1954 Guatemalan coup d'état

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1954 Guatemalan coup d'état
Date 18–27 June 1954
Location Guatemala
Result Jacobo Árbenz overthrown; Guatemalan Revolution ended; Military Junta assumes power.
Guatemala Guatemalan Government

Guatemala Military of Guatemala

Supported by:
 United States

Commanders and leaders
Jacobo Árbenz
Carlos Enrique Díaz de León
Elfego Hernán Monzón Aguirre
Carlos Castillo Armas
José Luis Cruz Salazar
Mauricio Dubois
Operation PBSUCCESS: US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, the executor and the advocate of the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état that installed the right-wing dictatorship

The 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état (18–27 June 1954) was a covert operation carried out by the United States Central Intelligence Agency that deposed the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz and ended the Guatemalan Revolution. Codenamed Operation PBSUCCESS, it installed the military regime of Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of military dictators that ruled Guatemala.

Guatemala had been ruled since 1930 by the dictator General Jorge Ubico, supported by the United States government. His regime was one of the most brutally repressive military juntas in the history of Central America. In return for US support he gave hundreds of thousands of hectares of highly fertile land to the American United Fruit Company (UFCO), as well as allowing the US military to establish bases in Guatemala.[1][2][3][4][5] In 1944, Ubico's repressive policies resulted in a large popular revolt against him, led by students, intellectuals, and a progressive faction of the military. In what was later called the "October Revolution", Ubico was overthrown, resulting in Guatemala's first democratic election.[6]

The elections were won by Juan José Arévalo who was leading a coalition of leftist parties known as the Revolutionary Action Party. He implemented a series of social reforms including minimum wage laws, increased educational funding and near-universal suffrage. Despite his policies being relatively moderate he was widely disliked by the United States government and the United Fruit Company, whose hugely profitable business had been affected by the end to brutal labor practices. Arévalo appointed Jacobo Árbenz as his defense minister, and he played a crucial role in foiling many of the 25 coup attempts that took place during Arévalo's presidency.[7][8]

Fresh elections were held in 1950. Arévalo did not contest, and Árbenz won in a landslide, receiving three times as many votes as Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, his nearest challenger, in elections that were generally fair.[9] Árbenz continued the social reform policies of his predecessor and also began an ambitious program of land reform, which attempted to grant small land-holdings to peasants who had been victims of debt slavery prior to Arévalo. This policy expropriated large tracts of un-farmed private land, and redistributed it to landless laborers. Árbenz himself gave up a large portion of his land-holdings. This policy was greatly resented by the UFCO, who had benefited until then from Ubico's largesse. The company lobbied the US government to topple Árbenz.[10] A paramilitary invasion by the CIA overthrew Árbenz in 1954, and installed the military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.[10]

Following the coup Guatemala was ruled by a series of US-backed military regimes until 1996. The coup sparked off the Guatemalan Civil War against leftist guerrillas, during which the military committed massive human rights violations against the civilian population, including a genocidal campaign against the Maya peoples.[11]


In the early 1950s, the liberal Árbenz Government had effected the socio-economic agrarian reforms of Decree 900 (27 June 1952), the national expropriation and distribution to the peasants and of the unused, prime farmlands that multinational corporations (Guatemalan and US) had set aside as reserved business assets. The Decree 900 land reform especially threatened the agricultural monopoly of the United Fruit Company (UFC), the American multinational corporation that owned 42 percent of the arable land of Guatemala; which landholdings either had been bought by or been ceded to the UFC by the military dictatorships which had preceded the Árbenz Government (1950–54) of Guatemala. In response to the expropriation of idle farmland assets, the United Fruit Company asked the administrations of US presidents Harry Truman (1945–53) and Dwight Eisenhower (1953–61) to act diplomatically, economically, and militarily against Guatemalan President Árbenz.[12]

The perspective of the CIA minimized the social and economic development of Guatemala by the Árbenz Government, and especially dismissed the importance, to Guatemalan societal stability, of the Decree 900 agrarian-reform laws as “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the Banana republic.” [13] Moreover, the progress of the Árbenz Government towards eliminating feudalism with agrarian reform rendered the Guatemala of President Árbenz a dangerously liberal threat to the economic status quo in Central America, and thus to the political and economic interests of the U.S.

Uncle Sam shows the European imperial powers that the Western Hemisphere is purview of the Monroe Doctrine. (1912)

In the geopolitical context of the US–USSR Cold War (1945–1991), the secret intelligence agencies of the US misinterpreted liberal politics, agrarian reform, and resource nationalization as consequences of the communist infiltration of a Latin American government, instigated by order of the USSR. The intelligence analyses aggravated the geopolitical fears of CIA Director Allen Dulles: that Guatemala would become “a Soviet beach head in the Western Hemisphere”, and thus challenge US hegemony over “America’s Backyard” — the countries and peoples of Central and South America.[14] In the context of US national politics, then enthralled by the over-aggressive anti–Communism of the Red Scare McCarthy era (1947–57), the US Government, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the American people, all feared the Soviet Union’s ideologic, military, and economic presences in the Western Hemisphere.

Although the CIA had for years been spying on the Árbenz Government, had determined that Guatemalan agrarian reform endangered US economic interests, and had planned a coup d’état in 1952, the Eisenhower Administration (1953–61) had no feasible excuse to attack Guatemala. Fortuitously, the Decree 900 land expropriations from the American fruit companies proved to be a political opportunity for subversive action, especially as presented to the US President by CIA Director Dulles and his brother, John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State; they mislabeled the Árbenz Government of Guatemala as proof of the political infiltration of the Western Hemisphere, by the international communist conspiracy of the USSR. However in retrospect, Richard M. Bissell, Jr., assistant to the CIA Director, denied that the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état resulted from the conflation of private, multinational, business interests and US Government foreign policy; he said that there “is absolutely no reason to believe” that the Eisenhower Administration’s (1953–61) desire to help the United Fruit Company had “any significant role” in deciding to depose the elected Guatemalan government of President Jacobo Árbenz.[12] (See: The Monroe Doctrine.)

