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|Sin Esperanza: The United States in Guatemala|
Vice President Kamala Harris met with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei during her first foreign trip as second in command. Some publications have had the proper headline of “Do not come”, three words of pure callousness from the avatar of a country that greets immigrants with The New Colossus cast in bronze on a 151-foot statue. Pointing out mere hypocrisy is a futile exercise in 2021 American politics with the rise of Trumpism bursting like the Kool-Aid Man through the long held thin veneer of backroom deals and sleight of hand to substitute it with bald-faced lying, backstabbing, stupidity, avarice, and the most brazen “dare you to stop me” we’ve ever seen. It wasn’t stopped.
However you apply this new maxim of carelessness, it stands that the United States deciding what should or shouldn’t happen in Latin America, Central America, and Guatemala in particular is too grotesque to be ignored. I’ll refrain from diving into how Biden’s immigration policy is not as good as advertised and more similar to Trump’s than liberals will admit, or how by some metrics Obama’s policy was the worst of the three. Let’s just say sure, on its face, saying poverty and corruption need to be corralled in order to stop mass migration has merit. The problem is when this sentiment is spit upon our hemispheric neighbors from Yankee mouths, it’s not a matter of whether there lay sinister intentions beneath that surface, but what precisely those sinister intentions are. History tells us to feel nervous about Central American handshakes when one of the hands is American.
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The full scope of this history fills volumes, but the microcosm that is Guatemala’s tribulations only needs a trip back to mid-century. The Eisenhower administration admitted the same thing the Biden administration is saying now, that such squalid conditions can lead to political instability. Even before Eisenhower, though, this usually referred to potential disruption of our investments in a county, the same investments that gave rise to these conditions in the first place. Decades of blame, some rightfully, being lain at the feet of often US-backed Presidents while we refuse to suffer the burdens we should accept from our imperial adventures is supremely vulgar.
The backwardness installed in Latin America by major powers like Spain, Portugal, and Britain dates to pre-Columbian times. Hard cut to1945 we finally see the first democratically elected President of Guatemala with Juan José Arévalo assuming the role. He succeeded the, of course US-backed, dictator Jorge Ubico and began the implementation of liberal reforms designed to bring up the lower and middle class. He attempted land reform which alarmed the US State Department, who would repeatedly with or without evidence warn that “Soviet Bolshevism” could take over the country, or Latin America altogether. While Arévalo titled his political ideology “spiritual socialism”, he rejected Marxism and the Communist Party of Guatemala was illegal during this tenure.
|5||Protest the Hero|
Still, while seizure of private property was frequently the only “evidence” of communism the US stated they had, it was enough in their minds to try to sway member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) to gain approval for at best condemnation or at worst intervention.
The OAS itself was formed partly as a way to work around the UN by conducting affairs of the hemisphere under its charter, which was birthed under UN charter articles for its legitimacy. The Monroe Doctrine over a century prior, the Roosevelt corollary to it at the turn of the century, and FDR’s Good Neighbor policy were all manipulated at will, loopholed to meaninglessness, or outright ignored to maintain hegemony over a continent. Washington DC is closer to Guatemala than it is to Los Angeles, so a squinted gaze has been perpetually fixed across the Gulf of Mexico.
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De-Loused in the Comatorium
The American business United Fruit Company was the final boss of this episode of history. UFC not only owned upwards of 42% of Guatemalan land, over a half million acres, 85% of it wasn’t being cultivated. They bought up land, prohibited it to be worked by the peasants for their own needs, and no one could touch the rest of the acreage that sat idle. These peasants worked the land for below subsistence wages, only occasionally securing the most modest of bettering conditions granted by the US State Department in effort to pacify them for a while to avoid labor disruptions, or worse in their eyes, communist sentiment growing among an exploited working class.
