Tim's Reviews > Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

Bitter Fruit by Stephen C. Schlesinger
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's review
Nov 04, 13

bookshelves: history, latin-america, politics
Read from September 30 to November 03, 2013

Bitter Fruit relates the history of the 1954 CIA-directed coup against Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. Together with the 1953 putsch against Iranian President Mohammed Mossadegh, that gave the CIA two successful knock-outs against democratically-elected governments in two years. Both incidents are notable for the hubris and hypocrisy on the part of the US, as well as the pyrrhic nature of their victories.

Kinzer's book on Nicaragua in the 1980s, Blood of Brothers, is one of the best and most engaging histories I've read in recent years. (Seriously, if you're at all interested in Latin America or US foreign policy, you should pick it up). But where that book was a panoramic look at revolutionary Nicaragua seen through the lens of a reporter's experiences, Bitter Fruit is much narrower in scope, an intensely detailed analysis of a brief period of time in a small country, much of it based on diplomatic cables and internal documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

The precipitating event for the coup was the agrarian and land reform undertaken by the Arévalo and Arbenz governments, attempting to address the vast social inequalities that had existed in Guatemala since the time of the conquista. In particular, Arbenz sought to take the vast tracts of unused land owned by the Boston-based United Fruit Company and redistribute it to poor farmers. (In an ironic twist, Arbenz offered to pay the greatly undervalued price that UFCo had submitted as its tax evaluation.) The fruit company had enjoyed decades of monopoly, virtually un-taxed profits, unenforced labor laws, compliant governments and full ownership of the country's only Atlantic port and railway. It was practicing capitalism at its most primal, and it had earned an unsavory reputation in most of Central America. Pablo Neruda even wrote a poem about the company's influence.

The authors make the case that Arévalo and Arbenz were not Communists, but rather liberal reformers who admired FDR and wanted to bring the New Deal to Guatemala. Naturally, their reforms were portrayed as a "Soviet beachhead" in the Americas by McCarthy-era Washington, DC. UFCo's lobbying and public relations efforts soon attracted the attention of the incoming Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA chief Allen Dulles, quickly put together a small-scale but effective operation to isolate, weaken and ultimately knock Arbenz out of power. It's a pretty intriguing story, replete with phony radio broadcasts, disguised arms shipments, chartered Cessnas dropping leaflets and other 1950s-tech spy stuff.

In a way, it is grimly amusing to see how easy it was to show Arbenz the door. The CIA was even (mostly) able to keep their name out of the press accounts, which presented the coup as the work of anti-Communist Guatemalan patriots. Future CIA operations would not be quite so clean. However, the mendacity of this sort of work does take your breath away when you see it spelled out in all its cynical glory. I recall in particular a US attempt to fake a bombing just over the border in Honduras to better portray Guatemala as an aggressive nation who was a danger to its neighbors. Blame your enemies for your own worst sins, I guess.

As the book's final chapter shows, the 40 years following the coup offered neither stability nor democracy. The authoritarian Castillo Armas lasted three years before being assassinated. He was succeeded by a series of military leaders who oversaw the descent of Guatemala into a lawless right-wing state stalked by death squads. Unable to enact even mild reforms, the left and the indigenous groups retreated to the jungle to wage guerrilla warfare, while the generals hunted them down, along with trade unionists, student leaders, dissident priests and anyone who might pose a challenge to their authority. By the time the peace accords were signed in 1996, over 200,000 Guatemalans were dead or disappeared.

All too often US foreign policy has mistaken the legitimate grievances and nationalist ambitions of other nations for communist subversion, and has acted to place US business interests above respect for democracy or human rights. Guatemala is an unusually clear and uncomplicated example of this. In addition to the tragic consequences for those affected, it's not even clear that this strategy succeeds on its own terms. The 1954 coup only looks like a US victory in the very short term. After that it's a bit of a disaster.
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Stuart imo 'communist subversion' was only a pretext. As you know, once the cold war ended and the 'spectre of communism' excuse could no longer be used it was substituted for islam-terrorism or narco-terrorism (war on terror). My point being that the US government didn't mistake any legitimate grievance, rather it ignored them in order to do the bidding of their masters.

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