Operation PBSUCCESS

On this day in 1954, the CIA executed Operation PBSUCCESS, which overthrew the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz and installed military officer Carlos Castillo Armas, the first in a series of brutal U.S.-backed desposts who lasted until the 1990s.

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A mural celebrating Arbenz’s agrarian land reforms, which benefited over half a million peasants. 

Arbenz was only the second Guatemalan leader to be elected democratically; in 1944, a popular uprising toppled the previous U.S.-backed dictator, Jorge Ubico, paving the way for the nation’s first democratic election, which placed Juan Jose Arevalo in power. He introduced a minimum wage, near-universal suffrage, literacy programs, and a new constitution that aimed to turn Guatemala into a liberal democracy. Arbenz succeeded Arevalo in 1951, continuing his social and political reforms, including popular land policies that granted property to landless peasants.

This “Guatemalan Revolution” was disliked by the U.S., which was predisposed by the Cold War to see it — like every leftist or socially oriented movement — as communist and Soviet-backed. It did not help that Arbenz, though himself not a communist, legalized the Communist Party in an effort to promote multiparty democracy. The United Fruit Company was even more opposed, as for decades it had co-opted Guatemala’s authoritarian leaders to become the largest landowner and employer in the country, enjoying such privileges as the right to pay 50 cents daily to its peasant workers. Its highly profitable business was threatened by Arevalo’s and Arbenz’s reforms, and thus it engaged in an influential lobbying campaign to persuade the U.S. government to overthrow the new Guatemalan government.

To that end, President Harry Truman authorized Operation PBFORTUNE to topple Arbenz in 1952, although it was quickly aborted, due in part to the plan becomin. That year, Dwight D. Eisenhower came to power on a staunchly anti-communist platform, and essentially carried the baton with authorizing Operation PBSUCCESS. Of course, it helped that his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, had links to the United Fruit Company.

Ultimately, the coup succeeded, Armas was brought to power, and progressive reforms were rolled back. Subsequently, a leftist insurgency emerged in the 1960s, and a nearly 40-year civil war ensued that included the genocide of Mayan peoples. The backlash to the coup led the CIA to launch Operation PBHISTORY, which sought to justify the coup after the fact by finding evidence of Soviet influence in Guatemala; after scouring 500,000 documents, it found no such proof.

Given all this, it is rich that the U.S. now wishes to abrogate responsibility for derailing Guatemala’s economic and political progress, rejecting a humanitarian approach to asylum seekers and migrants who are arriving in large part because of our meddling in their affairs.

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