Image: A 1951 rally supporting Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz (source)
Part 1 of this series explained the history and theory behind the Guatemalan land reform act, Decree 900, as well as its successes before American-sponsored coup de etat ended both Decree 900 and democracy in Guatemala. In brief, Decree 900 used a principle similar to eminent domain in the United States, wherein the government forced landowners to sell land at 100% of its value (as the landowners themselves had indicated on their tax forms). However, Decree 900 only allowed for the forced sale of unused land; any land a landowner was using could not be taken. The government distributed this land to poor Guatemalans and provided them with low interest loans to start a new farm and create a happy livelihood.
If it were a simple matter of losing some unused land (and being compensated for it), extremely profitable producers like United Fruit would have written off the loss and moved on. But Decree 900 was more than a negligible business loss. First, it altered the macroeconomics of Guatemala, changing the ratio of job seekers to job openings. With fewer job seekers relative to job openings, this put upward pressure on wages, cutting into the profits of United Fruit and other landowners. And furthermore, Decree 900 called into question the power structures surrounding macroeconomic policy, full employment, wage labor, and private property. If ordinary Guatemalans realized that they could improve their lives by voting to change the rules governing economic or property relationships, what might follow this relatively modest, initial reform? Apparently, United Fruit preferred to end democracy than find out.
The initial coup de etat occurred in 1954. The democratically elected government of President Arbenz was overthrown, and a military dictatorship replaced it. The American government funded this military dictatorship for decades, also arming its military and training its soldiers and death squads at the School of the Americas. 200,000 Guatemalans died in the conflict which lasted until 2001--nearly half a century--all because United Fruit (now Chiquita Banana) was forced to sell some land it wasn't using.
A truth commission sponsored by the Catholic Church--which had ironically opposed the land reform that triggered the intervention in the first place--found that nearly 90% of atrocities were committed by government forces (the military dictatorship that replaced Arbenz and the Guatemalan Congress) while less than 5% were committed by the guerrillas (with the remainder unclear who was responsible). For revealing this truth, the Archbishop of Guatemala City was brutally assassinated, bludgeoned to death in his own home. A later report by the UN attributed 93% of atrocities to the government and 3% to the guerrillas.
Among this sordid history, the issue I wish to address is the tendency for American commentators to condemn American actions because the Guatemalan government was not communist. According to this perspective, United Fruit and the CIA played on President Eisenhower's fear of the Soviets to get him to authorize the coup de etat. They falsely argued to the Eisenhower administration that President Arbenz was a communist in order to justify the invasion. But because these were lies--because President Arbenz wasn't a communist and Decree 900 wasn't a communist plot--this intervention was unjust.
This recent New York Times op-ed by Stephen Schlesinger is typical in this regard. Let's look at his key points, one by one. He starts out condemning American atrocities:
IN 1954, the American government committed one of the most reprehensible acts in its history when it authorized the C.I.A. to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Guatemala, President Jacobo Arbenz...Guatemalan society has only recently recovered from the suffering that this intervention caused, including brutal military dictatorships and a genocidal civil war against its Indian population, which led to the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people. Only in the 1980s, when a peace process commenced, did democratic governance resume.He then takes pains to make sure we know that Arbenz was not a communist (emphasis added):
It is true that Arbenz’s supporters in the Guatemalan Legislature did include the Communist Party, but it was the smallest part of his coalition. Arbenz had also appointed a few communists to lower-level jobs in his administration. But there was no evidence that Arbenz himself was anything more than a European-style democratic socialist.Definitely not a communist--more like one of those harmless Swedes. He was just falsely portrayed as a communist by United Fruit in order to justify American intervention:
Though Arbenz was willing to compensate United Fruit for its losses, it tried to persuade Washington that Arbenz was a crypto-communist who must be ousted.Later, Schlesinger claims that it wasn't just United Fruit; the CIA also falsely portrayed Arbenz as a communist. Schlesinger notes that the CIA "later rationalized the coup on the ground that the country was about to fall into communist hands."
Crucially, Schlesinger also claims that Decree 900 wasn't a communist plan. Schlesinger's attempts to describe Decree 900 without using politically charged leftist terms borders on absurd:
Washington feared Arbenz because he tried to institute agrarian reforms that would hand over fallow land to dispossessed peasants, thereby creating a middle class in a country where 2 percent of the population owned 72 percent of the land.So let's get this straight--Arbenz expropriated private capital from the wealthy in order to create a stable and happy livelihood for impoverished peasants in a country with extraordinary inequality. This sure sounds like a communist plot.
Schlesinger is completely wrong here, and his oversights--whether intentional or not--matter greatly. He argues:
- Arbenz was not a communist, and he had no ties to communists.
- The Guatemalan Communist Party* supported his land reform scheme, but so did the rest of Arbenz's parliamentary coalition; as the Guatemalan Communists were the smallest portion of his coalition, they played an insignificant role in the passage of land reform. It would have been drafted, passed, and implemented with or without them.
- United Fruit invented the idea that Arbenz was a communist.
- The CIA furthered this fabrication.
- The land reform scheme itself wasn't communist.
