Most historians now agree that the CIA-sponsored military coup in 1954 was the poison arrow that pierced the heart of Guatemala’s young democracy. Code-named “PBSUCCESS,” the covert operation overthrew Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the second legally elected president in Guatemalan history.
Over the next four decades, a succession of military rulers would wage counter-insurgency warfare that also would shred the fabric of Guatemalan society. The violence caused the deaths and disappearances of more than 140,000 Guatemalans. Some human rights activists put the death toll as high as 250,000.
In recent weeks, after five years of promises to come clean on the Guatemalan operation, the CIA has released 1,400 pages from its secret files on the coup. Those pages represent only about one percent of the CIA’s records on the topic.
Still, the pages shed important light on the CIA’s first covert operation in Latin America. Citizens can now examine the anatomy of a CIA covert operation, in all its gory details: assassination plots, paramilitary and economic warfare, provocation techniques, psychological operations, rumor campaigns and sabotage. Plus, because of its success in toppling Arbenz, PBSUCCESS became a model for subsequent CIA activities in the hemisphere, many of which also have included massive loss of life.
PBSUCCESS got its start when the U.S. government concluded that Arbenz was a danger of international dimensions. Although inside Guatemala, Arbenz was seen as a reformer bent only on changing the country’s rigid oligarchy, Washington was nervous because he permitted the Guatemalan Communist Party to operate openly. Also, his land reform program threatened U.S. commercial interests, in particular those of the powerful United Fruit Company, which had its reach deep within the US government.
U.S. concerns coalesced in covert plans to destroy the Arbenz administration. By 1952, two years after Arbenz’s election, the CIA had begun recruiting an opposition force to overthrow him. The CIA first looked to the Guatemalan military for a solution. A “General Plan of Action”, written in 1953, stated that the CIA regarded the military as “the only organized element in Guatemala capable of rapidly and decisively altering the political situation.” The CIA chose as its lead man for the coup a disgruntled officer named Carlos Castillo Armas.
The CIA was open to any means necessary to get rid of Arbenz. According to one secret report, a senior CIA official declared bluntly, “Arbenz must go; how does not matter.”
Proposals to assassinate leading members of the Arbenz government and his military supporters permeated the CIA’s planning. In an unsigned “Study of Assassination” — perhaps the collection’s most chilling document — the CIA laid out in detail its options for murder.
The study offered tips about the most effective assassination techniques in sections marked “manual,” “accidents,” “drugs,” “edge weapons,” “blunt weapons” and “firearms.” In the paper, assassins are advised which poisons to use, how to pick a site for “accidental” falls (“Elevator shafts, stair wells, unscreened windows and bridges will serve”), and the correct way to club a man to death.
The CIA went further, compiling hit lists in preparation for the coup and its aftermath. Even before receiving official approval for the paramilitary operation to begin, the CIA’s Directorate of Operations was building an “elimination list,” using data that Guatemalan military officers had gathered in 1949 on “top flight communists.”
During planning for an abortive coup attempt in 1952, the CIA discussed training “special squads” to carry out executions. After that plan was dropped, “the Agency continued to try and influence developments and float ideas for disposing of key figures in the government.”
Role of the United Fruit Company
The United Fruit Company (UFC) had been formed in 1899 by the merger of two large American corporations. The new corporation held large tracts of land across Central America, and also controlled the railroads in the region, which it used to support its business of exporting bananas.
Under the dictatorships of Manuel Estrada Cabrera and Jorge Ubico, the company had been granted a large number of economic and legal concessions in Guatemala that allowed it to massively expand its business. These concessions frequently came at the cost of tax revenue for the Guatemalan government. The company supported Jorge Ubico in the leadership struggle that occurred from 1930 to 1932, and upon assuming power, Ubico expressed willingness to create a new contract with it. This new contract was immensely favorable to the company. It included a 99-year lease to massive tracts of land, exemptions from virtually all taxes, and a guarantee that no other company would receive any competing contract. Under Ubico, the company paid virtually no taxes, which greatly hindered the Guatemalan government’s ability to deal with the Great Depression of 1929–32.
Due to its long association with Ubico’s government, the United Fruit Company (UFC) was seen as an impediment to progress by Guatemalan revolutionaries after 1944. This image was worsened by the company’s discriminatory policies towards its colored workers. Thanks to its position as the country’s largest landowner and employer, the reforms of Arévalo’s government affected the UFC more than other companies. Among other things, the labor code passed by the government allowed its workers to strike when their demands for higher wages and job security were not met. The company saw itself as being specifically targeted by the reforms, and refused to negotiate with the numerous sets of strikers, despite frequently being in violation of the new laws. The company’s labor troubles were compounded in 1952 when Jacobo Árbenz passed Decree 900, the agrarian reform law. Of the 550,000 acres (220,000 ha) that the company owned, 15% were being cultivated; the rest of the land, which was idle, came under the scope of the agrarian reform law, which stated that any unused land greater than 224 acres is to be redistributed to about 500,000 families—one sixth of the country’s population. This redistribution angered major landowners—including the UFC- and the United States, which construed Guatemala’s land reform as a communist threat. Decree 900 was thus a direct impetus for the 1954 coup d’état which deposed Árbenz and instigated decades of Civil War.