Most historians and political scientists writing in English about Guatemalan affairs in the three decades since the overthrow of President Arbenz peg the start of the country's civil strife to that event. Others, of course, differ, dating the start of the violence earlier—the Arana assassination in 1949—or later, the outbreak of guerrilla warfare in the 1960s. Political bias is often the determining factor. Much has been written about the communist threat present during the Arbenz era; that threat was real and cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Nevertheless, many observers with the benefit of hindsight have agreed that a multitude of social problems posed a far graver danger to the country in 1954 than did the communists and that the problems faced in fact provided the opening for the communists. To some Guatemalans, as well as some outsiders aware of Guatemalan affairs, Arbenz was an out-and-out communist who deserved the fate that befell him. To others he was a benefactor, a reformer who was trying to do something to break down the country's grossly inequitable economic system and to right some of its many social wrongs. Wherever he should be placed between the extremes, Arbenz nevertheless was the legally elected president; he was overthrown when the army withheld its support and a ragtag army that had been formed by, and was operating with, the assistance of the United States was able to enter Guatemala City unopposed.
The 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.
Arbenz was only the second freely elected president in Guatemala. Dubbed "the Soldier of the People", he had promised to redistribute land to impoverished indigenous communities much to the ire of massive US agricultural investors in the country. 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.
To his supporters, generally the propertied classes, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was a liberator who rid the country of the communist threat represented by Arbenz. To his opponents, generally poor peasants and laborers, he was a tyrant who reversed the social and economic programs that had benefited the working people. The new president was accused of using his security forces to purge the government of even the most minor officials and petty bureaucrats of the previous regime and to harass and frighten any leftist sympathizers. The campaign continued under the guise of uncovering communists and, before falling to an assassin's bullets in 1957, Castillo Armas had set the dangerous precedent ol pinning the communist label on anyone who opposed him or who engaged in even mild criticism of the government.
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).
Arbenz, a former left-wing leader, was exiled on charges of being a communist. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Arbenz flew to Havana in July 1960, and, caught up in the spirit of the recent revolution, began to participate in public events. In 1965 Árbenz participated in the Communist Congress in Helsinki. Arbenz died in exile in Mexico in 1971. His remains were not repatriated until 1995.
The Guatemalan president, Alvaro Colom, issued an official apology to the family of the former president Jacobo Arbenz, 57 years after a US-backed coup violently removed him from power. Colom, who apologised under a settlement worked out with Arbenz's family by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said on 21 October 2011 the coup was a "crime [against] the Guatemalan society committed by the CIA and Guatemalans with bad intentions".
Speaking during a ceremony at the former government headquarters, in the presence of Jacobo Arbenz Vilanova, the only surviving son of the former president, Colom said: "As head of state, as constitutional president of the republic and as the military's commander in chief, I hereby wish to request the forgiveness of the Arbenz Vilanova family for this great crime. "It was above all a crime against him, his wife, his family, but also a historic crime for Guatemala. This day changed Guatemala and we still haven't recovered."
Among the new measures announced by Colom's leftist government is the redrafting of school textbooks to add a retelling of Arbenz's legacy to the country and the renaming of a national highway in his honor.