I’m sure I can’t rely on serendipity and chance encounters as a way to harvest interviews and information during the Afterparty world tour, but so far it’s been a fascinating ride. A risky assumption of the project is that food and lodging and even transport costs can be kept low with a combination of web services like airbnb and couchsurfing, and the Kindness of Strangers.
My host in Guatemala City is Cesar, and his grandson Marco coordinates the airbnb listing. He picked me up at the airport, sat with me and Cesar as we discussed the 1954 overthrow, and is now taking me to Santa Lucia to speak to his middle school class.
We chose not to go out to dinner and head straight to the bus terminal. Much of the country is suffering from a dry spell, with farmers losing crops and farm laborers losing work. But here, nonstop big ole buckets of water splashing everywhere. We are traveling to Santa Lucia. I’ll talk to his classes about the Afterparty project and they’ll tell me about their family experiences in the civil war.
Marco and I had to make a split second decision between the more traditional Forteleza bus and the colorful but bumpy chicken buses. He reminded me that I was on an adventure, but when I asked him the difference in cost, he answered, “About the same.” So I went for the Forteleza.
I already had my chicken bus adventure and would soon have another one. The reason why the brightly painted buses look so familiar is that I probably rode them when I went to high school 40 years ago. They are converted Blue Bird school buses and the ancient English language emergency signs reveal their origins.
Marco points out scenery along the way, including the location of his family’s lakeside home. I decided to take my fully loaded backpack and separate daypack filled with my books and writing materials. I chose to wear my flip flops, against grandma Carmen’s advice, and stuffed my Ecco tennis shoes in the outside pocket of the backpack. The bus cashier walks back to me with my right sneaker in his hand. “I think this is yours,” he says.
Marco says we really should have taken the other bus because this one drops us off in the middle of nowhere. He predicts the walk to the house is a half hour. It’s now dark and raining. It’s the first test of my waterproof REI backpack.
We walk off the main road to a darker, wetter side road. The shoulder is asphalt then mud then foliage. My flip flops are starting to slip and slide. And Marco, who ran the Guatemala City Marathon in the morning, and is 30 years my junior, is outpacing me. Every once in a while, he turns to asks, “Is that a bus?” Apparently he intends to flag one down in the middle of the road in the driving rain. That requires turning around every minute or so to track the oncoming vehicles, which slows us down. Finally, a highly unlikely event – a massive tractor trailer slows and stops for us. We get in. The driver says nothing. I can’t see his face. He lets us off in town and then we’re home after a five minute slog through the mud.
We meet up with Marco’s energetic housemate Flavio, and I introduce the Afterparty project. He repeats a theme I’m hearing a lot these past few days. You are America. You are big. You can do what you want. Marco Antonio Sr. said the same earlier in the day, and saw it as the natural order of things, though chastised us for our moral hypocrisy. His politics are right wing, and he thinks the leftists want another Cuba in Guatemala. “Really?” I ask. “They really want to emulate Cuba as a model?” He thinks so. (His brother Cesar Jr. vehemently disagrees but we will get to him in another post.)
Flavio thinks America will do what it takes to protect its multi-national companies. Marco Sr. wants America’s helping hand but believes it always comes with conditions, those conditions being economic dependence and political servitude. Marco mixes some rum and fruit drinks and we talk into the night.
I am awakened by rooster crowing at 1:40am. Then a cacophony of dogs barking. Then, at 6:30am, we’re on our way to the campus.
I’m compiling the recordings and photos from the encounter with the middle school kids. As early teens, their primary view of the USA brand is much more about fashion and tech and pop culture than CIA covert action and civil war. But they have harrowing stories from their relatives.
One girl’s grandma had two of her sons forcibly taken from their village to be trained as guerrilla fighters. One jumped out of the truck trying to escape and died in the act.
Another girl calmly describes how her grandfather was a large plantation owner and military officer. He had to “kill all the people” but her grandmother said it was necessary.
Marco asks for questions and Lisbeth, first to raise her hand and enthralled throughout, asks, in a fierce tone, “How would you like it if we Guatemalans went to America and created a civil war in your country?”
A boy asks why the CIA was so interested in his country in 1954?
Different generations, different social classes, different ethnic groups bear witness in their own ways to their nation’s legacy of violence,from the civil war to the overthrow to a century of muscular control by two dozen families and to their forebears, the conquistadors.
In the next post, I’ll tell you about the chicken bus ride back to Guatemala City with Marco’s mother’s friend Wilma, and the breakdown of the bus en route. With a short video of the Squinty Chicken Bus Preacher Man who chose to evangelize the gospel to the passengers from my seat.
Thirty-six hours after landing in Guatemala City, I find myself at the home of Marco Antonio Senior, son of airbnb host Cesar. All three kids successfully completed the City Marathon–Cesar and wife Carmen take me along–and are now challenging each others’ results. I am invited to join Marco and son Javier in the hot tub before lunch and opt to write inside. I cannot imagine being in a hot tub in this heat but all the activity is in the backyard by the pool, so I change into my swimsuit and join them.
After getting the political point of view of father Cesar and grandson Marco, I’m curious as to Marco Senior’s attitudes. He holds the more conservative views in the family and is happy to share them.
The 1954 overthrow was before his time but the vicious civil war that followed was not. Thirty-five years. Two hundred thousand dead, ninety-three percent killed by the military. And the Reagan administration enthusiastically supporting the Rioss Montt scorched earth years.
