The CIA, on June 18, 1954, led the coup in Guatemala that overthrew the Communist-dominated regime of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Frank G. Wisner, CIA. Deputy Director for Plans, had the major responsibility for carrying out the operation. CIA agents trained and supported the forces of Colonel Carlos Castillo-Armas who assumed power after the defeat of Arbenz. Agency support included the provision of CIA-piloted World War II fighter-bombers, as well as guns and ammunition.
The perceived success of the operation in Iran undoubtedly contributed to the administration's decision later in the 1954 to begin planning a similar kind of operation in Guatemala. The popularly elected president ofthe country, Jacobo Arbenz, had expropriated the property of several large UScorporations and had allowed the communist party to gain a substantial foot-hold within the country. An NIE published in April 1954 had, in fact, warned that "communists now effectively control the political life of Guatemala." When CIA learned in May that Arbenz had obtained Soviet-made military equipment from Czechoslovakia, it proved too much for Eisenhower, who directed CIA to mount an operation to overthrow him.
To carry out the coup, the Agency trained a small group of Guatemalan exiles in Honduras, under the leadership of former Guatemalan army colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas, and provided them with several aircraft, flown by CIA pilots. When the operation began in June 1954, the small exile force entered Guatemala and set up camp near the border. The CIA-provided aircraft carried out limited bombing runs and "buzzed" a number of Guatemalan towns and cities. At the same time, the Agency began an elaborate deception operation with the support of other US entities in Guatemala, using what appeared to be radio broadcasts between rebel forces to make it seem that a large invasion force was moving toward the capital.
On 27 June 1954, the chief of the Guatemalan armed forces, COL Carlos Enrique Diaz, met with US Ambassador John Peurifoy to plead that it be stopped. In return for the ambassador's assurance that it would be, Diaz agreed to lead a coup against Arbenz. Upon learning this later the same day, Arbenz himself stepped aside, and in the ensueing deliberations, the Guatemalan army agreed to accept Armas as the country's new president.
Muddled thinking about security and the doctrine of plausible denial was evident. PBSUCCESS, the ramshackle covert action that overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, was supposed to be deniable by the US Government; but Tracy Barnes was so intent on getting the operation going that he disregarded basic security considerations in recruiting and establishing cover for the aircrews involved. The American public was not the target of the effort to maintain plausible denial but, given the cooperation of the US press, may have accepted the fiction that the US Government was not involved. The news accounts of the coup did not mention the Agency's role, althoughit was later alluded to in a column written by James Reston of the New York Times.
Even without confirmation in the press, however, it is likely that many in Congress suspected CIA's involvement and that its subcommitteeswere told. Although he did not have a specific recollection, CIA Legislative Counsel Pforzheimer said years later he was "sure the committees were informed [of the Guatemalan operation]" and there would have been "no holding back on details." DCI Dulles had earlier informed key members that Arbenz had purchased Soviet-made military equipment from Czechoslovakia. This had led to resolutions being passed overwhelmingly in each House condemning the action and urging action by the administration to deal with it. In private channels, the pressure coming from key legislators to do something about Arbenz was even stronger. Thus, when the coup actually occurred, it would have been natural for the Agency to tell its subcommittees what had happened, but no documentary evidence of such briefings exists. However it is thoroughly implausible that the subcommittees did not know something aboutwhat was happening there, given the congressional interest in Guatemala atthe time.
The widespread Yankee-Go-Home riots across Latin America in the week that Arbenz fell make it evident that, where it counted, plausible denial had not worked. As a reward for his prominent part in PBSUCCESS, Tracy Barnes was appointed chief of station/Germany, an ominous precedent for the service.
In early 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower gave his approval to a CIA-sponsored project to train Cuban exiles for the purpose: of overthrowing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Guatemalan President, Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, permitted the CIA to use his country for its training camp. In November 1960 a rebellion broke out in Guatemala against President Ydigoras. Because of his assistance to the CIA to that point the agency secretly came to his aid, sending its 8-26 bombers against the rebels. The insurgency was crushed and Ydigoras kept in power.
The CIA coup restored the country’s normal order that favors the economic and military interest of the dominant sectors of Guatemala and the US. It is an order kept in place through corruption, impunity and repression. In 1999, the United Nations’ Truth Commission report concluded that government repression was so calculated and widespread in certain Mayan regions of the country it amounted to genocide. Given the attention received by the Truth Commission report, U.S. President Bill Clinton was obliged to apologize: “For the United States, it is important that I clearly state that support for [Guatemalan] military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong. The United States must not repeat that mistake.”
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