The Guatemalan coup d’état began with Operation PBFORTUNE (September 1952), the partly implemented plan to supply exiled, anti–Árbenz rebels with operational funds and matériel to organize a counter-revolutionary “army of liberation” to depose the Árbenz Government. The paramilitary invasion of Guatemala was contingent upon the confirmation, by the secret intelligence services of the US, that President Árbenz was a Communist in service to the USSR, but the lack of proof cancelled Operation PBFORTUNE. Nevertheless, two years later, in June 1954, Operation PBSUCCESS realised the anti–Árbenz coup d’état, and installed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas as President of Guatemala. Afterwards followed Operation PBHISTORY (July 1954), with the intelligence-gathering remit to find and publish communist documentary evidence — from the Árbenz Government files and from the files of the Guatemalan Labour Party — which would substantiate, confirm, and prove the geopolitical opinions of the CIA: that under the Árbenz Government, Guatemala was a communist puppet state, and part of the USSR’s hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. In the event, the CIA document-analysis team found no government or communist-party documents that supported the Agency’s ideologically mistaken assumption that the Árbenz Government had been infiltrated by Guatemalan communists controlled from the Soviet Union. The PBHISTORY intelligence analyses of Árbenz Government documents further indicated that President Árbenz had abided Guatemalan constitutional law by respecting the right of national communists to form political parties, to participate in national politics, to stand for election to the National Congress, and that Guatemalan communists were ideologically independent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The paramilitary invasion of Operation PBSUCCESS (1953–54) featured El ejército de liberación, an army of liberation recruited, trained, and armed by the CIA, that was composed of 480 mercenary soldiers commanded by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, an exiled, right-wing Guatemalan Army officer. The CIA’s invasion of Guatemala was part of a complex of diplomatic, economic, and propaganda campaigns meant to subvert the Árbenz Government. To disseminate propaganda and disinformation (black propaganda) that misrepresented the Árbenz Government as Communist, the CIA established Voz de la liberación (Voice of Liberation, VOL), a radio station that transmitted from suburban Florida, USA — whilst claiming to be in the Guatemalan jungle with the army of Col. Castillo Armas. Likewise, the liberationist propaganda and disinformation misrepresented the VOL as the spontaneous voice of domestic, counter-revolutionary Guatemalan patriots who opposed “the Communism of the Árbenz Government”.

The compelled resignation of President Jacobo Árbenz, on 27 June 1954, ended the liberal, political experimentation of the Ten Years of Spring, which had begun with the October Revolution of 1944 that established representative democracy in Guatemala.[15] In 1957, three years after the Guatemalan coup d’état, President–Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was assassinated by a presidential bodyguard, and then was replaced with another military government. In 1960, three years later, began the thirty-six-year-long Guatemalan Civil War (1960–96), that featured brutal counterinsurgency operations and massacres of peasants, a conflation of Cold War anti–Communism and historical ethnic conflict between ladino (mestizo) Guatemalans and ethnic Maya (Indian) Guatemalans accused of being either communists or “fellow travellers”, passive sympathizers to the communist cause.

Historical background[edit]

Main article: Guatemalan Revolution
The Monroe Doctrine placed the Republic of Guatemala under the US hegemony of the Western Hemisphere.

The Monroe Doctrine[edit]

In the 19th century, the U.S. enforced the Monroe Doctrine (1823), and, by the 1890s, had replaced European colonial imperialism in the Americas with the hegemony of the United States; thus the natural resources, and the labour of the peoples, of the Latin American countries and of the island countries of the Caribbean sea, became the purview of the U.S. In Central America, in Guatemala, the military dictators who had ruled the country during the late 19th and the early 20th centuries readily accommodated the financial interests of American multinational corporations, and the ideological interests of the U.S. Government.

Yet, unlike military occupation, the direct imperial control of the politics and the economies of countries such as Cuba (1899–1902), Nicaragua (1912–33), and Haiti (1915–34), in Guatemala, the US exerted indirect, hegemonic control of the country, by means of either a sponsored government or an installed government. The political subordinations of the country and the nation were achieved with the close co-operation of the Guatemalan Army and the civil police forces with their counterpart U.S. military and civil police forces; jointly, they maintained national law and order, which secured the corporate, financial interests of American businesses in Guatemala. Moreover, for such political largesse, the dictators also exempted some U.S. corporations from paying taxes to the Guatemalan national treasury; sold the public utilities to private business enterprises; and ceded much prime farmland to foreign corporations, for their sole, private, economic exploitation.[16]

Military government[edit]

Mister President: Manuel Estrada Cabrera, Dictator of Guatemala (1898–1920)

The régimes of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) and of General Jorge Ubico (1931–1944) opened the land and the economy of Guatemala to unrestricted foreign investment. Moreover, General Ubico especially granted favours — political and financial — to the United Fruit Company, whose investment capital bought controlling shares of the capital stock that financed the construction of the national railroads, the telegraph, and the electric utility company — the private control of the national economic infrastructure of the Republic of Guatemala. In exchange for building the road, rail, and telegraph infrastructure, President–General Ubico ceded physical control of much of Guatemala’s prime agricultural land, and de facto control of Puerto Barrios, the Caribbean Sea port that grants Guatemala access to the Atlantic Ocean; resultantly, in labour-and-management relations, the Ubico Government was politically subservient to foreign business interests, especially those of the United Fruit Company. In 1930, the US supported the presidential ascension of General Jorge Ubico (1931–44), who, under the guise of public efficiency, installed a national “March Towards Civilization”, by which he assumed dictatorial powers, and established a politically repressive régime with police state features, such as internal espionage (agents provocateur, spies, informants), arbitrary arrest, torture, and summary execution of political opponents. Personally, General Ubico was a wealthy aristocrat, with a yearly income of $215,000. Politically he was anti–Communist, and so protected the financial and economic interests of the Guatemalan élites (the feudal landed gentry and the urban bourgeoisie) in matters of land ownership and labour relations, against the legitimate, legal complaints of the working class, trade unions, and the peasantry. To that effect, General Ubico installed debt slavery, a feudal labour management system of forced labour, the laws of which permitted landlords to discipline their workforces with capital punishment, when necessary, for the efficient functioning of the business enterprise.[1][17][18][5] Philosophically, as a self-identified fascist, General Ubico openly admired his dictator contemporaries, the Italian Benito Mussolini, the Spanish Francisco Franco, and the German Adolf Hitler. Racially, he disdained the indigenous Maya peoples of Guatemala, whom he described as “animal-like”, who needed to be “civilized” with mandatory military training, which would be like “domesticating donkeys”.[19][20][21] As a plutocrat, he ceded thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land to the United Fruit Company, and exempted that corporation from paying taxes to the Guatemalan treasury. Geopolitically, President–General Jorge Ubico the US, when he allowed the establishment of American military bases in Guatemala.[1][17][18][5]