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Still, it’s hardly a better fate suffered by the indigenous people of the land. Centuries of foreign ships had come ashore and driven them from their rightful home. That is, if they weren’t used as slaves to work the land or simply killed. Continuing the torment, the land was used to grow only what its foreign investor allowed. So instead of beans and corn that could feed, or could be sold by, the people working the land, they grew bananas to be sold by their owner. The profits left the country with the fruit.
Yasiin Gaye: The Departure (Side One)
These practices also stunted modernization. In the words of Eduardo Galeano, it’s cheaper to replace slaves than machines, to fill horses with grass than tractors with gas. This multiplied mouths but not bread, particularly in these countries with high and increasing birth rates. Escaping peasants flooding into cities multiplied unemployment. When mechanization started showing up as in Nicaragua in the 1960s, the plantation owners no longer needed so many workers. A boom in cotton there would cause the cotton crops to replace food crops. So more food would need to be imported, racking up debt as imports surpassed exports. No job, no money, no food. This is even before mentioning droughts, insects, and natural disasters befalling the land that could exacerbate these conditions.
This is even before mentioning the IMF valuing and devaluing currency, weakening exchange rates, and enforcing requirements for loans that included price and wage controls along with other free-market “stabilization” that takes money from social programs, industrialization, and employment. Poverty had endless fuel sources.
Capital hit the rails to ship out, first detouring through the ports and presidential palaces, but that wasn’t enough. United Fruit Company not only owned almost half of the country geographically, they built the railroads that took their product to the ports that they controlled. Monopoly on top of monopoly, UFC was Guatemala. The former’s yearly revenue at times was double that of the latter. They even managed the postal service and built a communications company (radio and telegraphs back then). A banana republic was born under the auspices of a Russian-born American businessman nicknamed Sam the Banana Man. Guatemala was hardly the only one.
Piano Textures 4
Money leaving the country for foreign banks was just the start. The majority of exports into Guatemala came from the US, so natives could get what they weren’t allowed in their own country at prices set by their captors. Malnutrition was the norm. At the same time, these US companies would sign symbiotic contracts with the head of state that allowed a very small import tax that wasn’t available to the population. Presidents would get a kickback out of the money saved. Guatemala still had its oligarchs too. Just 2% of their population owned 70% of the land. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Everything Is Temporary
Lack of reinvestment wasn’t the only hindrance to their economy. As corporations and the rich in general are wont to do, they understated the value of their land on tax declarations to lower their tax burden. Fortunately for them, Arévalo’s land reforms didn’t come to fruition. Unfortunately for them, major reform did arrive just a few years later when his successor Jacobo Árbenz took power in 1951. The United States went from suspicious to concerned. This is when the shit hits the fan. The crux of the reform was to take unused land from large plantations with reimbursement in the form of 25-year bonds. The confiscated land would be expropriated via parcels to landless peasants. 400,000 acres would be taken from UFC.
State seizure of private property, as aforementioned, injected magnificent fear into the State Department. But coupled with lack of evidence, the further dispelling of Communist takeover was the public assurance from Árbenz that the very few Communists in the Guatemalan government held little, if any, sway. He was even asked to dismiss the party members from their posts, but Árbenz would not oust democratically elected politicians. This mostly fell on deaf ears since by this time John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State while his brother Allen was top spook at the CIA, a chilling pairing of power and psychopathy. To make matters worse, John had represented UFC as a lawyer, negotiating the beneficial agreements between the company and the Guatemalan government. Allen was on the board of directors. Others in and around the administration owned stock or had relationships to the company through marriage. The family tree of United Fruit Company did Guatemala no favors.
Chasing After Shadows...Living with the Ghosts
In March 1954, a few months before the CIA-trained and supplied coup in June, the US lobbied to start the OAS conference in Caracas with a resolution against communism in Guatemala. John Foster Dulles added a statement saying communist influence from other hemispheres (the Soviet Union) would be a danger to the Americas, and the resolution made it easier to secure a vote for joint action. While Costa Rica didn’t even attend and Mexico and Argentina abstained, all the other member states voted to approve the resolution. Even though the Latin American countries were suspicious of US motives, as was often the case, it’s agreed they approved the resolution out of fear of the US deciding to act unilaterally. With the passage of the resolution they hoped they would have ground to stand on to oppose the US when cravings of intervention produced pangs in the American belly.
