After toppling the elected government of the Iranian prime minister, the ruling classes of the mighty state of America orchestrated another coup – this time in Latin America. In 1952, the people of Guatemala voted Jacobo Arbenz into power, a pro-people leader who wanted to carry out some people-friendly reforms that could help alleviate poverty and help the peasants of the country, who had been ruthlessly exploited by local barons and their master: the United Fruit Company of America.
During the earlier part of the 20th century, the Guatemalan ruling classes faithfully served the interests of the country’s feudal lords and the foreign company. Only two per cent landlords owned 72 per cent of arable land, and only a tiny part of their holdings was under cultivation. The corrupt ruling elite was completely indifferent to the plight of the people, over 70 per cent of them were illiterate while more than 80 per cent barely eked out survival in the countryside. So, ownership and control of land was Guatemala’s fundamental economic issue. And it was not only the country’s feudal elite that was being showered favours by the ruling classes; the anti-people cabal of the rulers also extended all sorts of concessions to foreign investors, including the United Fruit Company.
According to American author Juan Gonzalez, president Jorge Ubico, who ruled the country from 1931-1944, surpassed all his predecessors in the favours he bestowed on UFCO. His anti-people and pro-American policies infuriated people who turned against him. “In 1944, a coalition of middle-class professionals, teachers and junior officers, many of them inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism, launched a democracy movement. The movement won the backing of the country’s growing trade unions and rapidly turned into a popular uprising that forced Ubico to resign.”
The movement paved the way for the first democratic elections in the country’s history in 1945. The enthusiastic voters threw their support behind Juan Jose Arevalo, a university professor and author, who had been living in exile in Argentina. He emerged as a messiah for a people dying to see some reforms. Having ruled over the country for six years, Arevalo created space for his political disciple Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. A young military officer, Arbenz won the 1951 elections, vowing to consolidate the reforms carried out by his predecessor besides promising to bring more changes.
In 1952, the new president infuriated the foreign fruit company and its local collaborators by announcing a law that sought the expropriation of all property larger than six hundred acres and not in cultivation. The purpose of the policy was to distribute the confiscated lands among the landless. The law triggered a ripple of excitement among the poor farmers but it turned the powerful landlords against the pro-people government.
According to Gonzalez, the owners were to receive compensation based on the land’s assessed tax value and they were to be paid with twenty-five-year government bonds, while the peasants would get low-interest loans from the government to buy their plots. “As land reform programmes go, it was by no means a radical one, since it only affected large estates. Of 341,000 landowners, only 1,700 holdings came under the provisions. But those holdings represented half the private land in the country. More importantly, it covered the vast holdings of the UFCO, which owned some 600,000 acres-most of it unused.”
The reformist president stunned the UFCO officials by confiscating a huge chunk of the company’s land and offered $1.2 million as compensation, a figure that was based on the tax value of the company’s own accountants had declared before the law was passed. The company and the US State Department came up with a bizarre demand of a $16 million compensation which Arbenz outrightly rejected. This prompted the then US secretary of state John Foster Dulles and CIA director Allen Dulles to convince president Eisenhower that Arbenz must go.
Gonzales writes, “The Dulles brothers, of course, were hardly neutral parties. Both were former partners of United Fruit’s main law firm in Washington. On their advice, Eisenhower authorized the CIA to organize ‘Operation Success’, a plan for the armed overthrow of Arbenz, which took place in June 1954. The agency selected Guatemalan colonel Carlos Castillo Armas to lead the coup, it financed and trained Castillo’s rebels in Somoza’s Nicaragua, and it backed up the invasion with CIA-piloted planes. During and after the coup, more than nine thousand Guatemalan supporters of Arbenz were arrested.”
According to some estimates, the unrest triggered by the coup claimed more than 154,000 Guatemalans. The coup exposed all the tall claims made by the US, with Washington not only recognizing the illegal government that came into power through extremely violent means but also showering aid and assistance. The dictator reciprocated by outlawing more than 500 trade unions and returning more than 1.5 million acres to UFCO and the country’s other big landowners.
The dictator unleashed a reign of terror. Gonzalez writes: “In Guatemala City, unlicensed vans full of heavily armed men pull to a stop and in broad daylight kidnap another death squad victim. Mutilated bodies are dropped from helicopters on crowded stadiums to keep the population terrified . . . those who dare ask about ‘disappeared’ loved ones have their tongues cut out.”
This is not the story of just one Latin American country but a number of them were taught a tough lesson for daring to speak for people’s rights. The coup in Chile is another example where the American mining companies and other business interests came into conflict with the first elected socialist government in Latin America. The American ruling elite remembers only one 9/11, but it was 9/11 also in 1973 when Allende’s government was toppled and replaced by a brutal dictatorship of General Pinochet that was involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity. More than ten thousand people became the victims of enforced disappearance. The rights of the Chilean people were trampled upon as foreign and local capital thrived.
Dictatorships in Brazil and a number of other countries in the western hemisphere were patronized by Washington and its Western allies. Such patronage in no way benefitted ordinary Americans but did immensely enrich a tiny minority. The ruling elite of the US did all this in the name of the American people’s interests but in reality, ordinary Americans would have never approved the murder of innocent children or of nuns in El Salvador, had they come to know in time that this was all being done in their name.
From the Bay of Pigs to the crippling sanctions against Cuba, every monstrous move of the American ruling elite was meant to benefit large corporations, agri businesses, oil giants, mining tycoons, financial gurus and arms dealers – who were pulling the strings of the American officials that were busy hatching conspiracies against elected governments in Latin America, peasant movements in western hemisphere and workers’ struggles in Spanish and Portuguese speaking belts. It is important to name and shame those companies, executives, billionaires and business tycoons who may have benefited immensely from the usurpation of people’s rights in the backyard of the mighty state. They may not be sitting in Congress. They may not be part of the federal and state governments. They might be conspicuous by their absence in diplomatic circles but it is their capital and financial power that call the shots across the American political landscape and beyond.
The writer is a freelance journalist who can be reached at: email@example.com
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