In 1954, a CIA-orchestrated coup d’etat put an end to the first ten years of democratically elected government Guatemala had ever experienced.

Installed in the wake of the coup were a series of military, authoritarian governments, funded and advised by the United States. These governments waged a brutal war of repression against not just the guerrilla opposition that sprung up to oppose them, but against the indigenous way of life in Guatemala as a whole.

The US supported tactics of repression which would lead to the deaths of 200,000 civilians, and which would rekindle stark ethnic, economic, social and political divisions in society – legacies of colonialism – which the 1944-54 governments had gone a significant way to repairing. The civil war which erupted as a result of American intervention stifled Guatemala’s economic growth, put an end to its political independence, and allowed a corrupt ruling class to dominate the country for its own political and economic gain. Furthermore, the Guatemalan army’s use of indiscriminate torture, rape, executions and massacres were arguably among the worst human rights abuses of the cold war. And all under the auspices of maintaining ‘freedom’ in the world. The US’s goal was to contain the spread of communism in Latin America, and in this it technically succeeded. But Guatemalans paid a high price.

The US’s policy of violent containment of socialism would exacerbate these divisions, shoehorning the opposing sides – erroneously but persistently – into categories of socialist and capitalist; guerrilla and elite; us and them. Eventually these categories became new divisions of their own.

Prelude to War

Ever since Europeans first began to settle in the land that would become Guatemala, society had been divided. Due to the small country’s mountainous geography, the divide between Maya (indigenous people) and Ladinos (Guatemalans of mixed European and Maya heritage) was starker than anywhere else in Central America. The Maya had long resented government due to its intrusiveness in traditional life, and the conflict between the guerrillas and the army was in many ways a modern continuation of this divide. This division was by no means purely ethnic – it saturated most aspects of society: Guatemalan government was entirely Ladino; the Ladinos were rich, the Maya poor; they did not speak the same language, wear the same clothes, or believe in the same God or Gods. In addition, Guatemala’s indigenous population was the majority, and much higher than any of its Central American neighbours. In 1930, maya constituted 70% of the population. Mayans had a degree of social autonomy – living apart from Ladinos, however economic constraints meant that they often had to work on fincas.

Fincas were essentially plantations, at which the Mayans effectively made up a low paid, seasonal workforce with effectively no workers’ rights, toiling in terrible conditions, long distances away from their homes, and sometimes at dangerously different altitudes. The stark economic divide along racial lines created a clear social gulf between the Maya and Ladinos. The US’s policy of violent containment of socialism would exacerbate these divisions, shoehorning the opposing sides – erroneously but persistently – into categories of socialist and capitalist; guerrilla and elite; us and them. Eventually these categories became new divisions of their own.

Economically speaking, Guatemala was almost entirely agricultural in 1944. The American United Fruit Company owned 550,000 acres of land, much of which was uncultivated. Guatemala’s main exports were bananas and coffee, but since the land that produced these was largely held by Americans, the Guatemalan economy received little benefit from production, aside from meagre wages for workers and the profits siphoned off by graft to the ruling classes. United Fruit and its sister company, International Railways of Central America, effectively held monopolies on two of Guatemala’s most important economic assets (fruit and cross-border transport,) and the profit from these monopolies rarely passed through Guatemalan hands. Furthermore, due to their immense influence, they were able to secure concessions meaning they paid low taxes and were free from regulation.

Land reform was the only way for the majority of the population to break out of what effectively amounted to serfdom, and land reform is exactly what the democratic governments of 1944-54 did.

As a result of this, Guatemala’s situation in 1944 can be described as ‘neo-feudal’: 2% of the population owned 72% of the land; and a small number of people – some American, the rest Ladinos – effectively controlled the economy. This power imbalance meant that land reform was the only way for the majority of the population to break out of what effectively amounted to serfdom, and land reform is exactly what the Arevalo and Arbenz governments did. These governments had, scholars believe, no substantive links to Moscow before the US intervention. It was only the US doctrine of containment, which mistakenly viewed the indigenous, land-redistribution-supporting policies of Arevalo and Arbenz as a threat, which sparked the guerrilla resistance and the slide towards civil war.

