For years, in my Politics of Latin America class, I used the book Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, written by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer (Anchor Books, 1982). The book is an eye opener for almost everybody who reads it.
|Jacobo Arbenz, president of Guatemala, 1951-1954.|
Bitter Fruit reads like a James Bond thriller, except the 1954 CIA-directed overthrow of Guatemala's democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, was real. Understanding the CIA-led overthrow of the Guatemalan government is important because it helps us frame Guatemala's - and much of Central America's - current development predicament, and why their people are leaving. In a few words, rather than moving towards genuine economic development, which many Guatemalans believed was around the corner after ridding itself of the corrupt and authoritarian General Jorge Ubico in 1944, Guatemala took a series of big steps backward.
Specifically, after getting rid of the popular and democratically elected Arbenz government in 1954, the United States imposed a military dictator, and set the tone for how Guatemala would be governed for decades.
|Guatemala's military junta, with Carlos Castillo Armas sitting next to CIA agent (the driver).|
Successive military juntas would do the cold war bidding of the United States, while cozying up to the United Fruit company and other U.S.-sanctioned business interests. Military authoritarianism became the norm for successive governments, who didn't want to run afoul of the United States.
Guatemala's development, as you can imagine, stalled after 1954 as the country devolved into a semi-feudal military racket, with civil war and domestic unrest. This background set the tone for many of the political and economic challenges we see in Guatemala today.
The point is - and contrary to what most people in the United States understand - the problems and challenges that Guatemala face today are a direct result of the United States undermining a popularly elected, reform-minded, government. For years the United States misled the world, and billed the overthrow of the Arbenz government as a spontaneous citizen-led uprising. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was planned and led by the CIA.
The U.S. then replaced the Arbenz government with a military dictatorship, led by Carlos Castillo Armas (pictured above) who proceeded to run the economy into the ground, and terrorized the poorest and most vulnerable populations in Guatemala. While the stories of Honduras and El Salvador are different, they are similar in that U.S. involvement helped to militarize their economies and created untenable economic situations. All of this has helped create much of the havoc we see in Central America.
The result has been massive migration from Central America - which the CIA labels "blowback" - and flawed policy "solutions" that focus on the militarization of border control, both in the United States, and in Mexico.
There's more to this story, but one thing is clear: Most Americans have no idea what we're seeing on the border, in many respects, is a direct result of what the United States did throughout Latin America during the cold war (and before). It should also be clear that fixing this mess is not going to happen over night, or if they just "stay there and fix their own problems."
There's more to this story, but the best thing to do is pick up a book or two on the topic. For Latin America, Bitter Fruit is a good place to start. You can follow this up with After the Coup: An Ethnographic Reframing of Guatemala 1954.
Addendum: For a more personal review of what Guatemala was like after the 1954 coup, check out my friend and colleague's - and former political officer in the U.S. Guatemalan Embassy, from 1980 through 1982 - essay, which you can access by clicking here.
Addendum, II: For a look at how the U.S. created the Mother of All Blowbacks in the Middle East with the 1953 CIA-led coup in Iran click here.