1954: Coup d’etat and Civil War in Guatemala

When Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman attempted to nationalize the United Fruit Company, a US-based corporation that controlled much of Guatemala’s agricultural land, a CIA-sponsored coup d’etat replaced him with a brutal military dictatorship.

Mural depicting Guatemalan President Arbenz and symbolizing the reign of military terror following the CIA backed coup in 1954, Collaborative art by HIJOS, Zone 1, Guatemala City, Guatemala. Copyright © Donna De Cesare.

Arbenz had tried to follow international law, offering the US company compensation. Arbenz had based his offer on the estimated value the United Fruit Company itself used in its tax declarations. The company had deliberately underestimated the value of its land holdings to avoid paying Guatemalan or US taxes.

After refusing the $600,000 buyout Arbenz offered as too low, the United Fruit Company, its banking supporters and the CIA argued that he was either a communist , or a socialist who would make Guatemala prey to Communist takeover.   At the height of cold war tensions, these assertions persuaded US President Eisenhower to support a CIA coup plot.   Arbenz was forced into exile and died in Mexico in 1971. The US continued to support the succession of military regimes that followed waging war for the next 40 years on anyone they decided was “communist” including their own Mayan population.