It was in this context of both social and economic divide that the popular, democratic revolution of 1944 took place. Arevalo, who came to power in 1944, supported land reform which would redistribute uncultivated land – much owned by United Fruit – to give to the largely landless general population. Land redistribution was not necessarily a ‘Marxist’ idea – the belief in redistribution was not set in the context of eventual communist utopia, it was simply seen as the only way to overcome the neo-feudal situation of land ownership Guatemala was suffering at the time.

For the first time by a Guatemalan government, indigenous people were seen as part of the solution.

Arevalo’s policy was fairly reasonable: only uncultivated land would be taken, and its owners would be paid face value in compensation – although ultimately that figure was lower than the real value of the land, since ‘face value’ was the self-declared value of the land on tax returns, which United Fruit undervalued in order to pay less tax. But land reform was a political impossibility in 1944: Arevalo could not overcome the interests rallied against him. Instead, the Labour Code of 1947 was passed giving workers rights to unionise and demand pay rises for the first time. The Arevalo government also reformed education, pushing for increased literacy, and implemented Guatemala’s first social security program. Importantly, the Arevalo government did not discriminate against the indigenous population; for the first time by a Guatemalan government indigenous people were seen as part of the solution to the problem rather than an obstacle. All of this is in complete contrast to how the Mayan population – and indeed any left-wing Guatemalans – were seen (and treated) by the military governments of 1954 onwards.

In 1951, at the next election, Jacobo Arbenz was elected president, and oversaw a shift to the left. Arbenz went ahead with the land reforms that Arevalo was too moderate to legislate for. Decree 900, issued on June 27 1952, redistributed land to 500,000 landless peasants. If left alone, there is a good chance it would have succeeded in bringing Guatemala out of its state of neo-feudalism. But by 1952, the cold war was underway, the CIA had been established (and was in the process of planning its first regime change, in Iran,) and the US government had already experienced five years of lobbying from United Fruit, in reaction to the 1947 Labour Law. The international scene, too, had also changed almost unrecognisably since 1944: Berlin had experienced blockade; the USSR had newfound nuclear capability; communism was expanding in Asia and the Middle East; and an end to ‘socialism in one country’ upon Stalin’s death in 1953 all combined to create an atmosphere of great international uncertainty. Furthermore, Arbenz’s shift to the left was not solely in terms of policy: he did have links to the PGT (Guatemalan Labour Party – a Marxist organisation,) and some of his closest advisors in government held Marxist beliefs. In 1952, the PGT was legalised as an opposition party. All of these factors combined to convince Eisenhower that Arbenz should be overthrown, for fear of allowing a communist regime to establish itself in America’s back yard.

So the justification for the US intervention – or at least the reasoning behind it – is clear. Beginning 18 June 1954, a CIA-organised coup – funded in part by the United Fruit Company – used a combination of psychological warfare, implicit threat, confusion and rumour to make it appear as if a US-backed rebel army was on the brink of invasion. In actual fact, the force numbered only 480 Guatemalan exiles. Nevertheless, Arbenz’s fear of a full-fledged US invasion led him to resign on 27 June.

Much more can be said about the 1954 coup, however the purpose of this essay is to examine the effects: and these were extensive. 1954 marked the last democratically elected government Guatemala would see until 1996; it marked a shift from the politics of unity to the politics of division; it marked a shift from policy which benefited the Guatemalan people, to policy which benefited a small clique of army elites, as well as United States foreign policy and big business interests. It marked an end to land reform, the Guatemalan people’s only hope of overcoming their neo-feudalist submission to a system heavily stacked against them. It marked an end to the Good Neighbour policy of the United States; in the words of one official, Guatemala provoked the realisation that the US should ‘not support all constitutional governments under all circumstances.’ It also ended what Guatemalans so optimistically called the ‘ten years of spring,’ and it ended the only involvement the indigenous population had had in politics in the last four hundred years.  In short, American intervention brought back many problems that the ‘ten years of spring’ had gone at least some way to repairing.

