In 1954, an American-orchestrated coup d’état put an end to the first democratically elected government that Guatemala had ever experienced. In its place was installed a series of military, authoritarian governments, funded and advised by the United States (US). These governments waged a brutal war of repression against not just the consequent guerrilla opposition, but against the indigenous way of life in Guatemala as a whole. American intervention stifled Guatemala’s economic growth and political independence by allowing a corrupt ruling class to dominate the country whilst in the midst of civil war. The coup witnessed some of the worst human rights abuses of the Cold War period and resulted in the deaths of 200,000 civilians and rekindled stark ethnic, economic, social and political divisions in society. Despite successfully containing the spread of Communism in Latin America, America’s policy in Guatemala had numerous devastating effects which this essays aims to explore.

The social context of Guatemala, especially Maya-ladino relations, is essential to understanding the effects of American intervention. 1 Ever since European settlers first arrived in Latin America, the divide between indigenous Maya and mestizo Ladinos was more apparent than anywhere else in Central America due to Guatemala’s geographical composition of rural highlands versus urban lowlands. The long-standing resentment felt by the Maya towards the intrusive government contributed to a societal division during the coup between the guerrillas and the army. 2 The division however, was by no means purely ethnic, saturating most aspects of society from wealth and attire to languages and religion. Guatemalan government was entirely ladino; the ladinos were rich, the maya poor. Furthermore, in 1930, maya constituted 70% of the population. 3 Mayas often had to work on fincas, which were essentially plantations, on which they made up a low paid, seasonal workforce working in dangerous altitudes. 4 The effects of the civil war would exacerbate these social divisions and bring them into a modern context of right versus left. This interpretation takes on a new dimension when compared to the policies of reconciliation adopted by the Aravelo and Arbenz governments of 1944-54. Without the disturbance caused by American intervention, these policies would likely have improved mayaladino relations. American intervention however, only served to polarise Guatemalan society further by pushing those on the left towards guerrilla warfare and those on the right towards authoritarianism.

Alongside the social context of Guatemala, it is important to determine the economic structure of the country before the effects of American intervention may be examined. In 1944, Guatemala’s economy was almost entirely based in agriculture. The American United Fruit Company owned 550 000 acres of land; much of this was uncultivated. 5 With Guatemala’s largest exports, bananas and coffee, being produced on American-owned land, the Guatemalan economy benefitted very little from their production, aside from the profits received by the ruling classes for allowing the status quo to continue unchallenged. 6 Therefore, because 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 transport), domestic economic growth was stifled. Consequently, Guatemala’s economic status in 1944 can be described as ‘neo­-feudal’ with 2% of the population, mainly Americans and ladinos, owning 72% of the land. 7 This neo-­feudalism meant that land reform was the only way for the majority of the population to find freedom from their serfdom, while also meaning the government had to tread carefully to keep the maya on their side. Arguably, the Arevalo and Arbenz governments succeeded in the latter, however, the US­ backed post­-1954 military governments failed, since they equated the indigenous population, who supported land redistribution, with communism, and ruled through repression rather than reconciliation.

In this context of social and economic divide, an understanding of the revolutionary governments is also crucial to comprehending the effects of American intervention in Guatemala. Arevalo, who came to power in 1944, supported land reform and redistribution. Land redistribution was not necessarily a ‘Marxist’ idea and­ it was not set in the context of an eventual communist utopia, it was simply seen as the only way to overcome the neo-feudal situation of land ownership in Guatemala. Under this policy only uncultivated land would be taken and its owners would be paid face value in compensation.8 Overwhelmed with the interests rallied against him however, Arevalo’s land reform was a political impossibility. 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.9 Importantly, the Arevalo government did not discriminate against the indigenous population, seeing them as part of the solution to Guatemala’s problems, rather than as an obstacle. All of this is in complete contrast to how the Maya ­and indeed any left-­wing Guatemalans ­were seen (and treated) by the military governments of 1954 onwards.