Most of them didn’t know water had already begun to boil in the form of the CIA training Carlos Castillo Armas and his counterrevolutionaries just across the border in Honduras.
The time between March and June 1954 was filled with dead-end discussions between US Ambassador to Guatemala John Peurifoy and Jorge Toriello, who was part of a triumvirate with Árbenz and Francisco Arana that briefly headed the state in the interim of the success of the revolution and Arévalo’s election. Toriello pleaded the government’s case of the communists not being a threat. The Ambassador remained intransigent with the monomania of their expulsion. The impasse would remain until the end.
Interview With David Frost
With communist prevention as a pretext for intervention in place, the next domino to fall was that of the reimbursement bonds. The values of the bonds were determined by the previous year’s tax declarations. The major landowners in 1950s undervalued their land the same way they had always done, and now the snake was rearing its head. They of course protested by claiming the land was far more valuable than what they were being given. A consequence of the manner of control they implemented was coming back at them on a freight train, but of course responsibility must be shirked and every penny must be shaken out. The Guatemalan government, however, didn’t oblige.
This was a flashpoint, but not the last straw. The list of grievances that foreigners were compiling is much longer than this. You could look at Guatemala buying Soviet weapons from Czechoslovakia to replenish the military after the US stopped supplying them in 1951 and continued to block sales from other governments afterward. That’s another story for another time, so to cut to the chase: the CIA-backed coup in 1954 succeeded. Guatemala’s servile banana republic of 1944 began its return.
|17||Suffocate For Fuck Sake|
Blazing Fires and Helicopters...
Árbenz and his family left for Mexico, the first of many stops of a nomadic exile. The junta of Armas didn’t allow any other candidates to take part in the following election, making him the next President. The reign lasted three years before ending with two gunshots from a member of his Presidential guard. Peurifoy and his youngest son would die in a car crash the following year.
The strategies, locations for bases and training, and even some of the same people involved in the coup would resurface just 7 years later, culminating in a humiliating disaster for the JFK administration as the shores of Cuba remained in Communist hands. In the 1970s UFC would merge, lose millions through natural disaster, and its boss would self-defenestrate from his 44th floor office in Manhattan. We’re allowed good news.
Seven Segment Decoder
Future coups would erupt in Guatemala and the rest of Central America in the decades following the resignation of Árbenz. Even if the US, the CIA, wasn’t directly involved in them, the training of security and military forces in the region could be traced back to Uncle Sam. These trained forces were meant to stop revolutionary activity and coups, but they also staged them using their Star Spangled expertise in order to install one of their own to continue the tradition of military rulers. In response to such events Washington decided a lack of military aid was leaving governments vulnerable. More money would pour in, and the cycle continued. Kennedy caused himself many headaches through this cycle that was accelerated by his Alliance for Progress. Johnson was left to deal with it after JFK’s final headache.
Splinters From An Ever-Changing Face
Right-wing dictators and military juntas invited only slightly differing opinions from US Presidents. But as it continues to this day, the policy always remained the same. Democratically elected leaders were received better, even if just for optics. Leaders that took power by force were still usually offered a polite handshake. Better to come to terms with them than to let unfavorable liberal and progressive voices create unwanted (by the US) change. As Randy Blythe would say, “paint their picket fences red with the American Dream”.
Teenagers, You Don't Have to Die
While not bloodless, these events still pale in comparison to the prior centuries of plunder. After the establishment, though, of the Monroe Doctrine and a dominance strengthened through the OAS, Central America belonged to the State Department. Guatemala was but one of the nations in thrall of the US, but handling corruption and poverty in a country where they installed it, only to tell its victims the door will be slammed in their face if they escape it, is a cruelty hundreds of years in motion. With renewed interest in trips across the Gulf, another quarter for the merry-go-round shines on.