A dictatorship led by General Jorge Ubico was overthrown in 1944 by a group of dissident military officers, students, and professionals. Juan Jose Arevalo, a civilian, was popularly elected in democratic elections, became president in 1945 and began an extensive program of liberal social reforms. These reforms were continued by his successor, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, who took office in 1951 and also legalized the communist Guatemalan Labor Party. The Labor Party began to control labor unions, peasant organizations, and the governing political party. American firms in Guatemala such as the United Fruit Company became increasingly discontent with the Guatemalan government, especially after the Arbenz government passed a law expropriating large estates, a law which greatly affected the United Fruit Company's plantations. The United States itself also began to fear the increasingly communist nature of the Arbenz government and coupled with pressure from the United Fruit Company and other firms, the CIA supported a coup that invaded Guatemala from Honduras and quickly took control of the government, installing military dictator Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. The coup and the resulting regime began an almost 50-year period of military dictators, fraudulent elections, and civil wars that claimed 200,000 lives, many of them civilians.
While it is a commonly accepted fact that the CIA was instrumental in the planning and the execution of the coup, it is unclear as to exactly how much involvement the CIA had in the coup. The operation, dubbed Operation PBSUCCESS, broadcast propaganda from Honduras on "Liberation Radio," distributed arms, and helped Armas plan and stage his coup. Some have also speculated that the CIA was also responsible for the military's failure to stop the advancing troops. Recently declassified documents from the CIA's archives have shed some light on the matter. They show that the Arevalo and Arbenz governments had long been a source of discontent for the US, with one memoranda referring to Arbenz's reforms as "an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the 'Banana Republic.'" There was an earlier attempt to overthrow the Guatemalan government under the Truman administration in 1952, which of course was not successful. There was also a list made that compiled the leaders and individuals that were to be assassinated or neutralized.
The legacy of the coup has been the source of considerable debate in both Guatemala and America. For many people in both countries, the coup epitomizes the CIA's and America's tactic of overthrowing unfriendly, if democratic regimes, in favor of regimes that were friendly, if dictatorial. There also those (both Americans and Guatemalans) who are unapologetic about the coup, believing that communism was a serious threat and that the policies of Arbenz was bringing Guatemala closer to the communist fold. While Guatemala did not pose a direct strategic threat to the United States, there were concerns that it would establish a communist beachhead in America's own backyard (one has to remember that the Arbenz government predated that of Castro's Cuba by about four years).
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