U.S. needs to atone for CIA coup in Guatemala

Now that the Guatemalan government is coming clean on the 1954 coup there, the Obama administration should follow suit.

Fifty-seven years ago, the United States ensured a legacy of military intervention, human rights abuses and economic instability in Guatemala when the CIA ousted Jacobo Arbenz, that country’s democratically elected president.

On May 19, the Guatemalan government acknowledged its own wrongdoing and agreed to pay reparations to Arbenz’s family. Now it is time for President Obama to make good on his promise of ushering in a new day for U.S.-Latin American relations by owning up to our responsibility for undermining Guatemalan democracy. And the U.S. corporations that instigated the coup ought to pay reparations not only to the Arbenz family but also to the entire country of Guatemala.

Arbenz wanted to bring democracy to Guatemala, modernize the state, expand and strengthen the middle class and implement land reform to alleviate deep inequality. A small, white landholding elite ruled over an impoverished, mostly indigenous population. When Arbenz was elected president, 2 percent of the population owned 70 percent of the country’s land.

United Fruit (today’s Del Monte) was Guatemala's largest landowner. U.S. companies also owned major electrical utilities, the only railroad and the banana industry, the country’s major source of revenue.

The U.S. government, at the urging of United Fruit and with the backing of the Guatemalan elite, instigated Arbenz’s ouster. The ensuing military government frustrated Guatemalans’ desire for democracy and economic development, setting the stage for a bloody, 36-year civil war in which more than 200,000 people were killed — the vast majority at the hands of the military. The U.S. government armed and trained that military, despite its rampant human rights abuses.

With its gesture toward the Arbenz family, the Guatemalan government has taken an important step toward setting the historical record straight. A similar gesture from the U.S. government and Del Monte is long overdue.

Ana Perez is the executive director of the Central American Resources Center (CARECEN) in San Francisco and the president of the Salvadoran American National Network (SANN). She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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