progress report, which enumerated its paragraphs, stated in paragraph number four that the Guatemalan government scored "a considerable success when they captured a number of leading Communists, including Victor Manuel Gutierrez [and] Leonardo Castillo Flores." Paragraph twenty-three then matter-of-factly noted that the police "have conducted 80 raids during the past month using the 'frozen area plan'. The raids have been productive in apprehensions (see paragraph 4)." Despite pleas from Guatemala's archbishop and over 500 petitions of habeas corpus filed by relatives, the government and the American Embassy remained silent about the fate of the executed.

Among those eliminated in this first collective Latin American Cold War disappearance were former Arbenz advisors -most notably Gutierrez and Castillo Flores-- who advocated a negotiated settlement to the still embryonic civil war and a return of the left to the electoral arena. The executions took place literally on the eve of presidential elections that brought Julio Cesar Mendez Montenegro, a civilian reformer who promised to install the "third government of the October Revolution." While the Left rightfully distrusted Mendez Montenegro, it felt it had no choice but to support his candidacy with the hope that a meaningful negotiated settlement following his election could be achieved, one that reeled in the growing power of the military and restarted reforms aborted by the 1954 coup. As Gutierrez put it in a January opinion piece published in La Hora in early 1966, "the principal task" was to "end the military dictatorship and establish a democratic and patriotic regime that is respectful of human life." Yet after their executions, a young, Cuba-influenced generation of revolutionaries dismissed such a position as not only naive but suicidal. Even the CIA admitted that an "intolerable status quo" combined with the "efficiency" of the US-created security forces drove "usually moderate groups to violence."

Operacion Limpieza was a decisive step forward in the radicalization of the Latin American Cold War, foreshadowing the application of similar tactics throughout the continent. In Guatemala, it strengthened an intelligence system that through the course of the civil war would be responsible for the most brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the Americas. It invested awesome power in Arriaga Bosque (one of Guatemala's "most effective and enlightened leaders," according to the American Embassy), who a few months after these executions would lead a campaign that killed 8,000 civilians in order to uproot a few hundred guerrillas.

In 1954 Washington promised that it would turn Guatemala into a "showcase for democracy." Instead, it created a laboratory of repression. There are many differences between Guatemala then and Iraq now, not least of which is that the US clearly didn't invade Iraq to unseat a democratic reformer. But there are worrying parallels -- namely Washington's reliance on ever more brutal tactics in pursuit of stability. By 1968 the crisis in Guatemala had grown so acute that, Viron Vaky, the deputy chief of the American embassy, felt compelled to issue a warning to his superiors in the State Department: "Society is being rent apart and polarized," he wrote. The problem was not just moral but strategic, for Washington's policy had created a culture of violence that undermined the rule of law, radicalized potential allies, and discredited the United States throughout Latin America. And considering the reports of torture carried out by US soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison, Vaky's lament that the "credibility of our claims to want a better and more just world are [sic] increasingly placed in doubt" is as applicable today as it was then.

Greg Grandin worked on the Guatemalan Truth Commission and now teaches Latin American history at New York University. A John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, his first book, The Blood of Guatemala, won the Latin American Studies Association award for best book in the humanities and social sciences on Latin America. His new book, from which the above essay is drawn, The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (University of Chicago Press 2004) examines the history of Mayan involvement in the Communist Party leading to the 1978 Panzos massacre.

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