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.