Associated Press
Jun. 17, 2004

Guatemalans Divided 50 Years After Coup

Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY - The CIA-directed overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz happened 50 years ago Thursday, yet Guatemalans are still at odds over whether it prevented the Central American country from becoming "the first Cuba in America" or destroyed a "position of dignity and sovereignty against the new imperialism."

The coup and its consequences were "the beginning of a polarization that lasted up until recently," historian Ruben Lopez said.

Some, including Arbenz's economy secretary, Alfonso Bauer Paiz, say the coup brought to an end a proud and independent era.

"In the history of Guatemala, with no exaggeration, there has never been a period that can compare to 1944-1954, because it began with attacking the vestiges of semi-feudalism ... and maintained a position of dignity and sovereignty against the new imperialism," Bauer told The Associated Press.

But Lionel Sisniega Otero, one of the coup leaders, referred to Arbenz's ouster as a "liberation," because he said communism was a real threat to the country.

"It's definite that if we had continued on the same path we were headed in ... Guatemala would have been the first Cuba in America," he said.

In the 1950s, Guatemala found itself caught in the middle of the Cold War during which the United States and its allies launched anti-communist campaigns throughout the world.

Guatemala posed no threat to the United States, but U.S. leaders at the time feared the country risked becoming a bastion of communism in the Americas, said Jorge Lujan, professor of history at the Guatemala Valley University.

The CIA began its operation to overthrow Arbenz, dubbed PB Success, in 1954. The agency broadcast propaganda from Honduras through clandestine transmissions of "Liberation Radio" and helped military opposition figure Carlos Castillo Armas lead an invasion of Guatemala on June 17.

The Americans flew planes overhead and distributed arms and propaganda inviting people to join in "the liberation."

Sisniega, who was director and announcer of Liberation Radio, contends that the only support the CIA gave were arms and two airplanes.

"Nobody told us what to say or how to manage things," he said.

Ten days after the invasion, Arbenz resigned and Castillo Armas took his place.

Arbenz's government was followed by a half-century of military regimes and fraudulent elections that unleashed a 36-year civil war in Guatemala in which 200,000 people, mostly civilians, died.

The war ended in 1996 with the signing of a peace accord between rebels and the government.

The coup was provoked in part by Arbenz's openly critical stance against the United States, his favorable opinion of communism, and his expropriation of land from the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company.

But Bauer said the communist threat was overstated.

"Some communists had influence but the country was never communist," he said.

Arbenz succeeded Juan Jose Arevalo, who himself took office in a coup that ended the 10-year dictatorship of President Jorge Ubico. The presidencies of both Arbenz and Arevalo are commemorated every year on Oct. 20, the date that Ubico was forced out.

But the anniversary of Arbenz's overthrow was never marked by either protest or remembrance under the repressive military regimes. The scarce recognition given to June 17 persists today.

Many questions linger over the events 50 years ago. One is why the army didn't stop the advance of the invading troops.

Bauer, the former economy secretary, contends the Americans bribed and corrupted the military leadership, but Arbenz also suffered a depression that may have spurred his resignation.

Questions remain, because Arbenz never wrote about his experience, Lujan, the history professor, said.

"His widow said that it was unfair to judge her husband, but I believe that he was unfair himself for never explaining what happened," he said.