Piero Gleijeses wrote the definitive account of the land reform act and American intervention, entitled Shattered Hope. Gleijeses' research clearly documents that Arbenz was a communist and Decree 900 actually was a communist plot. After the American intervention, Arbenz was exiled and ultimately died of alcoholism as he watched his homeland descend into a cruel decades-long civil war, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. But Gleijeses was able to piece together much of Arbenz's politics from primary sources and interviewing Arbenz's wife, his friends, his political allies, and politicians active in Guatemala during the 1940's and 50's.
According to his wife, Arbenz read The Communist Manifesto sometime in the late 1940's, while serving as Guatemala's defense minister. Inspired, he then read many Marxist economics and history books. His wife told Gleijeses,
"Marxist theory offered Jacobo explanations that weren't available in other theories. What other theory can be used to analyze our country's past? Marx is not perfect, but he comes closest to explaining the history of Guatemala."Gleijeses explains that Arbenz had first "curiosity," then "sympathy" for the Soviet Union. Owing to his service as a military officer, he was impressed that the Soviets had withstood the Nazi invasion during World War II.
Arbenz's wife told Gleijeses that by the time of the land reform law:
"Jacobo was convinced that the triumph of communism in the world was inevitable and desirable. The march of history was toward communism. Capitalism was doomed."Arbenz's public actions also betray his communist leanings. As defense minister in the presidential administration immediately preceding his own, Arbenz personally intervened to prevent the deportation of several labor leaders accused of being communists. And, once elected President, Arbenz legalized the Guatemalan Communist Party; prior to this, the Guatemalan Communist Party was illegal and could only operate clandestinely.
In the late 40's, while still defense minister, Arbenz became friends with Alfredo Guerra Borges, Victor Manuel Gutierrez, Mario Silva Jonama, and Bernrado Alvaro Monzon, who would become leaders of the Guatemalan Communist Party when it became legal in the 50's. He developed a very close friendship with Jose Manuel Fortuny, who was then the secretary general of the underground Guatemalan Communist Party. By all accounts, Arbenz and Fortuny shared a very intimate friendship. Their favorite discussion topics were Marxism, the Soviet Union, and how Marxist policies could be used to improve the lives of ordinary Guatemalans.
In contrast to the insignificant role described by Schlesinger, in reality, the Guatemalan Communist Party was indispensible to Arbenz's election as president, as well as his actions as president. Fortuny wrote all of Arbenz's campaign speeches for his victorious 1950 presidential election campaign. Arbenz also had help in the election from other Guatemalan Communists.
Land reform has long been a primary goal of communists around the world, and Guatemala was no exception. Though the Guatemalan Communist Party was indeed a small portion of Arbenz's parliamentary coalition, their participation in the land reform legislation was outsized. Per Gleijeses, it was the Guatemalan Communist Party who "provide[d] background studies, technical advice, mass support and enthusiasm which the project required." Drafting of the legislation was performed entirely by the Guatemalan Communist Party. In 1951, Fortuny, Victor Manuel Gutierrez, and Mario Silva Jonama--all Guatemalan Communist Party members--created the first draft of the agrarian reform legislation. The final draft of the legislation was completed by those same Communists and a fourth Communist, Carlos Manuel Pellecer, after accepting input from Arbenz.
Schlesinger and other gullible American commentators may not believe Decree 900 was communist, but contemporary Guatemalans weren't so easy to fool. From the moment the legislation was released, the Asociacion General de Agricultores (General Association of Agricultural Producers), which represented Guatemala's landowners, condemned the "communist origins of this law." The Catholic Archbishop of Guatemala City mounted an anticommunist campaign in 1953, inspired by Decree 900's proposal in Congress. Though the Communists' role in drafting the legislation was secret, clearly, contemporary Guatemalans knew where the law came from, and Schlesinger should know better.
Regarding Arbenz's political leanings, Gleijeses concludes:
It was the preparation and the enactment of the agrarian reform bill that finally brought Arbenz over to the communists' side. By late 1952, President Arbenz had chosen the stand from which he would not deviate. His closest political friend was the [Communist Party], and his closest personal friends were its leaders.Gleijeses further writes that
in the last two years of his administration [1953-4] he considered himself a communist, and with his few confidants, he spoke like one. The [Guatemalan Communist Party] leaders formed his 'kitchen cabinet,' and with them he took his most important decisions[.]Indeed, in 1957--three years after the coup--Arbenz (in exile) officially became the leader of the Guatemalan Communist Party. Schlesinger overlooks all this in order to paint Arbenz and Decree 900 as pro-capitalist.
Schlesinger correctly calls the Guatemalan intervention "one of the most reprehensible acts in [American] history." But by refusing to acknowledge that Arbenz was a communist and Decree 900 was a communist plan, Schlesinger is in effect saying that the intervention was only reprehensible because Arbenz wasn't a communist and Decree 900 was just "European-style democratic socialism". Schlesinger probably doesn't believe this himself; he's probably afraid that his audience will judge American actions as justifiable as soon as they see the word "communist". When it comes to communists, anything can be justified.