Civil government[edit]

The thirteen-year dictatorship of General Ubico ended with the October Revolution of 1944, which initiated “Ten Years of Spring” in the national politics of Guatemala. The free election that followed installed a philosophically conservative university professor, Juan José Arévalo, as the President of Guatemala (1945–1951); and established a new political constitution that allowed the legal possibility of expropriating unused farmland for the benefit of the Guatemalan peasant majority. Yet, the liberal social and economic policies, derived from the new political constitution and the “spiritual socialism” philosophy of President Arévalo, provoked the ruling class gentry and the urban bourgeoisie to first distrust, and then accuse the President of Guatemala of supporting communism — a serious personal imputation and political accusation during the Cold War, of which the US Government took serious note. Furthermore, in 1947, the Arévalo Government promulgated a liberal labour law that favoured the rights of workers, and implicitly attacked the exploitative business practices of the United Fruit Company.

In turn, the private business complaints of the UFC prompted the US embassy in Guatemala City to send alarmist political intelligence to Washington, DC — that Guatemalan President Arévalo allowed political rights to Guatemalan communists. Moreover, in keeping with his spiritual-socialism philosophy, President Arévalo supported the Caribbean Legion, a group of reformist Latin American military officers and intellectuals who advocated the deposition of right-wing dictatorships in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Venezuela; the CIA described the Caribbean Legion as a politically destabilizing force, dangerous to US geopolitical interests in the Western Hemisphere. As a participant in the October Revolution of 1944, army Captain Árbenz facilitated the transition from military dictatorship and military government to representative democracy, when he, and a comrade officer, Major Arana, forsook the Presidency of Guatemala for constitutional government; such personal and professional integrity earned them, and the Guatemalan Army, much popular respect as patriots. Later, in 1950, Jacobo Árbenz as presidential candidate received 65 per cent of the votes. In post-dictatorship Guatemala, the Political Constitution of Guatemala allowed only a six-year term, and forbade presidential re-election.

Land reform[edit]

Main article: Decree 900

For the social and economic reform of the Republic of Guatemala, President Árbenz advocated the labour union organization of the working class, and land reform for the landless-peasant majority of the population. In 1951, to equitably redistribute the prime arable lands of the country, the President worked with the Communist Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT, Guatemalan Labour Party) to jointly compose, implement, and establish a realistic agrarian-reform program that would remedy the historically inequitable distribution of farmland, which dated from the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, the Colonial period, and the 20th-century military dictatorships. In 1945, the Guatemalan bourgeoisie — approximately 2.2 per cent of the national population — owned 70 per cent of the arable land of Guatemala, yet economically exploited only 12 per cent of that land, whilst 58 per cent of that farmland remained idle, untilled, and unproductive; whilst the remaining 97.8 per cent of the Guatemalan population were landless labourers. In 1952, the Árbenz Government promulgated Decree 900, the agrarian-reform redistribution of farmland; the landless-peasant majority welcomed the progressive changes to the Guatemalan Old Order of the dictatorships of General Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) and General Jorge Ubico (1931–44).

Operation PBSUCCESS: The Former headquarters of the United Fruit Company, the multinational corporation that instigated the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état.

As with his predecessor, President Juan José Arévalo (1945–51), and because of the liberal changes to the economy of Guatemala, the land-owning upper classes and the political factions of the military establishment publicly accused President Árbenz of being unduly influenced by the PGT’s four-man Communist-minority in the fifty-six-member National Congress of Guatemala — a serious personal imputation and political accusation during the Cold War, of which the US Government took serious note. The resultant political tensions provoked civil unrest throughout the country, and threatened the Guatemalan business interests of the United Fruit Company.

In March 1953, the Árbenz Government expropriated idle UFC farmlands, for which the company was paid US$600,000 — as determined by the UFC’s public tax-declaration of the financial value of the idle farmland. In October 1953 and in February 1954, the Árbenz Government further expropriated 60,702 hectares (150,000 acres) of unused UFC farmland; to that date, the total area of the farmlands expropriated from the UFC was approximately 161,874 hectares (400,000 acres). Consequently, the United Fruit Company complained to and sought financial redress through the US Government; and, in 1954, the US State Department demanded that the Árbenz Government pay US$15,854,849 to the UFC, for the true value of its farmland in the Pacific Ocean coast of Guatemala. In turn, the Árbenz Government rejected that demand, as a violation of the national sovereignty of the Republic of Guatemala claiming the demand was usurious.[22]

Casus belli: the farmland of the Quetzaltenango Department, in western Guatemala.

