Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala

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In late 1953 the CIA launched Operation PBSUCCESS to overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. They conducted an extensive propaganda campaign to undermine Arbenz, which included promoting a Guatemalan “liberation army” they built up in Honduras.  As part of these efforts the US Navy enforced a sea blockade of Guatemala while American warplanes buzzed Guatemala City to sow popular panic and dissent within the army. In the face of this onslaught, Guatemala’s elected president stepped down and a series of military men took his place, spurring a three decade long civil war that cost more than 100,000 lives.

Washington worried that Arbenz’s social democratic policies would disrupt the elite-dominated

status quo in the region. In 1954, a State Department official was unusually blunt, pointing out that “Guatemala has become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador.

Its agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors where similar conditions prevail.” Arbenz represented the threat of a bad example.

Despite CCF questioning in the House of Commons, external minister Lester Pearson refused to acknowledge US involvement in the invasion of Guatemala. He said: “To the best of my knowledge, based on information we have received, the attacking forces in Guatemala seem to be Guatemalan, though some non-Guatemalans might be included.”

Pearson also helped isolate Arbenz. In 1953 External Affairs refused the Guatemalan foreign minister’s request to open embassies in each other’s countries. A similar request was denied again the next year. Prior to Arbenz’s 1950 election, a study by Canada’s trade commissioner in Guatemala claimed that“businessmen and landowners do not have any cause to view the prospect of Arbenz as future president with any optimism.”Northern Shadows, a history of Canada’s role in Central America, summarizes: “At External Affairs and in Canadian [corporate] boardrooms, the coup [against Arbenz] was chalked up as another victory of the Free World against the [Soviet] Menace.”