CIA Crushes ‘Spiritual Socialism’ in Guatemala

The 1944 Guatemalan revolution saw “the little Napoleon of the tropics”, Jorge Ubico, overthrown amid scenes of jubilation and demands for democratic reforms. Once described by Tomas Borge as “crazier than a half dozen opium smoking frogs” his apparatus of power was dismantled and a new constitution adopted which for the first time extended the suffrage to all adults. Jose Arevalo, a popular teacher among the poor, was returned as the new president with an overwhelming 85% of the vote.

Under his new programme for reform, dubbed “spiritual socialism” a third of government income was set aside to address pressing social needs; hospitals and schools were built, a programme of immunizations was put in place and a nationwide literacy campaign established. Harsh vagrancy laws were abolished and in 1947 a new labour code was adopted giving workers the right to strike and form unions. Some coffee farms were turned into cooperatives, tenants were protected from summary eviction and a new national development agency was set up to provide technical assistance and lines of credit to peasant farmers. Obviously these reforms came at a price, stirring resentment among some old-school military figures of the Ubico era, wealthy landowners and foreign businesses who had extensive holdings in the country – especially the United Fruit Company (UFCO).

Nicknamed El Pulpo (the Octopus) by locals the UFCO controlled vast territories and transportation networks throughout Central America, Columbia , Ecuador and the West Indies. In How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World’, Peter Chapman called it a law unto itself’, and the first of the modern multi-nationals’ which specialised in coup d’etats and the support of repressive regimes’.

After the 1944 revolution, Guatemala had become a mecca for socialist radicals including the young Che Guevara who in 1953 wrote to his family in Argentina; “Along the way I had the oppurtunity to pass through the dominions of the United Fruit … I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated. In Guatemala I will perfect myself and achieve what I need to be an authentic revolutionary”.

Back in 1901 the government of Guatemala hired the UFCO to manage its postal service but by 1930 it had absorbed over twenty rival firms to become the largest employer in Central America. It held vast tracts of lands which it withheld from farmers who wanted a share of the banana trade.

It was this manipulation of land use rights which eventually led to a conflict with Arevalo’s successor, Jacobo Arbenz, who was elected on a promise to continue the reforms of his popular predecessor. Arbenz was no fool however – well aware of the Monroe Doctrine and the US policy of containment in an era of budding cold war suspicions, sought to distance himself – publicly at least – from some of the more radical leftist elements within Guatemala. After winning the presidential elections of 1950 with 65% of the vote, for instance, he promised to raise the standard of living by transforming the country into “an independent capitalist nation”.

Arbenz became increasingly radicalised however and it was the law of agrarian reform, passed in July 1952 that finally drew the ire of Washington. A memorandum from Director of Intelligence (Smith) to the Under Secretary of State (Bruce) dated Dec 12, 1952 talks of the Guatemalan government’s radical and nationalist policies’ that are mobilizing the hitherto politically inert peasantry’ and which have the support or acquiescence of almost all Guatemalans’. It also mentions the threat to large landholders and to certain foreign economic interests, especially the United Fruit Company’.

For the first time in Guatemalan history the government had responded to the needs of its indigenous population by attempting to rectify the deeply inegalitarian patterns of land ownership. Idle and state-owned land would be distributed to the landless and the former owners of the land were to be compensated with government bonds. But the value of the land was calculated on the basis of the cosy tax they had been paying, usually a fraction of its true value. And so, between 1953 and 1954 almost 9,000 square kilometres of land were redistributed to some 100,000 peasant families. The landowner most seriously affected by the reforms was the United Fruit Company, which only farmed around fifteen percent of its holdings, and thus lost about half of its property.

But El Pulpo’s tentacles were everywhere. The brother of the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs John Moore Cabot had once been president of United Fruit and Ed Whitman who was United Fruit’s principal lobbyist was married to President Eisenhower’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman. However, it was with the appointment of their own board member and largest shareholder Allen Dulles as head of Central Intelligence in Feb, 1953 that Arbenz’ days became truly numbered. His brother, John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State and pretty soon they both convinced Eisenhower to approve plans to overthrow the most popular government in Guatemala’s history.

In the event, Operation Washtub’s first step was to plant a phoney cache of Soviet arms in Nicaragua and then declare them the unequivocal evidence of nefarious ties to Moscow. As he relinquished his presidency under heavy bombardment on the night of June 27th, 1954, Arbenz called the invading army “a heterogeneous Fruit Company expeditionary force”. The following week, John Peurifoy, the US ambassador to Guatemala, flew the new government to Guatemala aboard a US Air Force plane. So, with the mopping up complete, Carlos Castillo, the son of a large landowner, was given the dictatorship – his party being the only one allowed run in the 1955 elections. In the end, the only recorded evidence uncovered by CIA operatives of Soviet influence’ were two bills to the Guatemalan Communist Party from a Moscow bookstore – for $22.95.

Thus ended ten years of “Spiritual Socialism”.