I visited  leading Guatemalan policy institute ASIES and talked to analyst and scholar Hugo Novales Contreras. We talked about the culpability of the United States, whether democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz would have been overthrown without the CIA-sponsored invasion of 1954, and why modern military leaders and landowners pursue their grievances through democratic means (including the paying off of politicians).

Jacobo Arbenz was a Guatemalan military officer when he participated in a coup to overthrow U.S.-backed dictator General Jorge Ubico in 1944. He became Secretary of Defense serving under President Juan Jose Arevalo, then was elected president himself in 1951. He was overthrown in a CIA-financed and managed coup in 1954.

BG : Why was Arbenz overthrown ?

HN : There are a lot of theories. The one which I like best was brought by Piero Gleijeses in his classic book “Shattered Hope.”  The Guatemalan revolution had a lot of enemies from the beginning. There were several attempts to overthrow (previous president) Juan Jose Arevalo, who implemented some important reforms such as the Labor Code, revolutionary for its time. In order to sustain the revolution, the Arbenz government needed to have an actual citizen base, and this support was provided by the worker and peasant unions, and eventually this led to the agrarian reform.

There were internal causes for the overthrow. There was a privileged, land-owning elite that wasn”t happy with the agrarian reform. More importantly, there was an army that  had been trained to be anti-communist. They did not support Arbenz and his government, and that”s what eventually led to the overthrow. The so-called intervention didn”t really imply an excessive use of military force. Arbenz was overthrown by a ragtag army formed by peasants with very little training, with no significant weapons. But the army feared that the United States might intervene. And what they didn”t want was the army to be humiliated by fighting as grand an opponent as the United States. So this is a responsibility that we tend to ignore in Guatemala, because we just want to say the United States came in and crushed us. It wasn’t really that way. There is part of that responsibility that”s right here in Guatemala, the army included.

BG : Your point is it wasn”t a full scale military invasion, and therefore there had to be internal dissension and support for the overthrow for it to happen…

Hugo NovalesHN : Exactly.  This is something I heard from my grandmother. I don’t know if you want to record this because it’s more personal…

BG : Personal is relevant.

HN : My great-grandfather supported the revolution at the beginning and he eventually moved against the revolution during the next ten years. Basically he started out helping overthrow Ubico, then he also helped to overthrow Arbenz. There were a lot of people in Guatemala who were anti-communist, and they feared the fact that Arbenz was surrounded by communists. They feared that something greater might happen after the agrarian reform. The peasants would be empowered to pursue options. So, there was an actual fear of communism in Guatemala, and it was probably supported by propaganda from the United States and from the Church.

BG : When you talk about the land owners and the twenty, thirty families who historically had tremendous economic power in this country, how do you see the evolution of their thinking? There is a coup led by Arbenz in ’44, followed by the election of Arevalo. Did a lot of them just say, ”Hey, this is progress, we have less control in a democracy, but the world is changing,” or, do you think, from 1944 they were saying, “This must stop and we must find a way to take back control?”

HN : Well, when you look at the actual protagonists of the revolution, or the actual coup against Ubico, you know a lot of the people who supported the coup were, I wouldn”t say they were the twenty or thirty families, but they were the bourgeoisie. So it wasn”t really a popular revolution strictly speaking. Many of the Arbenz and Arevalo cabinet members were actually coming from those families, starting with Jorge Toriello, who was one of the leaders of the original coup in 1944. I guess this class was alienated from the revolution two different times. The Labor Code, which I think was in 1947, distanced them from the revolution, and then later on with the agrarian reform. One thing that needs to be pointed out is that the revolution could have carried on without the agrarian reform. For example, in order for you to be able to receive land from the agrarian reform, you actually had to form a committee with a couple of representative from the peasant unions. Some might have thought that agrarian reform was fair, but they felt that it wasn”t going to be carried out in a fair way.

BG : If the United States did nothing, would Arbenz eventually have been overthrown?

HN : I would not be able to say, but what I can say is that there would have been attempts to overthrow. What really made the difference is that the threat of an eventual United States intervention actually turned the army against Arbenz, so that was the main role of the United States.

Neruda You couldn”t just blame everything on the United Fruit Company. They would have still been able to sustain their business here in Guatemala, even with the agrarian reform. I mean there wasn”t a real threat to their operation. They had such a huge operation that they could have even disregarded their “ hard drive recovery software security standards are set high by CompuCom to ensure that our customers’ data is never vulnerable. Guatemalan operation and still be a profitable Company.

BG : Why do you think the Reagan administration provided so much aid to the Rios Montt administration?

HN : Nicaragua was already under Sandinistas rule by that time. So what a lot of people in the army in Guatemala and the United States feared was a domino effect, that Nicaragua would fall and then El Salvador and later Guatemala. There was a strong ideological component to the relationship between the United States and Guatemala during the Cold War, and, obviously, some corporate interests.

