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I visited the storied campus of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and spoke with prominent professor and historian Dr. Oscar Pelaez Almengor. The campus, the fourth founded in the Americas, was the scene of intense and sometimes violent protests against both the 1954 CIA overthrow and the subsequent civil war. Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, Almengor organized a historic conference on the Arbenz coup last year.
Why was Jacobo Arbenz overthrown?
There were four principal causes. He was promoting the industrialization of the country, and the highway to the north, to the Atlantic. He was intent on doing his best for the common people. The people who opposed him were the people from Guatemala, not the U.S. The U.S. participation was three million dollars. They created the mercenary force. They wasted that money. It was nothing. What was really important was the people who opposed him here in Guatemala.
If the U.S. did not intervene, would they have overthrown him anyway?
I think so. The army coming from Honduras was defeated. We as Guatemalans like to blame the U.S. But it wasn”t true. The people who overthrew him were the Guatemalans. That is my point of view after studying the issue for many years. We want to see sins and culpability in people other than Guatemalans. The U.S. paid the salaries of the military officers who were close to Arbenz. Two thousand dollars each for three or four years. They immediately took power. They started that with the U.S. ambassador. He went with the junta to San Salvador, flying there and making a deal with Castillo Armas.
I asked whether the same 25-30 families have been in control since the Spanish conquest.
It”s a myth. The economic forces of the country are constantly changing in terms of political and economic elites. You can”t say that nothing has changed from the conquest to today. The elite are changing. If you look at the statistics, you will see that the landowners are no longer the most important people in the country. You have industrialists fighting against them. The landowners are now the third or fourth. We have people in (other forms of) commerce who are the most important. And they are not necessarily former landowners. The country is changing constantly.
I asked about the political evolution of the Catholic Church during the civil war.
The church became more left wing. You had one kind of church in 1954, another kind of church in the 60″s. The communists were not so important in 1954. They were a small group of people.
But somehow threatening to the United States?
In what way? What happens is you have to justify your actions.
You”re saying the Dulleses really didn”t care about communism but just wanted to support United Fruit and American economic interests.
They didn”t care about the communists. They used to say there were ten politically important people on the left in Guatemala. They said they were dangerous people. But in what way? They (Arbenz government) were working with the mass organizations, student and women”s organizations, things that happen in any democracy. They were dangerous to Guatemalan power. They used a word to describe what they wanted to do with those people. Disposal. They don”t say we are going to kill them.
You said Arbenz may have been overthrown anyway. U.S. Author Stephen Schlesinger suggests that if Arbenz continued, there could have been the first modern capitalist liberal democracy in Central America. Which would have created more regional stability and less cause for guerrilla activity.
The agrarian reform program was solving one of the huge, more dangerous problems in the country. The land is a problem even today. There are a lot of people asking for land. In Guatemala, El Salvador. Nicaragua. The way they proposed agrarian reform is the way Mexico did it. If you look at Mexico, you will see Guatemala if it did agrarian reform. Cardenas did it in the 1930″s. It happened in Taiwan, Mexico, Ecuador, Cuba.
Could a deal have been made with United Fruit?
I think there were some radicals in the Arbenz government who said the law is the law. During WWII, many Germans lived in Guatemala and the government took over their land. The biggest pieces of land to be redistributed came from the Germans.
Guatemala was asked to do that by the United States government during the war.
That is where the agrarian reform started. In WWI and WWII, both, they took the German citizens” land and they started the agrarian reform with this land.
On anti-communism as the reason for the coup.
It”s mostly fantasy. They used that as a justification. “I am fighting against the communists”. But who were the communists? University students, high school students, professors. They didn”t represent a real problem, a real power to take over the government of Arbenz. After the overthrow of Arbenz, many took to the mountains and became guerrillas.
Everyone talks about social justice but then, it was cause to be called a communist. You have to justify what you are doing. In the case of Central American governments, the military became rich controlling the government. On the other side, you have people looking for human rights, justice, agrarian reform. And you start looking at them as a collection of communists. You don”t make any distinction between a social democrat, a Christian democrat, you have only communists. You see the social democratic people in Costa Rica, they built a strong state, schools, education for everyone, social security. They are linked with social democrats in Europe.
On the state of Guatemala today.
The loss of the hegemony of the land owners is changing Guatemala. You have social democratic people, Christian democrats, center left, center right, right people. The radical left is no more. It is a very small group of people. The same in the U.S. I saw them in Boston, giving papers and selling socialist literature, (laughing) all 2 or 3 of them.
What is the reason for the mass migration of young Guatemalans to the United States?
The lack of opportunities here in Guatemala. There is not enough economic growth to give jobs to these people. But on the other side, when you do work in Guatemala, your salary is low. If you are going to find a job here, you will get a very small amount of money, but if you go to the United States you are going to get much more.
Asked about the charge that young Guatemalans are coming to the U.S. due to proposed change in immigration policy.
No, I don”t think so. I think it is the American dream to become rich, very soon. To have enough money to buy a car, to buy things, a house.