A Country for a Company – The 1954 US Backed Guatemalan Coup To Support United Fruit Company

Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower, 34th US President with John Foster Dulles
34th US President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower with John Foster Dulles

His cabinet included John Foster Dulles, the 52nd Secretary of State, and his brother, Allen Welsh Dulles, the 5th Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). There was also John Moor Cabot, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, and Thomas Dudley Cabot, Director of International Security Affairs in the State Department. All four were major UFC shareholders. And Eisenhower’s personal secretary was Ann Whitman, wife of UFC’s publicity director, Edmund Whitman.

Árbenz couldn’t have picked a worse time to annoy UFC.

The new plan to topple Árbenz was called Operation PBSuccess. Long before it was carried out, however, the UFC had already been hard at work. It spent half a million dollars ($4,430,415 in today’s money) lobbying Congress and creating a disinformation campaign about Árbenz’s policies.

An internal CIA document describing the CIA's role in ousting Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz
An internal CIA document describing the CIA’s role in ousting Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz

In 1952, they paid John Clements, editor of The American Mercury, $35,000 ($310,129 today) to create a 235-page report on why Árbenz had to be overthrown. Though fraudulent, it convinced Congress to back Operation PBSuccess with a budget of $2.7 million – though it ended up costing far more.

On 29 March 1953, however, a small rebellion nearly destroyed the operation when the Guatemalan government arrested those responsible. Among those caught were some CIA operatives, thus delaying the coup.

Later that October, John Puerifoy was made the new ambassador to Guatemala in order to develop close ties to its military. Mercenaries and Guatemalan exiles were also recruited, including Carlos Castillo Armas, a Guatemalan who was supposed to lead the original Operation PBFortune. His new group was called the Army of Liberation.

John Emil Puerifoy
John Emil Puerifoy

The neighboring countries of Honduras and Nicaragua became the staging post. On May 1, the “Voice of Liberation” radio program began broadcasting into Guatemala, urging its people to resist their communist dictator and to support their liberator, Armas.

Árbenz knew of the invasion and tried to buy arms, but Canada, Germany, and Rhodesia were banned from selling him any. So he bought them from Czechoslovakia instead, but it was exactly what America wanted.

They accused Guatemala of importing weapons from the Soviets, and the Soviets of interfering in America’s backyard. So on May 23, they imposed a naval blockade called Operation Hardrock Baker. On May 26, US planes flew over the capital, dropping leaflets urging the people to rise up against Árbenz.

On June 15, Armas’s men left Honduras and El Salvador to attack the Guatemalan border towns of Puerto Barrios, Esquipulas, Jultiapa, and Zacapa. One group was intercepted by El Salvador police before they crossed, but the rest made it through to destroy railroads and telegraph lines.

Carlos Castillo Armas, taken in 1954 before the coup
Carlos Castillo Armas, taken in 1954 before the coup

Armas entered with a larger force on June 18. His planes flew over a government rally in Guatemala City, demanding Árbenz’s resignation. The attack on Zacapa and Puerto Barrios failed, but an aerial assault on the capital succeeded.

Though there was little damage, it convinced the Guatemalans that a larger force was on its way. Not wanting to disappoint, a Lockheed P-38M Lightning bombed a British cargo ship docked in Puerto Barrios, which ended up costing the CIA $1M in compensation.

Guatemala took its case to the UN Security Council that same day, receiving support from Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The Council agreed to investigate, but was vetoed by the US on June 24.

Another plane bombed the town of San Pedro de Copán on June 22. Armas’s men finally captured Chiquimila on June 25, and even though it was the only city taken, it swayed the Guatemalan military into supporting Armas, since they believed a larger force would follow. Later that evening, they told Puerifoy to stop the attacks in return for Árbenz’s resignation.

Árbenz did so on June 27, then walked into the Mexican Embassy asking for political asylum. Thus Guatemala returned to being just another banana republic ruled by US-backed dictators.

Álvaro Colom Caballeros, Guatemala's president from 2008 to 2012
Álvaro Colom Caballeros, Guatemala’s democratically-elected president from 2008 to 2012

On 20 October 2011, President Alvaro Colom stood at the National Palace in Guatemala City and publically apologized to Árbenz’s son, Juan Jacobo, for the country’s participation in its own demise. He then called on the US to do the same, but they haven’t.

And UFC? It now calls itself Chiquita Brands International.

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