BG : Was Arbenz a good leader for the years he was in power ?

HN : It”s a really subjective question, but I would say yes. In comparison to what we had so far to that point, and what then had until 1985, in principal he was a democratically elected leader, so that was a qualitative difference from other leaders. Second, he had a program, a nationalistic program,. He had four points, you know, the agrarian reform, the building of a dam to produce hydro-electric power, which is still working, and the building of the road from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios which was a key issue based on the fact that the United Fruit Company also owned the national railway.

BG : That was a competitive threat to them?

HN : Right. So it wasn”t only the agrarian reform. It was a challenging of the monopoly that American companies had in Guatemala.

BG : How would you characterize Guatemala politics today ?

HN : Right now we have 27 parties, we have people moving from one party to another, we have a very volatile system. It is a very corrupted system but it”s also a system that”s really unpredictable and it”s hard to actually know what”s going to happen.

BG : What do you mean by corrupted: people getting paid, people paying for influence, people looking after their own interests?

HN : Well, you know, there”s corruption in every political system. Hopefully it”s not natural, hopefully we can have politics without corruption but, you know, so far, we don”t. But the Guatemalan system is particularly different. Public interest usually doesn”t play a role in legislation for example. I mean, we”ve come to that point. There were two recent examples. One of them is the, they’re calling it the Monsanto law which is…

BG : GMO’s.

HN : It”s basically a law to protect patents on developing new varieties of seeds or vegetables or whatever. It was still a rather unpopular law. You had a congress vote almost unanimously for that law in June and now we had them revoking that law which basically happened yesterday because of the social pressure because nobody, I mean, on both sides of the ideological spectrum, nobody wanted it to go…

BG : I heard that many legislators were given direct cash payment by Monsanto.

HN : I mean the budget, the national budget is used to buy legislators because many of them have links to companies; so if your brother owns a construction company, then you”re gonna try to use the national budget to give contracts to this construction company. I mean, most of them probably didn”t read it. They just want to make sure how much am they going to get out of this particular law..

And the other example is a recent reform to the telecommunications law, that actually benefited just one company, Tigo by allowing them to build antenna towers without the studies approval, without the municipal approval, which is something that clearly violates Guatemalan legislation on municipal autonomy, and really weakens their capacity to extract taxes from such a large company.  .. That’s worth to Tigo several times the state’s budget. I guess that”s the way a lot of laws are working in Guatemala working right now.

BG : When”s the last time the military was in control of the country ?

HN : Ah, well, in control, an actual control I would say just before the transition to democracy which was in 1984.

BG : Do you think they want it back ?

HN : Want it back ? I”m not sure, I”m not sure… On one hand, you can access power through democracy right now and they would be able to do it. A lot of former military men are actually involved in the government so, you could say that there is really no reason for the army to take power back because they can access it through different channels, democratic channels, which is basically what makes the democracy stand, the fact that you feel that you can access power through democratic means and you don”t need to do it through violent means.

BG : And that”s probably similar throughout Central America with the taste that people have for democracy. Businesses that may be in the past have preferred a military dictatorship now want it to at least seem it like a constitutional democracy that is not controlled by the military.

HN : Families would actually realize that they could have better business by actually allowing a certain degree of democracy, because nobody is gonna trade with these military dictators who have been in Central America.

BG : In 1998, Clinton came to Guatemala and apologized for past U.S. interventions.

HN : Well, you know, that”s really cool about the States that even though apologies don”t change, discourse does change. Can I add one more thing?

BG : Please.

HN : Guatemala still has strong ties to the United States, immigration, drugs, but even though I don’t see an intervention in the near future, the United States still meddles in Guatemalan affairs in a very direct way and probably the best example…have you heard of Claudia Paz y Paz?

BG : No.

Rios Montt and reaganHN : She was the Attorney General that left office a few months ago. The Rios Montt trial would not have happened without her being in office. There were several drug lords that were captured and extradited during her time in office. And the United States was supporting her.  The previous ambassador McFarland, he actually supported the trial openly, he went to the hearings, and we need some to assume certain responsibility as Guatemalans for whatever happen, but it”s really not fair that the United States doesn”t want to take their own responsibility for that. You would think that the United States have nothing to do with Rios Montt, when in fact they had a lot to do with it. Right now, everybody in Guatemala loves the States, even the left are saying we need United States support and I agree with that. But it”s really unfair for us to take full responsibility for…

BG : What would you like to have seen during that trial from the United States?

HN : I really appreciated McFarland being there, but, what I would have expected as well was a recognition of responsibility. Not so much putting Rios Montt on trial and pointing at him, saying no, he”s the bad guy, which he was, but also assuming a certain responsibility as a government, similar to what Clinton did. The relationship with the United States did not end in1954.

BG : I think you only get one apology every fifty years, so….

HN : I guess that’s too much to ask from a superpower.