As the land expropriations occurred throughout 1953, the United Fruit Company asked the Eisenhower Administration to compel the Árbenz Government to rescind the Decree 900 laws. To involve the politically reticent President Eisenhower, the UFC employed the public relations-and-advertising expert Edward L. Bernays to create, organise, and direct a psychologically inflammatory, anti–communist campaign of disinformation, by print and radio, film and television, against the liberal Árbenz Government of Guatemala. The public-opinion pressure generated by the UFC disinformation campaign compelled President Eisenhower to become involved in the private-business vs. national-government quarrel of the United Fruit Company and the Árbenz Government, lest his government appear to be “soft on Communism” in Guatemala — a serious personal imputation and great political accusation of which the American public took serious note, especially during the Red Scares of the McCarthy Era (1947–57) of US national politics. Consequently, the US State Department reduced economic aid to and commercial trade with Guatemala, which much harmed the Guatemalan national economy, because 85 per cent of its exports were sold to the US, and 85 per cent of its imports were bought from the US. Such economic sabotage of Guatemala was done in secret, because economic warfare violated the Latin American non-intervention agreement to which the United States was a signatory party; public knowledge that the US was violating the non-intervention agreement would prompt other Latin American countries to aid Guatemala in surviving such economic warfare.[23]

Role of the United Fruit Company[edit]

Main article: United Fruit Company


The United Fruit Company (UFC) had been formed in 1899 by the merger of two large American corporations.[24] The new corporation held large tracts of land across Central America, and also controlled the railroads in the region, which it used to support its business of exporting bananas.[25] By 1900 it had become the largest exporter of bananas in the world.[26] By 1930 it had an operating capital of 215 million US dollars, and had been the largest landowner and employer in Guatemala for several years.[27] Under the dictatorships of Manuel Estrada Cabrera and Jorge Ubico, the company had been granted a large number of economic and legal concessions in Guatemala that allowed it to massively expand its business. These concessions frequently came at the cost of tax revenue for the Guatemalan government.[26] The company supported Jorge Ubico in the leadership struggle that occurred from 1930 to 1932, and upon assuming power, Ubico expressed willingness to create a new contract with it. This new contract was immensely favorable to the company. It included a 99-year lease to massive tracts of land, exemptions from virtually all taxes, and a guarantee that no other company would receive any competing contract. Under Ubico, the company paid virtually no taxes, which greatly hindered the Guatemalan government's ability to deal with the Great Depression of 1929-32.[26] Ubico requested the UFC to cap the salary of its workers at only 50 cents a day, so that workers in other companies would be less able to demand higher wages.[27] The company also virtually owned Puerto Barrios, Guatemala's only port to the Atlantic ocean, allowing the company to make profits from the flow of goods through the port.[27] By 1950, the company's annual profits were 65 million US dollars, twice as large as the revenue of the government of Guatemala.[28]

Effects of the October revolution[edit]

Due to its long association with Ubico's government, the United Fruit Company (UFC) was seen as an impediment to progress by Guatemalan revolutionaries after 1944. This image was worsened by the company's discriminatory policies towards its colored workers.[28][29] Thanks to its position as the country's largest landowner and employer, the reforms of Arévalo's government affected the UFC more than other companies. Among other things, the labor code passed by the government allowed its workers to strike when their demands for higher wages and job security were not met. The company saw itself as being specifically targeted by the reforms, and refused to negotiate with the numerous sets of strikers, despite frequently being in violation of the new laws.[30] The company's labor troubles were compounded in 1952 when Jacobo Árbenz passed Decree 900, the agrarian reform law. Of the 550,000 acres (220,000 ha) that the company owned, 15% were being cultivated; the rest of the land, which was idle, came under the scope of the agrarian reform law.[30]

Lobbying the United States[edit]

The United Fruit Company responded with intensive lobbying of members of the United States government, leading many US congressmen and senators to criticize the Guatemalan government for not protecting the interests of the company.[31] The Guatemalan government responded by saying that the company was the main obstacle to progress in the country. American historians observed that "To the Guatemalans it appeared that their country was being mercilessly exploited by foreign interests which took huge profits without making any contributions to the nation's welfare."[31] In 1953, 200,000 acres (81,000 ha) of uncultivated land was expropriated by the government, which offered the company compensation at the rate of 2.99 US dollars to the acre, twice what the company had paid when it bought the property.[31] More expropriation occurred soon after, bringing the total to over 400,000 acres (160,000 ha); the government offered compensation to the company at the rate at which the UFC had valued its own property for tax purposes.[30] This resulted in further lobbying in Washington, particularly through Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had close ties to the company.[31] The company had begun a public relations campaign to discredit the Guatemalan government; it hired public relations expert Edward Bernays, who ran a concerted effort to portray the company as the victim of the Guatemalan government for several years.[32] The company stepped up its efforts after Dwight Eisenhower had been elected in 1952. These included commissioning a research study on Guatemala from a firm known to be hawkish, which produced a 235-page report that was highly critical of the Guatemalan government.[33] Historians have stated that the report was full of "exaggerations, scurrilous descriptions and bizarre historical theories."[33] The report nonetheless had a significant impact on the members of Congress that it was sent to. Overall, the company spent over a half-million dollars to influence both lawmakers and members of the public in the US that the Guatemalan government needed to be overthrown.[33]

Operation PBFORTUNE[edit]

Man in gray suit and glasses signing a document
Operation PBFORTUNE: President Harry Truman authorized the CIA to effect a Guatemalan coup d’état in 1951
Main article: Operation PBFORTUNE

As early as 1951, before Decree 900 was promulgated in June 1952, the CIA’s geopolitical fear of a communist, political conquest of Guatemala, sponsored by the USSR, prompted the deposition of the liberal Árbenz Government. Ideologically, to the CIA, President Árbenz’s toleration for “known Communists” made him, at best, a “fellow traveller”, a communist sympathizer, and, at worst, a Communist, himself. The most feasible way of overthrowing President Árbenz was secret support (financial, logistical, military) of his ideological opponents — exiled Guatemalan rebel-groups, and right-wing, anti-Communist, and reactionary politicians in Guatemala. To that effect, CIA Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Walter Bedell Smith dispatched a secret agent to Guatemala City, to find and investigate potential candidates and organizations who would aid a US coup d’état against the liberal Árbenz Government — which included four Communists from the Guatemalan Labor Party. In that time, the exiled political opponents of the Árbenz Government were ideologically divided, and thus impotent to overthrow the elected government of Guatemala. In the event, the CIA case officer reported to DCI Bedell Smith that there existed no reliable politician or military officer available to betray the national sovereignty of the Republic of Guatemala.