In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz was elected president, and a noticeable shift to the left occurred. Arbenz was a Marxist, and in 1952 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. 10 And if left alone, there is a good chance it would have succeeded in bringing Guatemala out of its state of neo­-feudalism. This is important to remember when considering the consequences of the coup. 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. 11 Since 1944 there had also been immense international change: the Berlin blockade, the USSR’s newfound nuclear capability, the expansion of Communism in Asia and the Middle East, and an end to ‘socialism in one country’ upon Stalin’s death in 1953, all contributing to an atmosphere of great uncertainty. Furthermore, Arbenz’s shift to the left was not solely in terms of policy: he had links to the Marxist PGT (Guatemalan Labour Party) and some of his closest advisors in government held Marxist beliefs. In 1952, the PGT was legalised as an opposition party. 12 All of these factors combined to convince Eisenhower that Arbenz should be overthrown.

The reasoning behind the US intervention is thus 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 United States ­backed rebel army was on the brink of invasion.13 In actual fact, the force numbered only 480 Guatemalan exiles. Nevertheless, Arbenz’s fear of a fully­ fledged US invasion led him to resign on 27 June. The effects of the 1954 coup were extensive; it marked the last democratically elected government until 1996, the concentration of power to a small clique of army elites and the end to land reform and thus the Guatemalan people’s hopes to escape their neo-feudal status. In the words of one official, Guatemala provoked the realisation that the US would ‘not support all constitutional governments under all circumstances.’ 14

With the establishment of the immediate effects of American intervention, the resultant civil war and America’s subsequent policy of ‘containment’ can now be explored. The outbreak of civil war in 1960 stemmed from a failed left-wing military revolt, with ethnic divisions only subsequently coming to the fore. In 1960, however, the nascent guerrilla movement was largely made up of said left-­wing, ladino army officers who had fled to the highlands and the movement developed gradually throughout the decade. 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. 15 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, and hence an effect of American intervention: 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.’16 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 effect of the American intervention.

It is at this time that polarisation became a distinct characteristic in Guatemalan politics. The guerrilla movement began as a struggle against the neo-feudalist economy, moving further left with support from communist Cuba, in the face of brutal government repression. 17 Contrastingly, the militarised government moved further right, as it became apparent that authoritarianism was their sole way of maintaining power. LaFeber’s argument that the rightwards shift of the government occurred largely outside of American control is unconvincing. 18 Firstly, the US were clearly prepared to use military tactics to overturn regimes that ran counter to their own interests and were perfectly capable of doing so in Guatemala. Secondly, with over $12 million channelled from the US to the Guatemalan counterinsurgency force in the late sixties, repression in Guatemala was effectively funded by the Pentagon. 19 It was well within US power to prevent the brutal repression enforced by Guatemala’s military government, however this would have been in direct contradiction to US foreign policy goals for the suppression of communism. As such, human rights came second to ‘containment’.

Military repression tactics employed by the CIA, including the use of napalm, were instrumental in perpetuating Guatemalan social divisions. 20 Mass executions of civilians in opposition to the regime occurred in whole areas designated as rebel territory whilst death squads tortured those thought to hold rebel sympathies.21 The counterinsurgency force of 6000 overwhelmingly outweighed the forty fulltime guerrillas of the rebel movement and was therefore completely disproportionate. 22 Such actions encouraged the growth of the guerrillas, morphing the struggle away from simply Marxist ideology towards a nationalist struggle against a government that was essentially an American puppet.

On his presidential inauguration in 1970, Carlos Arana infamously stated that he would, without hesitation, ‘turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it’; a largely accurate characterisation of his time in office. 23 His strategy included ‘scorched earth’ tactics and the US-inspired idea of ‘civic­ action,’ which sought to divide indigenous communities by giving some greater political and economic benefits than others. 24 This policy was unsuccessful in turning the peasantry against the guerrillas however, with over ten­ thousand civilians killed instead. 25 According to Amnesty International, over 7,000 civilian opponents of the security forces ‘disappeared’ or were found dead between 1970 and 1971, followed by an additional 8,000 between 1972 and 1973. 26

Whilst this seemingly endless stream of civilian deaths occurred, the Guatemalan army began to usurp the government as the main state institution. Consequently, the army was able to carry out the counterinsurgency independently from government oversight. Julio Mendez, made President in 1966, 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. Between 1967 and 1976 the US supplied $35 million of military aid that facilitated the violent deaths of 50 000 people. 27 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 establish a truly democratic society.