The Civil War

The context of Guatemala up until 1954, and the immediate effects of American intervention, have by this point hopefully been established. With this done, we can move on to examine the resultant civil war, its effects on Guatemala, and how continued American involvement in the name of ‘containment’ served to cause further problems in the country. It has already been stated here that the civil war took place largely along ethnic lines – and this statement requires some qualification. The civil war did not begin until 1960, and in fact had its roots not in indigenous disaffection (although this certainly existed,) but in a failed left-wing military revolt.

After the coup, left-wing Ladino army officers, remnants of the Arbenz and Arevalo regime, fled to the highlands and began a guerrilla insurgency. The 1960s were characterised by a slow development of this movement. 1961 saw the FAR (Rebel Armed Forces) established; 1962 the beginnings of attacks on army barracks; 1964 the start of the Guatemalan Air Force’s bombing campaign; and 1965 the first counterinsurgency advisors sent by the CIA. The early 1960s also saw the beginnings of guerrilla attempts to recruit indigenous peasants to their cause, with mixed results. The rhetoric of the guerrillas was clearly a direct response to the 1954 coup. They were fighting, a guerrilla named Aldana said, to ‘struggle against the government and the landowners; against the capitalists that live off the toil of workers and peasants… we are fighting for the land, so that each peasant shall have the land he tills.’ The guerrillas, then, were fighting along extremely similar lines to which the 1944-54 governments were legislating. As such, the guerrilla insurgency beginning in the 1960s was a direct reaction to – and hence consequence of – the American intervention.

The fact was that although the Guatemalan army’s tactics were brutal, their results – the suppression of communism – were directly in line with the United States’ foreign policy goals.

Guerrillas, who began their struggle simply hoping for an escape from the neo-feudalist economic system, moved further to the left as they faced brutal government crackdowns and support from the communist regime in Cuba. On the other side of the spectrum, the army-dominated government moved further to the right, as it became clear stringent authoritarianism was the only way they could maintain their hold on power. LaFeber argues that the rightwards shift of the government occurred largely outside of American control. This argument is unconvincing. For one, the US had already shown themselves to be open to military tactics to overturn regimes they did not like, and they were perfectly capable of doing so again in Guatemala. Secondly, the increase in repression was effectively funded by the Pentagon: over $12 million was channelled to the Guatemalan counterinsurgency force in the late sixties. The fact was, although the Guatemalan army’s tactics were brutal, their results – the suppression of communism – were directly in line with the United States’ foreign policy goals. The US could have altered events had it wanted to, but it did not.  ‘Containment’ was judged more important human rights.

It is important to examine the tactics of military repression, because the methods used were instrumental in perpetuating the social divisions in Guatemala. The tactics of the late sixties, which CIA military advisors drew from their experiences in Vietnam, involved dropping napalm on indigenous villages thought to contain guerrillas, then sending in ground troops to murder any survivors. Whole areas were designated rebel territory, and any occupants executed, civilian or otherwise. In more urban areas, death squads assassinated, tortured, or ‘disappeared’ any critics of the regime, as well as those thought to hold rebel sympathies. (In a testament to just how disproportionate the repression of the Guatemalan military was, the 6,000 strong counterinsurgency force was at one point in the mid sixties up against only an estimated forty full-time guerrillas.) It was these tactics which in many ways encouraged growth of the guerrilla movement, since the struggle morphed away from the simple politics of redistribution towards a nationalist struggle against a government seen as supporting foreign interests at the expense of the people.

In 1970, Carlos Arana assumed the presidency. He is famous for saying ‘If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so’ – and this phrase was a largely accurate characterisation of his time in office. His tactics departed somewhat from those of the 1960s: the new policy was a combination of ‘scorched earth’ with the US idea of ‘civic-action,’ which aimed to divide indigenous communities by giving some greater political and economic benefits than others. The aim of this was to isolate the guerrillas and turn the peasantry against them, however it did not have the desired effects. For one, over ten-thousand people – mostly civilians – were killed, and although the policy’s immediate effect was to suppress the guerrillas, it by no means wiped them off the map. And this repression was not anomalous: according to Amnesty International, over 7,000 civilian opponents of the security forces were ‘disappeared’ or found dead in 1970 and 1971, followed by an additional 8,000 in 1972 and 1973. From a human perspective, the effects of American intervention were the violent deaths of thousands of civilians.

