Communism and Calumny: Arbenz and Allende

In the 21st century, political transitions are often equated with an “opening up” process and the consolidation of democracy. However, such a connotation does not hold in the case of Latin America, where democracies have been violently undermined in favor of dictatorships. In point of fact, it is not accurate to describe such events as transitions, as few of the forces that led to change were organic. Political change in Latin America has historically been more synonymous with ‘regime change’ than with the ballot box. Since the 1823 proclamation by President James Monroe that the United States would protect its interests in Latin America, Uncle Sam has at times openly but more often surreptitiously interfered in the internal affairs of Latin America. While preaching the chorus of democracy, the United States has done everything possible to undermine the institution. Nowhere is this core contradiction of U.S. foreign policy more understood than in barrios of Guatemala City and Santiago de Chile.

There has been no simpler yet deadlier tool in the American arsenal than the trumped-up accusation of communism. The two most pronounced extensions of this Cold War paradigm can be found in the 1954 overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman and the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende Gossens. Both leaders were strong social democrats whose goals were to make their societies more just and equitable. While President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy rejected the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S.’s involvement in Guatemala and Chile was anything but neighborly and perhaps more importantly, led to the Guatemalan Civil War and the repressive rule of Augusto Pinochet.

In 1944, Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico was forced to resign in the face of dissatisfaction with his regime. The Junta that replaced Ubico was itself subsequently overthrown because it was unwilling to change the trajectory of Guatemalan politics. Young officers Francisco Arana, Jacobo Arbenz and Guillermo Toriello along with the strong civilian opposition wrestled control away from the multinational corporations and were poised to make Guatemala more than another banana republic, literally. They not only promised democracy, they made it a reality. Between 1944 and 1954, Guatemala experienced, first under intellectual Juan José Arévalo and than under Arbenz, “years of spring in the land of eternal tyranny”. Both “democratic spring” leaders sought to take the chains of dependency off of the Guatemalan people. The most pronounced change came under Arbenz, who was elected in 1951 with a popular mandate of almost 65 percent. Arbenz initiated the Agrarian Reform Law of 1952, which challenged the iniquitous agrarian system first established by the Spanish in 1524. The agrarian redistribution nationalized uncultivated land and gave it to an estimated 100,000 poor Guatemalan families.

Arbenz’s actions were not only seen as a political threat to the United States, but also as a challenge the feudal hegemony of United Fruit Company, than the largest land owner in the country. American foreign policy had changed dramatically with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as two Cold War warriors emerged to take prominent positions within the new administration. John Foster Dulles replaced the more moderate Dean Acheson as Secretary of State and his older brother, Allen Dulles became the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Both men were profoundly anticommunist and used the CIA as an active instrument of foreign policy, by undermining and even overthrowing leftist governments. Their first successful overthrow was against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran, who was accused of being sympathetic to communists and giving too much power to the Tudeh party. In truth, Mossadegh was a strong nationalist and was no more a communist tool of the Soviets than he was a functionary of the British. The United States was unwilling to allow another Mossadegh to rise in Latin America and as historian Stephen Rabe asserts, Secretary of State Dulles sought to expand “the Monroe Doctrine to include outlawing foreign ideologies in the American Republics.”

When Arbenz moved to take large segments of land from United Fruit Company, the company demanded greater compensation. Arbenz’s offered $1,185,000 while United Fruit sought $15.6 million. Arbenz, however, was not just being frugal. The amount Arbenz was willing to pay was exactly how much United Fruit had claimed the land was worth on their tax documents. In short, Arbenz was asking for the exact same amount the company had argued its property was worth. The fact that Arbenz was not willing to meet United Fruit’s outrageous demand was the impetus for the plan to overthrow him. Operation PBSUCCESS was carried out because his land reform initiative would hurt United Fruit Company, a company in which Secretary of State Dulles had a vested interest.