But the Guatemalan intervention was an atrocious act. A democratic government was overthrown, starting a 50 year civil war that claimed 200,000 lives, not including those who were displaced, maimed, orphaned, or traumatized. The American intervention ignited a genocide of the indigenous Mayan people, and death squads killed with impunity and terrorized the countryside. All this was armed and funded by the American government, with the death squads and much of the military trained by Americans.
Unlike Schlesinger, I'm comfortable saying that it's wrong to overthrow a democratically elected government. I'm comfortable saying that it's wrong to fund a military dictatorship, that it's wrong to arm militaries with a well-documented history of deplorable human rights violations, and that it's wrong to train death squads. The fact that the Guatemalans elected a communist as president doesn't justify any of this brutality and murder. The horror unleashed by the American intervention is wrong whether or not Arbenz was a communist, but Schlesinger doesn't seem to think so.
The American intervention in Guatemala is a minefield of ethical issues surrounding the Cold War and, especially, nuclear weapons. This post is part of an antiwar series, and future posts will consider these issues in greater detail. Clearly, these issues need more attention--especially when the nation's leading newspaper can publish an editorial condemning American atrocities only by also obscuring the reality of the victims' politics. Clearly, the implicit subtext is: American intervention was wrong, as long as we ignore all the inconvenient facts. Once we acknowledge the inconvenient facts, perhaps the slaughter of hundreds of thousands was necessary, so let's just ignore them.
But deliberately obscuring the past isn't history, and this matters greatly. For, if we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it. Was communism such a grave threat that it justified the slaughter of millions around the world in order to prevent its spread? If we don't confront this issue, we will surely continue to use killing as a preferred foreign policy tool. But the slaughter of millions of innocents is uncomfortable business, and Schlesinger and many others try to have their cake and eat it too: condemn an atrocious act yet ignore the issues that created the perceived need for that atrocity.
Indeed, history is surely repeating itself. Since 2001, and against the threat of Islamic extremism, the United States has militarily intervened over a half dozen predominately Muslim countries, with catastrophic results. The most obvious example is Iraq, where half a million died from economic sanctions through the 1990's, another half million died in the Iraq War beginning in 2003 (an accurate count is impossible because the country is too dangerous to conduct thorough survey work), and while the West was rightly horrified by a terrorist attack in Paris that killed 130, Iraq remains so destabilized by the Iraq war that the Iraqis still suffer attacks at least as severe every few weeks and have a genocidal (complete with sexual slavery) terrorist group controlling a up to a third of their country. Perhaps Iraq's violence will last as long as Guatemala's 50-year civil war; interventions are messy business.
Another example is Yemen, where the United States has used various means to try to prevent the rise of Islamic extremism in Yemen--first with cluster bombs, then drones, and then arming the Saudis to the teeth as they deliberately target civilians and the agricultural system (a majority of the country is now facing famine).
The problem with Schlesinger's oversights in Guatemala become obvious if we consider how someone might criticize today's American interventions in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. We would surely laugh at Schlesinger were he to pen an op-ed (rightly) condemning intervention in Yemen without considering the justifications its proponents have used to enact it. The proponents of our various interventions in Yemen would argue that Islamist terrorism is such a grave threat that we have to take the fight to our enemies before they create even worse death and destruction the world over. And Schlesinger's op-ed might counter: American drone strikes have so enraged the Yemenis that they have created anti-American terrorists where there were none before, and wouldn't have been any absent the drone strikes--in other words, that our policies are so hated that they create terrorists far faster than they kill them. Or he might counter that the deliberate targeting of civilians and pushing an entire country to the brink of famine cannot possibly outweigh the risks of not intervening. Or he might cite how rare Islamist terrorism really is, and endorse a more measured response.
But if he wrote an op-ed condemning the atrocities in Yemen without ever mentioning Islamist terrorist groups, he would be rightly mocked; who argues against the War on Terror without mentioning terror? Yet this is precisely what Schlesinger and scores of other liberals have done with Guatemala: condemn an intervention justified by the threat of communism without even considering communism.
If the intervention in Guatemala was unjustified--when the supposed threat was the Soviets, who actually possessed the ability to wipe out the United States with nuclear weapons--then surely the intervention in Yemen is unjustified, since Islamist terrorists have the ability to kill fewer Americans than bathtubs (because the world's Muslims are extraordinarily reluctant to resort to violence unless their country has been physically invaded). Clearly, we have not reckoned with the ethical minefield of the Cold War--not when we continue turning to the vicious strategies we used to fight the existential threat of a nuclear-armed enemy when the Cold War ended more than two decades ago.
Was communism so dangerous that it justified the slaughter of millions of innocent people around the world, from Guatemala to Indonesia to Vietnam? Obviously, we are not ready to confront this brutal history. Clearly, we need to.
*The name of the Guatemalan Communist Party was Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo, or the Guatemalan Worker's Party; prior to Arbenz making the party legal they were known as the Vanguardia Democratica, or Democratic Vanguard. For clarity, I treat these interchangeably and refer to them both as the Guatemalan Communist Party. Schlesinger also refers to the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo as the Guatemalan Communist Party.