The army usurped the government as the main institution of the state

Running parallel to the seemingly endless stream of civilian deaths and stories of atrocities was the gradual process whereby the army distanced itself from the government, usurping it as the main institution of the state. This was another significant, and lasting, effect of American intervention. Despite the fact that a civilian, Mendez, was president from 1966 to 1970, the army was effectively given free reign to carry out the counterinsurgency independently from government oversight. Mendez was widely regarded as a puppet, and his tenure was the only period during the civil war that Guatemala even pretended to be under civilian rule. The US continued to supply military aid during this period – to the tune of $35 million between 1967-76 – which funded the violent killings, in that same period, of 50,000 people. The effective impunity that the separation from government gave the army meant that little thought was given to civilian casualties, nor to rampant corruption, and although democracy ostensibly existed, elections were not free, nor was the entire population enfranchised. The 1954 coup had undermined the 1944 revolution’s attempt to bring about true democracy, and would make it hard – even after the 1996 peace accords – to have a real democratic society, when most of the power effectively rested in the hands of powerful, corrupt army officials.

To add to the Maya’s problems, in 1970 oil was discovered in Guatemala. This brought another dimension to the civil war, which by this point was at a low ebb thanks to the widespread scorched-earth tactics which had heavily weakened the guerrillas. The purpose of the counterinsurgency was now twofold: first, as before, to eliminate the guerrillas; but secondly, and newly, to separate as much as possible the Maya from their land, in order to create a new neoliberal Guatemala whose natural resources could be exploited for the benefit of the few. It was not only oil which contributed to this. The 1970s saw expansions in cattle ranching and mineral mining as well as oil, industries which all required Maya be forced from their land in order to make way for ‘progress’. And to which economy were the cattle, minerals and oil (all in their unrefined, and therefore cheap, forms) sold in their majority? The United States of course.

It was in this context that the largest earthquake in Guatemalan history struck in February 1976. It was this earthquake, many argue, that truly shifted the focus of the guerrilla war from Ladino Marxists towards the indigenous Maya. Because the government failed to rebuild villages, the Maya were galvanised against a government which they already had many reasons to dislike. For even if they inhabited a village that ostensibly supported the government rather than the guerrillas, the Maya resented the regimentation they were subjected to as part of the counterinsurgency, as the vast majority of them were simply caught in the middle of an ideological war with which they had nothing to do.

Rigoberta Menchu sums up this indigenous apathy of sorts in a simple phrase: ‘the Ladinos had a government… It wasn’t the government of our country’. However this apathy was apathy no longer after the earthquake. In May 1978, a group of Kekchi indigenous people were massacred at a protest calling on the government to protect their land against expansion from cattle ranchers (who incidentally were providing beef to a largely American export market, an expansion funded by the Alliance for Progress and its successor funds,) showing that the government was now not simply against the guerrillas, but against the indigenous population too. Previously the atrocities against the Maya could be written off as collateral in the civil war, however now the government, in the eyes of the Maya, were waging war against them.

The military killed over 3000 people between 1979 and mid 1980

Across the 1970s, this process of encroaching capital and brutal repression of the still-present guerrilla insurgency continued. The military killed over 3000 people between 1979 and mid 1980, in a statistic which would be horrifying were it not very similar to the many others in this essay. The one departure from depressing routine was the cutting off of US aid to Guatemala under the Carter government, which pledged a new emphasis on human-rights-based foreign policy. Aid stopped in 1977, however congressional loopholes, as well as money sent secretly through the CIA, allowed certain assistance to continue. Additionally, Taiwan and Israel (two strong US allies and beneficiaries of its aid,) continued providing money and military parts until 1983, when Reagan resumed funding. A focus on human rights could not stop American realpolitik, and in any case, did not lead to any end to the atrocities.

As the tactics of repressing the indigenous population went on, ever more Maya began to support the guerrilla movements – largely as a reactionary measure. In 1979, the US army estimated that over 60 percent of Maya in the Ixil area supported the guerrillas, a stark departure from the forty guerrillas holding the movement down in the mid sixties. This was certainly down to the policies of the Guatemalan army, but the United States was jointly responsible. The US’s political and financial support of the army lent legitimacy to their strategy of purging the countryside. This support allowed for technological escalation of the conflict, increasing the death toll above anything the Guatemalan army could have achieved alone.

