lunes, julio 02, 2007

1954 Guatemalan coup d'état

Former president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on the cover of TIME magazine in June 1954 after his overthrow

Former president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on the cover of TIME magazine in June 1954 after his overthrow

Operation PBSUCCESS was a CIA-organized covert operation that overthrew the democratically-elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954. Arbenz's government put forth a number of new policies that the US intelligence community deemed to be Communist in nature, and, suspecting that the Soviet Union was pulling the strings, subsequently fueled a fear of Guatemala becoming a "Soviet beachhead in the western hemisphere" within the CIA and the Eisenhower administration -- a concern that found no shortage of believers outside of this circle given the intensely anti-Communist McCarthyism prevalent at the time. Arbenz also instigated sweeping land reform acts that antagonized the US-based multinational United Fruit Company, which had large stakes in the old order of Guatemala and lobbied various levels of US government furiously for action against Arbenz. The operation, which was put into motion early in 1952 and concluded in 1954, planned to arm and train an ad-hoc "Liberation Army" of about 400 fighters under the command of a then exiled Guatemalan army officer, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, and to use them in conjunction with a complex and largely experimental diplomatic, economic, and propaganda campaign. Following closely on the heels of the successful CIA-orchestrated coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran to install the Shah in 1953 (Operation Ajax), it employed ideas and methods that were relatively new at the time and, due to the ostensible success of the operation, led to Operation PBSUCCESS becoming the de facto model for the overthrow or destabilization of a defiant government for some time to come, including the abortive coup in Cuba in the early 1960s and Chile in 1973.

The operation was preceded by a separate contingency plan of invasion, Operation PBFORTUNE, and was succeeded by an operation whose objective was to gather documents after the overthrow that would assist in the effort to incriminate Arbenz as a Communist puppet, known as Operation PBHISTORY.

Note on naming

The operation name, PBSUCCESS, is a cryptonym, otherwise known as a codename. Each CIA cryptonym contains a two character prefix called a digraph, which designates a geographical or functional area. In this case, PB stands for "Presidential Board" and with the words that followed, SUCCESS and FORTUNE, simply being indicative of the general optimism and confidence amongst its planners at the CIA at the time. This varied from the normal CIA practice of choosing arbitrary or deliberately misleading words to complete a cryptonym.


Arbenz, who played an important role in the "October Revolution" of 1944 which overthrew the Guatemalan government of General Jorge Ubico, was a popular figure at the time of his election in 1951, winning 65% of the vote in an election that was perceived as remarkably open and free given the armed outbreaks of previous months. An intellectual, he advocated social and political reforms, unionization, and land reform. For the latter, Arbenz secretly met with members of the Communist Guatemalan Labor Party (known by its Spanish acronym 'PGT') in order to establish an effective land reform program. Such a program was proposed by Arbenz as a means of remedying the extremely unequal land distribution within the country: in 1945, it was estimated that 2.2% of the country's population controlled 70% of all arable land, but with only 12% of it being utilized.

Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, pictured with his wife

Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, pictured with his wife

While Arbenz's Agrarian Reform act of 1952, known as Decree 900, was welcomed by impoverished peasants who made up the majority of Guatemala's population, it provoked the ire of the upper landowning classes and factions of the military, who accused him of bowing to Communist influence. This tension resulted in noticeable civil unrest in the country and fueled the indignation of the United Fruit Company (UFC), which had come to gain a virtual monopoly on a wide variety of Guatemalan industries. Under Ubico, and Ubico's predecessor Manuel José Estrada Cabrera, Guatemala was widely opened up to foreign investment, with special favours being made from Ubico to the United Fruit Company in particular. The UFC responded by pouring investment capital into the country, buying controlling shares of the railroad, electric utility, and telegraph, while also winning control over the majority of the country's best land and de facto control over its only Atlantic port facilities. As a result, the Guatemalan government was often subservient to the UFC's interests. After the revolution of 1944, the Company suffered a long series of defeats in the form of social and economic reforms by Juan José Arévalo and his government, followed by Arbenz's government's initiatives, which were particularly hostile to the Company's interest. In March 1953, uncultivated lands owned by United Fruit lands were to be expropriated with a proposed compensation plan, where the Guatemalan government would pay the United Fruit roughly US$600,000 based on the company's declared taxes (in essence offering the company what it publicly said the land was worth as compensation). In the following October 1953 and in February 1954, the Guatemalan government took another 150,000 acres (600 km²) of uncultivated land from the United Fruit Company, bringing the total amount of appropriations to almost 400,000 acres (1,600 km²). In April 1954, the US State Department, not the UFC, delivered a note to the Arbenz government, demanding that Guatemala pay $15,854,849 for the UFC properties expropriated on the Pacific Coast alone. Guatemala denied, charging violation of its sovereignty.