The discovery of oil in Guatemala in 1970 brought another dimension to the civil war. 28 The purpose of the counterinsurgency was now twofold: first, to eliminate the guerrillas; but secondly to separate the Maya from their land, in order to create a new neoliberal Guatemala whose natural resources could be exploited. Additionally, the 1970s witnessed expansions in cattle ranching and mineral mining. 29 It was to the US that all these goods, in their raw and thus cheapest forms, were sold. In May 1978, the massacre of a group of Kekchi Indians, calling on the government to protect their land against cattle ranchers, who were providing beef to a largely American export market, indicated that the government was not only against the guerrillas but against the indigenous population too. 30

So was this the government’s fault, or the United States’? Arguably they are two sides of the same coin. Both the US-supported government and the Alliance for Progress had no interest in the rights of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Furthermore, reminiscent of United Fruit’s involvement in the 1954 coup, US investment and economic interests were inextricably linked to foreign policy. Therefore, the economic interests of the US in Guatemala were direct extensions of the same policy which had led the CIA to overthrow Arbenz in 1954. 31 The one departure from this depressing routine was the cutting off of US aid to Guatemala under the Carter government, which pledged a new emphasis on human ­rights. Aid stopped in 1977, however congressional loopholes, as well as money sent secretly through the CIA, allowed certain assistance to continue.32 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.33 Even a supposed focus on human rights could not stop American realpolitik.

In 1979, the US army estimated that over 60 percent of Maya in the Ixil area supported the guerrillas, a stark contrast from the forty guerrillas holding the movement down in the mid-sixties. 34 This was certainly to some extent down to the failures of the Guatemalan government, however the buck stops at the United States. The US’s political and financial support of the army lent legitimacy to their strategy of essentially 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. Whether the US was responsible for the tactics of the government or not, it was indeed responsible for the results.

American intervention resulted in the genocide of the indigenous population. In 1978, Lucas Garcia, ascended to power and was faced with guerrilla resurgence; his policy against the guerrillas was even more brutal than the regimes before him. 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, tortured and executed.35 In one account, children were taken outside after their parents were executed, and beaten to death against rocks. 36 By the mid-1980s, 150 000 civilians had been killed in the civil war and 250 000 refugees had fled to Mexico alone. 37

In 1982, President Lucas (presiding over a stagnating, inflating, foreign-debt ridden, corrupt economy) was ousted in a military coup backed by the US and the majority of the Guatemalan officer corps. Under the rule of US-trained President Rios Montt, 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.38 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. 39 Either way, the Maya were humiliated and removed from their land. Perhaps the most anti-Communist US administration, under Reagan, 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.’ 40 It is therefore, clear that the brutality of fusiles y frijoles was, to a significant extent, a result of American intervention.

The government’s brutal policy during the early 1980s severely weakened the guerrillas and by 1984, they were losing popular support and the ferocity of the civil war lessened. International pressure on Guatemala, heightened by media interest and growing pressure from international investors, including the IMF and World Bank, led to peace talks overseen by the UN 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. 41 Ostensibly therefore, the US’s original goal in Guatemala, in 1954, was to contain the spread of communism. This goal was achieved, but at what price? First and foremost, the death of approximately 200 000 civilians in an effort to stamp out the resultant guerrilla movement which at its height was estimated to be 3000-strong. Secondly, the complete political corruption of Guatemala, and a reorientation of its political class back towards an autocratic and corrupt armed forces. Thirdly, 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. Therefore, the ideological polarisation of the Guatemalan people, as a result of successive governments’ brutal tactics, was the effect of American intervention, not the cause. Although communism ceased to exist in Guatemala, the country has been left with a superficial democracy and an indigenous population that has had its connection to the land irrevocably severed in favour of corporate profits. Even in 2000, 56 percent of Guatemala’s population remained in poverty. 42 As Landau argues, ‘US policy was genocide, called by other names and justified as an anti-communist war strategy’. 43