Fortuitously for the CIA, that failed scouting trip coincided with the first US state visit of Anastasio Somoza García, the President of Nicaragua (1937–47, 1950–56), who told the Truman Administration (1945–53) of the existence of a small, Guatemalan rebel-group commanded by Col. Castillo Armas. In exchange for CIA aid and support, the Nicaraguan dictator offered to help the US depose the Guatemalan president. Somoza further explained that the coup d’état also would be financially supported by President Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, in exchange for the CIA’s assassination of Dominican opponents exiled in Guatemala. In June 1951, DCI Bedell Smith ordered CIA acceptance of the Somoza and Trujillo offers, and the establishment of connections with Col. Castillo Armas and his anti-Communist supporters. The CIA asked the Colonel for a plan for the invasion of Guatemala; he planned to launch simultaneous attacks from Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras, which would be co-ordinated with simultaneous anti-Communist insurrections throughout Guatemala. To effect the invasion, the Col. Castillo Armas requested money and matériel, yet nonetheless told the CIA that his army of liberation, El ejército de liberación, would invade Guatemala, with or without US support.

In September 1951, the US State Department approved Operation PBFORTUNE, a paramilitary coup d’état against the Árbenz Government. Nevertheless, shortly afterwards, shipment of the Soviet weapons for the CIA’s army of liberation was postponed. Because, in conversation with other Central American heads of state, Nicaraguan President Somoza García spoke openly about the CIA’s planned deposition of President Árbenz. Public knowledge of the betrayed secret-intervention would provoke diplomatic problems for the US — a signatory to the Rio Pact (1947), a Latin American non-intervention treaty derived from the Good Neighbor Policy of the FDR Administration (1933–45). Consequently, the State Department and the CIA deactivated Operation PBFORTUNE until its reactivation became politically feasible. The liberation army matériel were stored, and the military caudillo services of Col. Castillo Armas were retained (at $3,000 a week) until the US required him to become Guatemala's president.

Operation PBSUCCESS[edit]

The coup d’état[edit]

In the post–War US, the departure of the cautious Truman Administration (1945–53) and the arrival of the adventurous Eisenhower Administration (1953–61), abetted by the right-wing Cold War national political climate, rekindled Presidential interest in covert operations, which reanimated CIA advocacy of a paramilitary invasion of Guatemala to depose President Árbenz and his government. Strategically, President Eisenhower favored the secret warfare of covert operations, as cost-effective means for combating the world-wide hegemony of the USSR. In that context, the US National Security Council revived the Guatemalan coup d’état after reviewing the malleability of anti–Árbenz politics, and because of the successful Anglo–American 1953 Iranian coup d’état effected by the CIA and the SIS against the elected Government (1951–53) of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.[citation needed]

1954 Guatemalan coup d’état: the memorandum that describes the CIA’s organisation of the paramilitary deposition of the Guatemalan government of President Jacobo Árbenz, in June 1954.

To initiate Operation PBSUCCESS, the CIA selected the Guatemalan politico-military leader who would succeed Árbenz as President of Guatemala, and establish a pro–American Guatemalan government. The three exile candidates were: (i) the coffee planter Juan Córdova Cerna, formerly of the Cabinet of Advisors to the reformist President Juan José Arévalo (1945–51), and who also was a business consultant to the United Fruit Company, which he aided in repressing a workers’ revolt. (ii) General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, a department governor under General Ubico; he was pro–Nazi until 1943, when he changed fascist allegiance for democratic allegiance, and became pro–US; as such, he mediated the overthrowing of General Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, one of the triumvirate junta who succeeded the deposed dictator, General Jorge Ubico. (iii) Col. Castillo, a contemporary of Jacobo Árbenz at the Guatemalan national military academy. As the most politically amenable white-horse caudillo, the CIA appointed Col. Castillo as leader of the Guatemalan army of liberation, the core of Operation PBSUCCESS.

Because of the continual bureaucratic postponements of the paramilitary invasion, the CIA worried that their Guatemalan army of liberation, or any other Guatemalan armed rebel-group, might prove over-eager and prematurely launch a coup d’état. The worry proved true on 29 March 1953, when a futile raid against the Army garrison at Salamá, in central Guatemala, was launched by a rebel group associated with Col. Castillo — one of three men whom CIA considered installing as President of Guatemala. Besides the military defeat and the jailing of the seditious rebels, the failed invasion provoked the political response most feared by CIA — the Árbenz Government repressed and jailed the anti-Communists connected with the exiled rebels, and all other potentially treasonous right-wing politicians. Most Guatemalans supported the President’s repression, because the exile rebels and the domestic politicians sought to subvert the constitutionally-elected government of Guatemala with the aid of a foreign power, the United States. The jailing of the CIA’s Guatemalan secret agents rendered them operationally ineffective; thus, the CIA then relied upon the ideologically-fragmented Guatemalan exile-groups, and their anti-democratic allies in Guatemala, to realize the coup d’état against President Árbenz.[34]

In December 1953, the CIA established the operational headquarters of their Guatemalan army of liberation in suburban Florida; then recruited aeroplane pilots and mercenary soldiers, supervised their military training, established the radio station La Voz de la Liberación (The Voice of Liberation) to broadcast disinformation and propaganda; and arranged for increased diplomatic pressure upon Guatemala to reverse Decree 900 — especially as it applied to the United Fruit Company. Moreover, despite being unable to halt the exportation of Guatemalan coffee, the US ceased selling arms to Guatemala in 1951—meanwhile signing bilateral defense agreements and increasing arms shipments to Honduras and Nicaragua, and promising the Guatemalan military that they too could obtain arms if Árbenz were deposed. In 1953, the State Department aggravated the American arms embargo by thwarting Árbenz Government arms purchases from Canada, Germany, and Rhodesia. Faced with dwindling supplies of matériel, and having noted the unusually armed borders of Honduras, El Salvador, and other neighbor countries, President Árbenz acted upon the intelligence indications of an imminent paramilitary invasion of Guatemala — confirmed by a defector from Operation PBSUCCESS — and bought matériel in the Eastern Bloc.[35] The Árbenz Government bought surplus Wehrmacht matériel from the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, a Communist satellite country of the USSR. The weapons were delivered to Guatemala at the Atlantic Ocean port of Puerto Barrios, by the Swedish freight ship MS Alfhem, which sailed from the port of Szczecin in the People's Republic of Poland, a Communist satellite country of the USSR. The US State Department and the CIA tried to halt the arms-laden MS Alfhem en route to Guatemala; in one instance, the CIA seized the freight ship MS Wulfsbrook, having mistaken it for the MS Alfhem. Nonetheless, despite the intelligence failure having allowed “Communist Czech arms” to reach Guatemala, in the American press, to the American public, the CIA misrepresented the arms purchase as a Soviet provocation in “America's Backyard”.