A word about partisan politics.
The first person with whom I shared this project idea was Kristi Vandenbosch, who encouraged me to write my first book and is IMHO the finest advertising executive, ever. She asked a direct question: do you have predetermined conclusions? I assured her, no, I don’t. I suspect she will monitor that commitment.
Already, my discussions here in Guatemala have challenged my assumptions. Things are more complicated than they seem from a distance. But there is an extensive public record on the overthrow and civil war.
My intent, as befits my training by Brian Lamb at C-SPAN and then at FORA.tv, is to aggressively invite and share conflicting views. That will include strong tonic such as this 2004 piece from Corey Robin in the London Review of Books.
On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity . . . totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.
I asked “Bitter Fruit” co-author Stephen Schlesinger if there was a racial component to the killing, if it was rooted in the history of Spanish conquest and the historical control of the country by a small number of descendent families.
“All of that is true. Humanizing (the civil war is) the most important thing. Mayans would have benefited most from agrarian reform. They suffered the worst. They were exterminated.
“The Spanish hierarchy created an aristocratic class that became the overseers of the land. There was some inter-marriage. The more light-skinned they were, the more dominant in the society. Mayans were scorned as sub-human, getting in the way of people, while white individuals were taking over the land. Mayans became the workers on these plantations. They lived in terrible conditions. Slave-like conditions. Always the aliens, not regarded as human by the aristocratic Spanish. The racial factor compounded the conflict, as Mayans were viewed as short, swarthy, animalistic, not human beings.”
This, from Wikipedia’s entry on Rios Montt:
Indigenous Mayas suffered disproportionately during Ríos Montt’s rule, and it is documented that his government deliberately targeted thousands of indigenous people… The UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission found that the resulting counterinsurgency campaign, significantly designed and advanced during Ríos Montt’s presidency, included deliberate “acts of genocide” against the indigenous population… On 10 May 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to 80 years imprisonment.
Cesar Jr. just gave me a different view from his brother Marco. I’ll write that down and continue in another blog post later tonight. Your comments are welcome.
More on Three Guatemala Generations in the next blog post here:
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Cesar, 79 years old, a student protester during the 1954 CIA overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, my airbnb host and unforgiving Spanish teacher, insists on showing me a poster in his garage. It”s Sunday morning, and we are returning from his grandkids” excellent showing in the Guatemala City Marathon. I treated him and wife Carmen to a traditional Guatemalan breakfast, at McDonald”s. His son Marco endorsed it as the best choice. A mix of the usual hideous fat and salt offerings, and beans, salsa, cream, and plantains.
There are three fading posters on the garage wall, each of the Quetzal, Guatemala”s national bird and the name of the currency.
Cesar explains its beauty, how it does not roll up its long tail but lets it hang fully extended.
“But what about this bird makes it a symbol?”
“Libertad,” he answers. “It”s a symbol of liberty.”
The Quetzal cannot live in captivity, except in rare circumstances. It kills itself rather than be caged.
I come to Guatemala, the first country on the Afterparty tour, because it makes sense as a geographic starting point. But mostly because I am obsessed with understanding what happened to Jacobo Arbenz and what his story reveals about America”s engagement with the world after World War II. How a culture of violence paralyzed Guatemala for four decades. How projecting military power in the name of freedom can achieve the opposite result. And how anti-American blowback happens.
I never heard of Jacobo Arbenz. Military historian Andrew Bacevich suggested to Bill Moyers recently that if he walked out of the PBS studio and asked ten Americans, “Do you know who is Jacobo Arbenz is?”, you would get ten no”s. But if you did that on any street in Guatemala, one would get ten yes”s.
Jacobo Arbenz was persona non grata during four decades of military dictatorship, until the government finally honored his family and his name with a street, a memorial casino pa natet and a settlement. And before the Freedom of Information Act revealed the raw details of the CIA overthrow, after diligent, aggressive efforts by journalist Stephen Schlesinger and others, the story was political mythology, usually as a leftist throwaway line. Yeah, uh, Guatemala, man, like, the CIA overthrew their democratically elected president.
A colonel in the national army, Arbenz and fellow officers overthrew the latest in a line of brutal dictators, inspired by American democracy and President Frankin Delano Roosevelt in particular.
Guatemala”s first democratically elected president, Juan Jose Arevalo took office in 1945. Arbenz was elected in 1950. By 1954, he was deposed in a CIA coup. Arbenz lived the rest of his life in exile, in misery and in humiliation. It”s a sad story which begs a number of questions.
What relevance does our attempt to defend democracy and free enterprise in Guatemala through covert action have today?
Was Arbenz a Communist, as the Dulles brothers charged?
What was the outcome of the overthrow?
What is the event”s narrative among Guatemalans compared to the historic American narrative?
In the next week, I will travel to the scenes of the key events of the overthrow, seek out answers to those questions. You”re invited to come along.
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.
I have been creating, innovating and marketing new forms of media for thirty years. My projects have ranged from senior executive roles in the United States and Australia and the founding of Silicon Valley-based digital media companies to international consulting assignments and globetrotting book projects.
I currently reside on the Thai island of Koh Phangan. I write books by the sea, conduct writing and visioning workshops, and help individuals and groups tell their stories. For information on personal and organizational coaching, visit The Vision Project.
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