The theme of the first stop of the Afterparty tour will be “In Search of Jacobo Arbenz.” In 1954, the American Central Intelligence Agency engineered a coup of Guatemala’s democratically elected president. Along with the overthrow of Iranian president Mohammad Mosaddegh by the CIA and British MI6 in 1953, the coup would become a model for covert regime changes for years to come.
In a synchronicity moment, politico and poet Steve Villano invited me to one of Bob McBarton’s fabulous Luncheon Society events, featuring Nixon White House attorney and author John Dean. Apropos of nothing in particular, the name Stephen Schlesinger came up. Stopping in my tracks on the way to our cars after the event, I asked if he was the same guy who co-wrote the authoritative account of the overthrow, “Bitter Fruit,” and, yes, he was, indeed. One thing led to another, and Steve V hooked me up with Steve S, who wrote the book with one of my favorite foreign affairs authors Steve Kinzer.
Immediately and graciously accepting my invitation for a call, we spoke earlier this week. I will include more excerpts of our chat, and hopefully a longer live conversation, but here are some highlights:
On the overthrow:
The overthrow was one of the worst foreign policy ventures of the 20th century. Gratuitous. It distorted the history of that country. Could have been a shining beacon of democracy in Central America.
The times we have intervened, we always make the situation worse. We refuse to acknowledge that local indigenous leaders can do good things. We use a narrow lens. Iran is a twin example from that era.
On “War: The Afterparty”
No one has investigated the aftermath. I think it is a great idea. Yours are exactly the questions you should be asking and those are exactly the countries you should be visiting. A missing story that has not really been told. The story has never been visually done.
Listening to experts, books, intellectual stuff. is easy. That’s not the big issue. Humanize it—finding people, like the union people who were trying to organize in 1954, just trying to give people the chance to have their little plot of land. Bring home the fact that this was a very temperate type of reform. Not an attempt to destroy the United Fruit company, but to create a middle class. Find people who were active in that part of the movement. The peons. Give people a visual sense. Go out to see the land in question. Humanizing the conflict is the most important thing. The Mayans would have been the beneficiaries who would have benefited most from land reform.. Instead,they were the ones who suffered the worst. Exterminated. Illustrate the real history to a wide audience.
Is there a link between the overthrow and the 35 years of civil war that followed? Or the current emigration crisis?
Civil war definitely followed the overthrow. Doesn’t mean there might not have been other right-wing attempts. The Spanish social class was ousted in 1944 so they wanted power back. The left was benefitting from the reforms so unlikely they would have become revolutionaries. The French revolution had a land reform program. Produced thousands of new farmers. They became the middle class, the most conservative people.
Emigration is a little more complicated as Guatemala has still not come through with any Arbenz reforms. The dispossessed are still enormous in Guatemala. Terrible poverty, so people will do anything to get a job. Terrible circumstances, gang warfare and drug smuggling, which produced so much turmoil and so much killing.
If we had left Guatemala alone in the fifties, there could have been a stalwart democracy, spreading throughout the region, resulting in a much more stable region.
Was Arbenz a Communist?
Arbenz was from a military background. He was a bit naïve, and did not understand the emotional impact of the cold war in the US. He was open to the notion that to create a viable society, you needed a middle class, to give people a stake in their own society through land reform.He was willing to let communists be part of a coalition in the assembly, and that made him vulnerable. French President Mitterand had communists in his cabinet. Arbenz never did that.
He made two mistakes—he should have paid more attention to ideologues in Washington who wanted to make his situation a case of where the communists were going to take over. He didn’t understand that there were ways of dealing with that issue. Arevalo managed to spend 5 years without the US overthrowing him.
The Eisenhower administration was looking for a cause celebre to prove that they could roll back communism. Second point, he could have rallied the troops in those final days and then might have maintained power. He felt so undermined by the bombings and fake radio broadcasts, the psychological and emotional terror, that he lost his nerve.
Many thanks to Steve and much more to come on the Arbenz story.