During that time, the US prepared the liberation army of Col. Castillo Armas for their paramilitary war. In Mandate for Change: 1953–1956 (1963), ex-president Eisenhower said: “Our initial shipment . . . comprised only fifty tons of rifles, pistols, machine guns and ammunition, hardly enough to create apprehension in neighboring states.”[36]

Guatemalan response[edit]

The Árbenz Government originally meant to repel the invasion by arming the military-age populace, the workers’ militia, and the Guatemalan Army. However, resistance from the armed forces, as well as public knowledge of the secret arms purchase, compelled the President to supply arms only to the Army.[37] Although the purchase of surplus Wehrmacht arms had been from Czechoslovakia, not from the USSR, the Operation PBSUCCESS propaganda misrepresented the business transaction as proof of direct Soviet interference in the Western Hemisphere — a geopolitical impingement upon the US hegemony established in the Monroe Doctrine (1823). To the American public, the US press reported that the Republic of Guatemala was suffering an externally instigated, vanguard party Communist revolution, like the Communist revolutions occurred in the Eastern European countries at the borders of the USSR. The disinformation and propaganda planted in the US news media, about the Guatemalan–Czech arms purchase, and the arrival of the weapons to Guatemala, provoked much popular support for US military intervention. The resultant domestic support allowed the Eisenhower Administration to increase the intensity of its open and secret intervention against the Republic of Guatemala.

Monroe Doctrine hegemony: the CIA army of Col. Carlos Castillo Armas invaded the Republic of Guatemala from Honduras and from El Salvador.

On 20 May 1954, the US Navy began air and sea patrols of Guatemala, under the pretexts of intercepting secret shipments of weapons, and the protection of Honduras from Guatemalan aggression and invasion. On 24 May 1954, the US Navy launched Operation HARDROCK BAKER, a blockade of Guatemala, wherein submarines and surface ships intercepted and boarded every ship in Guatemalan waters, and forcefully searched it for Guatemala-bound weapons that might support the “Communist Árbenz Government”. The blockade included British and French ships, which violations of maritime national sovereignty neither Britain nor France protested, because they wished to avoid US intervention to their colonial matters in the Middle East; additionally, the blockade facilitated further psychological warfare against the Guatemalan Army. To disseminate propaganda, the military aeroplanes of Col. Castillo flew over Guatemala City, dropping leaflets that exhorted the people of Guatemala to "Struggle against Communist atheism, Communist intervention, Communist oppression . . . Struggle with your patriotic brothers! Struggle with Castillo Armas!"

The messages were meant to turn the Guatemalan Army against President Árbenz, personally, and against Communism, as economic policy. Moreover, the rebel aeroplanes flying over the cities were perceived as practicing bombing runs, which Guatemalans perceived as indicative of an imminent invasion. On 7 June 1954, a contingency evacuation-force of five amphibious assault ships, a US Marines helicopter-assault Battalion Landing Team, and an anti-submarine aircraft carrier, were despatched to blockade the Guatemalan sea lanes.

Propaganda and disinformation[edit]

The Guatemalan coup d’état much depended upon psychological warfare, because the 480-soldier Guatemalan army of liberation was over-matched by the Guatemalan Army; thus, deception by feint was most important.[13] The CIA used propaganda in the forms of political rumour, air-dropped pamphlets, poster campaigns, and radio (the mass communications medium that successfully deceived most of the Iranian populace to accept the foreign deposition of the elected PM Mohammad Mosaddegh). In third-world Guatemala, few people owned radio receivers; nonetheless, Guatemalans considered the medium of radio as an authoritative source of information. As directed by CIA case officers, from Florida, right-wing student groups successfully conducted internal propaganda, such as publishing El combate (The Combat), a weekly political pamphlet, covering walls and buses with the number 32 — referring to Article 32 of the Guatemalan Constitution, which forbade foreign-financed political parties; the propaganda claims received much attention from the local and the national press. Other psychological warfare techniques included character assassination with signs that read: A Communist Lives Here affixed to the houses of Árbenz supporters; and the month-long daily delivery of false death-notices to President Árbenz, his Cabinet of Advisors, and known Communists.

In due course, the disinformation-propaganda campaign provoked the Árbenz Government to politically repress the Guatemalan right wing, by arresting rightist students, limiting freedom of assembly, and intimidating newspapers. Furthermore, the CIA expected gossip (word-of-mouth) to assist in propagating anti-Communist claims against the elected Árbenz Government. From Florida, The Voice of Liberation radio station, which claimed to be broadcasting from the Guatemalan jungle, transmitted music, “news”, disinformation, and anti–Árbenz propaganda. Most of the radio programming was for the general populace, yet some propaganda specifically was a seditious call-to-arms meant to appeal to the right-wing men of action in the officer corps of the Guatemalan military, whose treasonous complicity was essential to the success of the deposition of the elected Árbenz Government. The collaboration of the Guatemalan army (ca. 5,000 soldiers) was most important, because, as a professional military force, they could readily out-fight and defeat the CIA mercenary army of liberation led by Col. Castillo. The CIA knew that the Castillo army could not conquer Guatemala with 480 mercenary soldiers. Hence, the importance of propaganda, of the co-optation of the Guatemalan military-officer corps to the usurpation of Guatemalan representative democracy, by overthrowing the “Communist government” of President Árbenz.