Billy Perrigo

Images: Adam Baker, Flickr


  1. ‘Ladino’ is a Guatemalan term used to denote Guatemalans who were not considered to be Mayan.
  2. Grandin, Greg; Levenson, Deborah T., & Oglesby, Elizabeth, The Guatemala Reader, (London, 2011), pg.65
  3. See: Dunkerley, James, Gautemala since 1930, in Bethell, Leslie, (ed), Central America since Independence, (Cambridge, 1991), pg. 122
  4. For a first person account, see: Menchu, Rigoberta, ‘First visit to the Finca. Life in the Finca.’, in Burgos Debray, Elisabeth, (ed.), I, Rigoberta Menchu, An Indian Eoman in Guatemala, (Barcelona, 1983) pp.2127; For a broader history, see: Dunkerley, Guatemala since 1930, p.122
  5. Immerman, Richard H., The CIA in Guatemala, The Foreign Policy of Intervention, (Austin, 1982) p.81
  6. Schlesinger, Stephen, & Kinzer, Stephen, Bitter Fruit, The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, (London, 1982), pp.40-41
  7. Grow, US Presidents, pg. 2
  8. Somewhat ironically, the compensation paid to the UFCO was actually lower than the real value of the land, since valuation was based on the self­-declared value of the land on tax returns, which the UFCO undervalued in order to pay less tax.
  9. Grow, US Presidents, pg. 5
  10. Dunkerley, Guatemala since 1930 , pg. 134; Grow, US Presidents, pg. 9
  11. This essay will assume that the primary motivation for regime change in Guatemala was the cold war doctrine of ‘containment’ of communism, rather than vested economic interests. It should be recognised, however, that United Fruit were an important factor in the regime change, and that whether their interests were the prime motivation or not, America acting in the interests of money rather than people’s lives is symptomatic of the many problems caused by the 1954 coup. For more on UFCO’s links to the coup, see: Schlesinger & Kinzer, Bitter Fruit 
  12. Grow, US Presidents, pp. 7-9
  13. UFCO paid $64,000 towards the coup. See: Schlesinger & Kinzer, Bitter Fruit, pp. 102­3
  14. LaFeber, Walter, Inevitable Revolutions, The United States in Central America (Second Edition, New York, 1993), pg. 117
  15. Landau, Saul, The Guerilla Wars of Central America, (New York, 1993), pg. 162
  16. Aldana, Evaristo, quoted in: Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 162
  17. Grandin, Greg, ‘A Clandestine Life’, in Grandin, Greg; Levenson, Deborah T.; & Oglesby, Elizabeth,(eds.), The Guatemala Reader, (London, 2011) pp. 288-­289
  18. LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, pp. 170-1­71
  19.  Inevitable Revolutions, pg. 171
  20. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 164
  21. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 165
  22. LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, pg. 171
  23. LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, pg. 256
  24. Dunkerley, Guatemala since 1930, pp. 141­2
  25. Dunkerley, Guatemala since 1930, pp. 14-2­3
  26. Grandin, Greg, The Last Colonial Massacre, Latin America in the Cold War, (Chicago, 2011) pp.245-­54
  27. LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, pp. 256-­7
  28. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 167
  29. LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, pp. 258-­9
  30. LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, pg. 258
  31. The containment of communism was of course the main driver behind the 1954 coup. But this too can be linked to economics. The reason that the US did not want communism to spread was because it would undermine its large economic influence, from which its power (and therefore national security) was directly derived.
  32. Meislin, Richard J., ‘US Military Aid for Guatemala Continuing Despite Official Curbs’, The New York Times, December 19, 1982, <­military­aid­for­guatemala­continuing­despite­official­ ml40 > (3 May 2015)
  33. LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, pg. 322
  34. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 179
  35. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 182
  36. LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, pg. 322
  37. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 184
  38. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 192
  39. Dunkerley, Guatemala since 1930, pg. 155
  40. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 193
  41. It is clear that the removal of the Soviet Union as a threat to US interests was instrumental in the ‘democratisation’ of Guatemala. In many ways, too, US domination still remains: in the form of IMF constraints, in the form of trade, and in the legacy of 36 years of civil war.
  42. World Bank, ‘Data – Guatemala’, Data by Country, (01 May 2015)
  43. Landau, Guerrilla Wars, pg. 196
Billy recently graduated from Warwick University with a first class degree in History. He is now a journalist.