After the expropriations began, the United Fruit Company began lobbying the US government in an attempt to draw them into their confrontation with Arbenz. The US State Department responded by, amongst other things, successfully seeking approved cuts in economic aid and cuts in trade, with devastating effect to Guatemala, since "85% of Guatemala’s exports are sold in the country and 85% of their imports come from the US”. Internal US State Department documents stated that the cutoff would have to be done “quietly” because this was “a violation of the Non-intervention agreement, to which we are party”…“If it became obvious that we were in violation of this agreement, other Latin American governments would rally to the support of Guatemala.”5 While the role the UFC played in instigating the overthrow is often over-stated[citation needed], the State Department was indeed concerned about the company and, moreover, about the potential the land reform decree had for opening up radicalization in Guatemala and destroying the political effectiveness of large landholders. This, combined with escalating Soviet-American tensions and anxiety about the possibility of the Soviet Union making incursions into America's hemisphere of influence, led agency analysts to see Arbenz as a Soviet agent and a threat that needed to be urgently dealt with.


In early 1952 CIA apprehension about an imminent Communist takeover had peaked and the agency began seriously exploring options for Arbenz's overthrow. The most viable option being considered was the covert backing of rebel groups and dissidents already active in Guatemala and the then CIA Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Walter B. Smith sent an agent to Guatemala City to investigate potential candidate individuals or organizations. At the time the state of the opposition to Arbenz was inert, divided, and increasingly fractious. The agent returned empty handed. Fortunately for the CIA, this roughly coincided with the first state visit of the President of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza. He informed them of Castillo Armas's small rebel group and stated that, with the CIA's support, he and Armas could unseat Arbenz. They also could expect financial backing from Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and, as Armas later claimed, from internal elements within the Guatemalan army. DCI Smith urged his subordinates to follow up on this and to establish contacts with Armas, which they did in June of the same year. At the CIA's request, Armas then relayed to them a plan for invasion, which was to launch from El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras (from UFC land) and would be coordinated with simultaneous uprisings within Guatemala. Armas requested arms, money, aircraft, and boats and informed them that he would launch the invasion as planned regardless of the CIA's support if need be. In July the CIA secured arms, transport, and $225,000 (US) for Armas, and furnished a few WWII-era airplanes. In September the CIA secured State Department approval and Operation PBFORTUNE was set.

One of two major setbacks occurred shortly afterwards when, while preparing for the arms shipment, the operation had to be called off. Somoza had been speaking of the invasion plan with other Central American leaders and the operation's cover, which was very important due to the fragile diplomatic situation the United States had with the region, was blown. While Operation PBFORTUNE was officially terminated, the operation led a twilight existence with the arm shipment prepared prior still kept in waiting and with Armas being kept on a $3,000 a week retainer, which allowed him to hang on to his small troupe of rebels.

With the departure of President Truman and the arrival of Eisenhower hopes were again raised within the CIA about the possibility of reviving the invasion. Eisenhower expressed favor towards covert operations as a means of cheaply and covertly combating the Soviet Union. While working towards getting this support, anxiety within the Agency about the possibility of a premature coup attempt being enacted by over-eager rebel groups began to rise and was justified in early 1953 when a futile and poorly planned invasion was attempted by a rebel group marginally associated with Armas. The invasion precipitated exactly the reaction feared within the Agency: the Guatemalan government was provided with a justification for severely clamping down on anti-communist elements within their county -- jailing many -- and was supported by a popular backlash against the anti-communists amongst the people. With almost all of their local assets destroyed, the CIA was forced to rely solely on the much more fragmented exile groups.

The Coup

After all but abandoning the project in mid-1953, the U.S. National Security Council revived the project in August of that year after a review of the situation in light of the success of the recent CIA-organized coup against Mossadegh in Iran. CIA officers involved included Tracy Barnes (CIA officer in charge), David Atlee Phillips, Jacob 'Jack' Esterline, E. Howard Hunt, David Sanchez Morales.

Re-naming the operation to "PBSUCCESS", the planners consolidated all of the successful elements of previous operations, combining psychological, diplomatic, economic, and paramilitary actions. Economically, the Agency enlisted the help of some top-ranking American businessmen who would be assigned to put covert economic pressures on Guatemala by creating shortages of vital imports and cutting export earnings. Diplomatically, the Agency planned to convene a meeting of Organization of American States (OAS) with the specific intention of using it to ostracize and alienate Guatemala from the other countries in the region, as well as increasing "aid" to neighboring countries Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to win over their consent and, in the case of the latter two, to gain the use of their land as a staging area for the invasion. Once the building of pressure using diplomatic, economic, and propagandistic means reached its zenith, the CIA planned to then let Armas' rebels loose when the country was at its most unstable.