The CIA invasion of Guatemala[edit]

At 8:00 p.m. on 18 June 1954, Col. Castillo's Ejército de liberación invaded Guatemala; in four groups, the 480 soldiers entered the country at five key points of the Honduras–Guatemala border and of the Guatemala–El Salvador border. Multiple attacks, along a wide front, were meant to impress the populace that the Republic of Guatemala was being invaded by a military force superior to and of greater size than the Guatemalan Army. The four-group dispersal of the CIA mercenary army meant to minimize the possibility of a militarily decisive rout, and of the coup d’état being thwarted, with a single, unfavorable battle. Ten saboteurs, tasked to destroy key bridges and telegraph communications, would hinder the Guatemalan national defense, preceded the main attack force of the liberationist army. Nonetheless, the CIA ordered Col. Castillo to avoid fighting the Guatemalan Army — lest the defenders co-ordinate tactics, and either kill or capture the CIA invaders. As psychological warfare, the course of the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état invasion was meant to provoke popular panic, by giving the populace the impression of strategically insurmountable odds against successfully defending Guatemala, which, the CIA believed, would compel the national populace and the Guatemalan Army to side with, rather than repel and defeat, the invaders led by Col. Castillo. Throughout the invasion, the Voice of Liberation broadcast false news of a popular, right-wing counter-revolution spontaneously occurring throughout Guatemala; of great military forces being welcomed, and joined by the local populace, to overthrow the Communist Árbenz Government.

Almost immediately, the forces of Col. Castillo met with decisive failure. Invading on foot and hampered by heavy equipment, in some cases, the invaders took days to reach their strategic objectives. The weakened psychological impact of the initial invasion allowed local Guatemalans to understand that they were not endangered. One of the first liberationist units to reach their strategic objective was a group of 122 mercenaries tasked to capture the city of Zacapa; despite their superior number, they were defeated by a 30-man platoon of the Guatemalan Army; only 28 mercenaries survived the battle. Elsewhere, in northern Guatemala, a 170-mercenary unit was defeated when they attempted to capture the guarded port city of Puerto Barrios. When the chief of police saw the mercenary invaders, he armed the local longshoremen and assigned them defensive positions. Hours later, after the defensive battle, most of the 170 mercenaries had been killed or captured; some escaped, and fled to Honduras. Within three days, the Guatemalan Army had rendered combat-ineffective two of the four units of Col. Castillo's liberation army. To recover the initiative, the Colonel ordered an air attack upon Guatemala City; the desultory attack upon the national capital failed — a slow aeroplane only managed to bomb a small oil tank, which fire the defenders quickly extinguished.[38]

Defeat—crisis of confidence and resignation[edit]

Despite his tactical and strategic successes in defending the Guatemalan republic, President Árbenz ordered his military commander to allow the liberation army of Col. Castillo Armas to advance deep into Guatemala. Although the mercenary army of the CIA were not a significant military threat, the President and the military commander did fear US military intervention if the Guatemalan military decisively defeated the CIA invasion. In the event, such geopolitical fear—US military occupation—soon panicked the Guatemalan officer corps; no tactical commander wished to provoke the intervention of the US military forces who were then blockading Guatemala. Psychologically, the presence of the US Navy’s amphibious assault force prompted rumours, nation-wide, that the US Marines already had established a beachhead in Honduras, and were en route to invading Guatemala. President Árbenz feared that the military officers would be intimidated to side with Col. Castillo Armas; days later, the Army garrison at Chiquimula surrendered to the CIA's liberacionista army.

The CIA exerted air power against the Árbenz Government with a "Liberation Air Force" of US military and mercenary personnel who conducted air raids against Guatemalan military targets and cities.[37] Early in the morning of 27 June 1954, a CIA Lockheed P-38M Lightning attacked Puerto San José and dropped napalm bombs on the British cargo ship, SS Springfjord, on charter to the US company W.R. Grace and Company Line, which was being loaded with Guatemalan cotton and coffee.

At 08.00 hrs. President Árbenz was told of the air attack and responded with consternation that Col. Castillo Armas and his American mercenary invaders had targeted a foreign merchant ship, in violation of international law regarding the distinctions between combatants and non-combatants in warfare. In the event, the CIA psychological warfare succeeded, and provoked an officers' revolt; which crisis of confidence, the President explained to his Cabinet of Advisors, made his presidency untenable, and, at 21.15 hrs., on 27 June 1954, Jacobo Árbenz resigned the Presidency of Guatemala, for exile in Mexico.

Operation PBHISTORY[edit]

Main article: Operation PBHISTORY

After the PBSUCCESS coup d’état the CIA launched Operation PBHISTORY, a document analysis team in Guatemala with the intelligence remit to collect and analyze Árbenz Government and Guatemalan Labour Party documents that would be evidence to support the CIA's ideological and geopolitical belief that, under Árbenz's presidency, the Republic of Guatemala was a Western-hemisphere Communist puppet state in the hegemony of the Soviet Union. CIA intelligence analyses, of some 150,000 pages of Guatemalan Government and Labor Party documents, found no substantiation of the key geopolitical premise (Soviet political involvement) that justified the secret US paramilitary invasion of Guatemala, and the deposition of the elected Árbenz Government.[38] The socialism practiced by the Árbenz Government was unrelated to the Cold War geopolitics of the US and the USSR. Yet, some US businessmen and military officers believed that the nationalism of President Árbenz was a communist threat to the business interests of American multinational corporations, and advocated and supported the coup d’état against his government, despite the Guatemalan majority’s support and attachment to the original political principles of the Guatemalan Revolution.[39]


Main article: Guatemalan Civil War

In the aftermath of the Guatemalan coup d’état that deposed President Árbenz, the usurper government of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, had difficulty persuading the officer corps of the Guatemalan Army to abandon their Constitutional allegiance to the head-of-state President, and become the Guatemalan Army commanded by Col. Castillo Armas. In the event, most of the officer corps abandoned the elected President of Guatemala, because, as political conservatives, they disliked Decree 900 and the socio-economic changes promulgated, yet neither did they prefer the reactionary régime of Col. Castillo Armas, that soon reversed the progressive changes effected by the deposed Árbenz Government and Decree 900.