Escalation and Genocide

And then it got worse. Lucas Garcia, who had come to power in 1978, was faced with a guerrilla resurgence. His policy, and that of Efrain Rios Montt’s government after him, was an even more brutal version of governments before – and can truly be described as genocide. Their tactics were to punish entire villages for harbouring or assisting guerrillas – known as ‘counter attacks’ or ‘retaliations’, villages would be bombed, looted by soldiers, and villagers raped and tortured and executed. In one account, children were taken outside after their parents were executed, and beaten to death against rocks. Grandin argues that ‘anti-communist zeal and racist hatred were refracted through counterinsurgent exactitude… In [a] logic that equated indigenous culture with subversion.’ And it is for this reason that genocide can be counted as one of the direct results of American intervention: it led to a policy where the indigenous – either innocent or fighting for basic dignity – were subject to what was effectively extermination. By the mid 1980s, 150,000 civilians had been killed in the civil war, and 250,000 refugees had fled to Mexico.

In 1982, president Lucas (presiding over a stagnating, inflating, foreign-debt ridden, corrupt economy) was ousted in a military coup backed by the United States and the majority of the Guatemalan officer corps. Montt, who had been trained in the US-based Interamerican Defense College, took over the presidency. Under his rule, the efficiency of the killings increased, the breaking of the indigenous connection with the land continued, and in a new strategy, Indians were forced to police themselves, report on any ‘subversives’ in the village, and to execute them (often their neighbours) when caught – for fear of being executed by the army themselves. Montt’s flagship policy was called fusiles y frijoles, guns and beans, because it offered food and relocation to communities prepared to cooperate, or death to those who did not. Either way, the Maya were humiliated and removed from their land.

The new Reagan administration, determined to take a tougher line against communism, supported these policies regardless of the human cost. US policy in the eighties is summed up well by Landau: ‘Just as the policy elite cared little for the fate of the Guatemalan people and nation when they overthrew Arbenz in 1954, so they were blasé about the consequences of the continuation of their anti-communist-driven foreign policy thirty years later.’

The US’s original goal in Guatemala, in 1954, was to contain the spread of communism. This goal was achieved, but at what price?

The government’s policy during the early 1980s, although brutal and arguably genocidal, heavily weakened the guerrillas. Indeed, by 1984, they had been pushed back to unpopulated territory, and were losing the support – if not the sympathy – of the population. Although the civil war would carry on until 1996, the ferocity was never the same after 1983. International pressure on Guatemala, heightened by media interest and growing pressure from international investors, the IMF and World Bank, led to peace talks overseen by the UN commencing in 1990. This process, coinciding – through no coincidence – with the decline of the Soviet Union, ended in 1996 when a peace agreement was signed between the guerrillas and the government.

The US’s original goal in Guatemala, in 1954, was to contain the spread of communism. This goal was achieved, but at what price? The price was, foremost, the death of approximately 200,000 civilians; the price was the complete political corruption of Guatemala, and a reorientation of its political class back towards an autocratic and corrupt armed forces; the price was the destruction of the Guatemalan economy, despite the fact that a secondary goal of the 1954 coup was to keep Guatemala open to US capital.

Arguably, too, the strategy was not the only one available. Although communism was wiped out in the end, genocide was by no means the most effective strategy to achieve the United States’ goal. Additionally, the social costs, despite Guatemala’s eventual transition to ‘democracy’, (if it can even be called that, since real democracy depends on at least a fairly equal society – which Guatemala today is not, and ignoring the fact that the 1944-54 governments were already democratic,) are still being felt today: the indigenous population has had its connection to the land irrevocably severed in favour of big businesses’ ability to exploit that land; and even in 2000, 56.0 percent of Guatemala’s population remained in poverty. The neo-feudalism of the economy has gone, however only because the vast majority of the Maya have been wiped from the land. As Landau argues, ‘US policy was genocide, called by other names and justified as an anti-communist war strategy’.


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Billy graduated from Warwick University in 2017 with a first class degree in History. He is now a freelance journalist.