Upon establishing operation headquarters in Florida in December 1953, the Agency started recruiting pilots, oversaw the training of rebels, set up a radio station to use for propaganda purposes, and stepped up the diplomatic pressure on Guatemala. Although they couldn't halt the exports of coffee, a major industry in Guatemala at the time, they succeeded in foiling two deals to buy arms and ammunition from Canada and Germany. Faced with dwindling military supply and witnessing the build up of armaments in neighboring countries, Arbenz started to seriously take into account the possibility of an invasion, which had been rumored for months and finally confirmed when a defector from the Agency's stable of rebels informed the Arbenz regime of PBSUCCESS and its details, and began looking for potential sellers of crucial supplies. This brought Arbenz to conclude a secret deal with Communist Czechoslovakia for 2,000 tonnes of captured German arms that were left in storage since the end of World War II a decade ago. While the arms deal was met with a Soviet protectorate, their knowledge of it was limited and the deal was strictly cash-and-carry. When the arms shipment arrived the CIA took their opportunity and promoted the transaction as proof of the Soviet hand pulling the strings and it ended up being a major propaganda victory for the CIA insofar as winning the American public's support for regime change in Guatemala was concerned.

After the revelation of the Czech arms shipment and the domestic support it whipped up, the US drastically stepped up both its covert and overt campaigns. On May 20, 1954 the US Navy began air-sea patrols under the twin pretexts of arms interdiction and protection of Honduras from Guatemalan invasion.( ;see entry #29.) On June 7, a "contingency evacuation" force, consisting of five amphibious assault ships plus an "anti-submarine warfare" (ASW) aircraft carrier was dispatched to the area. Embarked was a US Marine Battalion Landing Team (; meanwhile the only utility of the ASW carrier in the situation could have been for helicopter assault (then under development by the US Marines).

These forces were used to implement a comprehensive sea blockade of Guatemala by the American Navy. Known as Operation HARDROCK BAKER, it also included the deployment of submarines, again, ostensibly to stop and inspect all incoming ships for arms (though submarines are not at all suited for this role). The de facto aggressive configuration of this naval force, and the disingenuous representations of its true purpose, had a decisive psychological impact within Guatemala, extinguishing the remaining hope of international law coming to the assistance of Guatemala and raising the very credible prospect of an American invasion.


Still a somewhat new field at the time, psychological warfare was given a special place in the operation. The CIA planned to make heavy use of rumor, pamphleterring, poster campaigns, and, most of all, radio, which had turned the tide at the critical moment in the Iran operation. Although relatively few Guatemalans personally owned a radio, the radio was considered to be an authoritative source, and the CIA hoped that word of mouth would assist in the dissemination of their propaganda to an audience greatly exceeding those with radios. The radio station, La Voz de la Liberacion (The voice of liberation), was set up in Miami but claimed to be operating from "deep in the jungle" and broadcast a mix of popular music, humor, and anti-government propaganda. While the broadcasts were overtly tailored to the general populace, they were specifically and subversively targeted at "men of action", particularly the officers in the Guatemalan military, whose complicity was essential to the success of the operation. The Guatemalan army, made up of around 5,000 well trained and armed soldiers, was more than a match militarily for Armas's 400 undisciplined rebels. Depending on a strictly military success was not an option, and winning the officer class over, mostly through intimidation, was pivotal to the success of the operation. Immediately preceding the invasion propaganda efforts were intensified with Armas sending warplanes to fly low over the capital, buzzing the presidential palace, and drop leaflets urging the military to disavow their Communist government.

Internal propaganda activities were taken up mostly by student groups under direct instruction of CIA experts stationed at the Florida headquarters. Employing many advanced ideas and techniques, they met with immediate success. They started a weekly pamphlet and plastered the number "32" -- for Article 32 in the constitution that prohibited international political parties -- on buses and walls across the whole country, garnering much local media attention. Encouraged by this initial success the group began using an increasingly wide variety of ideas and approaches. One scheme was to put stickers saying "A communist lives here" on the homes of Arbenz's supporters. Another was to send out fake death notices for Arbenz or other leading members of his cabinet to local newspapers. These activities reached such a height that Arbenz found it necessary to take harsh measures to stymie them, arresting many members of the student groups, limiting freedom of assembly, and intimidating newspapers into ignoring their activities. These severe clampdowns[citation needed] essentially turned Guatemala into the repressive regime that the Agency was trying to portray it, which only succeeded in giving ammunition to Agency claims and hastening Arbenz's downfall.