The response of the Guatemalan nation, to having had their elected government usurped, by right-wing counter-revolution, varied by social class. The upper-class landowners welcomed the end of Decree 900, and expected the U.S. to reinstate their monopoly ownership of expropriated agricultural lands. Likewise, the native Maya had political opinions about the counter-revolution, those who benefited from Decree 900 were unhappy, whilst those who lost lands to Decree 900 were happy, especially those Maya whose autonomous communities had lost political power to the Árbenz Government;[citation needed] other Maya Guatemalans favored President Árbenz, like most Guatemalans, because they understood the socio-political importance of Decree 900 for eliminating the feudalism that for centuries had retarded the social, economic, and cultural progress of Guatemalan society.

In the cities of Antigua Guatemala, San Martín Jilotepeque, and San Juan Sacatepéquez pro–Árbenz armed groups fought the Castillo Armas Government, because of the forced presidential resignation, and because they had benefited from Decree 900. In the event, the US-installed military government of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas proved reactionary, and reversed the land-reform expropriations, returned the farmlands to private owners, for which reason some Guatemalan farmers burned their crops as economic protest.

Military government reinstated[edit]

In the eleven days after the resignation of President Árbenz, five successive military junta governments occupied the Guatemalan presidential palace; each junta was successively more amenable to the political demands of the U.S., after which Col. Castillo Armas assumed the Presidency of Guatemala. As the Guatemalan head-of-state, the Colonel began the policy of violent repression against the peasantry that was maintained by successive administrations after him.

International opinion reviled the Guatemalan coup d’état, the French and British press, Le Monde and The Times, attacked the United States’ coup as a “modern form of economic colonialism”. In Latin America, public and official opinions expressed much political criticism of the U.S., and Guatemala became symbolic to many of armed resistance to the perceived U.S. hegemony over Latin America. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld (1953–61), said that the paramilitary invasion with which the U.S. deposed the elected government of Guatemala was a geopolitical action that violated the human-rights stipulations of the UN Charter; moreover, the usually pro–U.S. newspapers of West Germany condemned the Guatemalan coup d’état. Historically, the Director of the Mexico Project of National Security Archives, Kate Doyle, said that the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état was the definitive deathblow to democracy in the Republic of Guatemala.

Civil War in Guatemala[edit]

Democracy restored: Vinicio Cerezo, President of Guatemala (1986–1991)

The thirty-six-year Guatemalan Civil War, between the US-backed military government of Guatemala and insurgent Guatemalans, ran from 1960 to 1996; by the end, 200,000 people were either dead or missing.[40][41] During the civil war, atrocities against civilians were committed by both sides; however, the vast majority of human rights violations were carried out by the military, especially during the presidencies of Ríos Montt and Lucas García. This was the product of a particularly harsh counter-insurgency strategy adopted by military officers trained by the United States in warfare. These included a campaign of genocide against the indigenous Mayan people, as well as widespread rape and torture, forced conscription and disappearances. The civil war came to an end in 1996, with a peace accord between the guerrillas and the government of Guatemala, which included an amnesty for all the fighters, both among the military and the guerrillas.[42]


In October 2011, the government of Guatemala formally apologized to Juan Jacobo Árbenz, the son of the deposed President, Jacobo Árbenz. In that light, the national textbooks used in the public school system were revised to restore the good name of Jacobo Árbenz, as a Guatemalan patriot and as president of the nation, and also named a highway in his honor. Contemporarily, the Árbenz family continue to request an apology from the government of the United States for having overthrown the government of Guatemala in 1954.[43]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Streeter 2000, pp. 11-12.
  2. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 34-37.
  3. ^ Cullather 2006, pp. 9-10.
  4. ^ Rabe 1988, p. 43.
  5. ^ a b c McCreery 1994, pp. 316-317.
  6. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 41-43.
  7. ^ Streeter 2000, pp. 15-16.
  8. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 48-50.
  9. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 84.
  10. ^ a b Paterson 2009, p. 304.
  11. ^ May 1999, pp. 58-91.
  12. ^ a b Crisis in Central America on PBS Frontline, The New York Times 9 April 1985, p. 16.
  13. ^ a b Kornbluh 1997.
  14. ^ Cullather 1999, p. 17.
  15. ^ Shea 2001, p. ?.
  16. ^ Streeter 2000, pp. 8-10.
  17. ^ a b Immerman 34-37.
  18. ^ a b Cullather 1999, pp. 9-10.
  19. ^ Shillington 2002, pp. 38-39.
  20. ^ LaFeber 1993, pp. 77-79.
  21. ^ Forster 2001, pp. 82-83.
  22. ^ "Guatemala: Square Deal Wanted". Time. May 3, 1954. Retrieved April 20, 2010. 
  23. ^ LaFeber 1993, pp. 116-117.
  24. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 68-70.
  25. ^ Schlesinger & Kinzer 1999, pp. 65-68.
  26. ^ a b c Immerman 1982, pp. 68-72.
  27. ^ a b c Schlesinger & Kinzer 1999, pp. 67-71.
  28. ^ a b Immerman 1982, p. 73-76.
  29. ^ Schlesinger & Kinzer 1999, p. 71.
  30. ^ a b c Immerman & 1982 75-82.
  31. ^ a b c d Schlesinger & Kinzer 1999, p. 72-77.
  32. ^ Schlesinger & Kinzer 1999, pp. 78-90.
  33. ^ a b c Schlesinger & Kinzer 1999, pp. 90-97.
  34. ^ Cullather 1994, p. 21.
  35. ^ Cullather 1994, p. 36.
  36. ^ Mandate for Change: 1953–1956 (1963) p. 424.
  37. ^ a b Gordon 1971.
  38. ^ a b Cullather 1999, p. 90.
  39. ^ Schlesinger & Kinzer 1999, pp. 65-99.
  40. ^ Briggs, Billy (2 February 2007). "Billy Briggs on the atrocities of Guatemala's civil war". The Guardian (London). 
  41. ^ "Timeline: Guatemala". BBC News. 9 November 2011. 
  42. ^ May 1999, pp. 68-91.
  43. ^ Elisabeth Malkin, "An Apology for a Guatemalan Coup, 57 Years Later", New York Times, 20 October 2011. Archived 19 November 2012.


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