At 8:00 p.m. on June 18 Castillo Armas's forces crossed the border. Divided into four groups, his roughly 480 strong party invaded at 5 key points along the Guatemalan-Honduran and the Guatemalan-Salvadorian border. This was done to give the impression of a massive forces invading along a wide front, and also to disperse the men so as to minimize the chance of the entire force being routed in a single unfavorable engagement. In addition to these regular troops, 10 trained saboteurs slipped in ahead and were given the task of blowing up key bridges and cutting telegraph lines. All of the invading forces were instructed to minimize actual encounters with the Guatemalan army, for many reasons but most of all to avoid giving reason for the uniting of the army against the invaders. The entire course of the invasion was specifically designed to sow panic and to give the impression of insurmountable odds in order to bring the populace and the military over to its side, rather than defeat them. During the invasion radio propaganda also assisted towards this end, transmitting false reports of huge forces joining the local populace in a popular revolution.

Almost immediately, Armas's forces met with decisive failure. Invading on foot and hampered by heavy equipment, it was in some cases days before the rebels reached their objectives. This weakened the psychological impact of the initial invasion, as local Guatemalans realized they were in no immediate danger. One of the first groups to reach its objective, the group of 122 rebels whose task it was to capture the city of Zacapa, were severely crushed by a small contingent of 30 Guatemalan army soldiers, leaving only 28 rebels who had escaped death or capture. An even larger defeat was handed to the group of 170 rebels who undertook the task of capturing the heavily guarded port city of Puerto Barrios. After the police chief spotted the invading force, he quickly armed local dock workers and assigned them defensive roles. In a matter of hours the vast majority of the rebels were killed or captured, with the remaining men fleeing back into Honduras. Within 3 days, two of Armas's four prongs were out of commission. Attempting to recover momentum, Armas ordered an air attack on the capital the following day. This too failed, as a single slow flying plane managed to bomb a small oil tank, creating a minor fire that was doused in 20 minutes.

After these rebel failures, Arbenz ordered his military commander to allow Armas's forces to advance deep into the country. Arbenz and his chief commander didn't fear Armas's ragtag army, but there was a concern that, were the rebels to be too severely crushed, it would provide a pretext for open American military intervention. This fear spread widely amongst the officer class, with no one wanting to engage and defeat Armas's increasingly decimated force. Rumors spread - fueled greatly by the presence of the American amphibious assault force - that a Honduran landing by US Marines was in progress; preparatory to an invasion of Guatemala. Arbenz began to fear that the officers would be cowed into striking a deal with Armas and so began to take actions (elaboration needed) to win back their confidence. Confirmation of Arbenz' fear was given when an entire army garrison surrendered to Armas a few days later in the town of Chiquimula. Arbenz summoned his cabinet to explain that the army was in revolt and on June 27 Arbenz announced his resignation.


Castillo Armas wearing the presidential sash after his taking of power

Castillo Armas wearing the presidential sash after his taking of power

In the 11 days after Arbenz's resignation five successive juntas occupied the presidential palace, each more amenable to American demands than the last, with Armas himself finally taking office at the end. He proved to be embarrassingly inept and his corrupt and repressive policies renewed civil conflict unseen in the country since before the revolution of 1944. An unexpected result of the coup was the ferocious condemnation of it by the international press. Le Monde and The Times both attacked America's "modern form of economic colonialism." There was a widespread and long-lasting protest of the coup in Latin America, with Guatemala becoming a symbol of resistance to American designs for the region. United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold accused the US's actions of being at odds with the UN Charter and even West German papers, usually gentle to America, were condemning the coup.


After the campaign, the CIA sent a handful of agents to Guatemala in order to gather and analyze government documents that would, amongst other things, find evidence that would support the CIA's belief that Guatemala was a rising Soviet puppet state, in an operation that was known as Operation PBHISTORY. Despite amassing well over 150,000 pages, they found very little to substantiate the key premise of the invasion; the socialism that gained influence under Arbenz's presidency in fact had no ties to the Soviet Union whatsoever. In addition, internal CIA documents released during the CIA's brief "openness" initiative in the 1990's after the fall of Soviet Union revealed that the United Fruit Company actually played much less of a role in the coup than previously thought. Rather, McCarthy-era Communist paranoia was the main factor influencing the decision to overthrow Arbenz. Nevertheless, some private sector leaders and the military began to believe that Arbenz represented a Communist threat and supported his overthrow despite most Guatemalans' attachment to the original ideals of the 1944 uprising.


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