However, in order for the United States to overthrow Arbenz, it would have to orchestrate a large propaganda machine, which aimed to link Arbenz to international communism. The job was made easy when in May 1954; Swedish freighter Alfhem was caught delivering Czechoslovakian arms to Guatemala. The CIA had been tipped off in Poland and when the ship arrived at the port of Puerto Barrios, U.S. officials used the case as a pretext for their operations. As Jon Lee Anderson asserts, the Alfhem provided Washington with the “evidence of Soviet-bloc involvement in Guatemala that it so badly needed.” In truth, of course, Arbenz has asked the United States for arms and not only had the U.S. rebuffed the plea; it forced its European allies to not sell weapons to Guatemala. Seen from this perspective, Arbenz was buying weapons from the only place that was willing to sell them. However, the United States government used this case to argue that Arbenz was stocking up weaponry in order to invade one of its neighbors and implement communism their.

The United States moved to stop what it saw as Guatemalan belligerence and signed mutual security treaties with Juan Manuel Gálvez of Honduras and Anastasio Somoza García of Nicaragua. While the United States aimed to arm its neighbors for defensive purposes, most of the arms were destined for Castillo Armas. The United States even prevented Guatemala from pursuing diplomatic avenues. The ouster of Arbenz showed to the Latin American left, parts of the center and even segments of the right, that the United States’ endorsement of democracy meant little when its economic interests were challenged by a progressive government. The United States was simply protecting its foreign corporations, or so that is how the dominant discourse is played out. While one cannot deny the certain fact that the decision to redistribute land played a prominent role in the campaign to oust Arbenz, one should take heed at the words of one of Arbenz’s closest friends, who said “They would have overthrown us even if we had no bananas.” In overthrowing Arbenz, the U.S. allowed far-right reaction forces to emerge. Afterwards, the U.S. began Operation PBHISTORY, a propaganda campaign that sought to link Arbenz with Communists. Although many documents were presented that allegedly showed that Arbenz was getting support from abroad, independent research by Ronold M. Schnedier, who used PBHISTORY documents for his book Communist in Guatemala, 1944-1954, “found no traces of Soviet control and substantial evidence that Guatemalan Communists acted alone, without support or guidance from outside the country”. In the historical perspective, the campaign and overthrow Arbenz was not only the most important event in Guatemalan history, but quite possibly one of the most important events in Latin American history.

After Arbenz’s ouster, prominent Chilean Socialist leader Oscar Waiss remarked that “It is certain that [the United States] has lost more than it gained. It gained a lot of kilometers of territory, it recovered a lot of hectares of bananas ….But it has lost forever the friendship of the peoples of Latin America and the possibility of being considered …as a ‘good neighbor. ‘…Latin Americans will not forget Guatemala so easily.” Indeed, U.S. intervention in the internal politics of Guatemala would have terrible consequences for American-Chilean relations. As the moment of intervention was fast approaching, several members from Chile’s Chamber of Deputies united in solidarity with Guatemala. Calling themselves “Friends of Guatemala”, these politicians expressed their support for Arbenz. Prominent among them was Salvador Allende, the Socialist senator from the northern provinces of Antofagasta and Tarapacá. In fact, as historian Mark Hove asserts, before the 1954 coup against Arbenz, Allende had considerable power and prestige within his party but had no national appeal.

Nothing in Allende’s demeanor, however, suggested that he had hostility towards the United States, and in fact, the U.S. preferred Allende to Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, who was not trusted for his Peronist sympathies. However, the plot against Arbenz forced Allende to adopt a more anti-American position. In Allende’s view, U.S. propaganda gave “the impression that the mountains of [our] countries are infested with communists, that our coasts are full of communist ships, that the small country of Guatemala threatens the existence of the largest of the bourgeois countries. Like David and Goliath. But Guatemala does not have a sling. Its only sling is showing the road to follow for introducing progress and liberty into the nations of America.”

Most Chileans, like Allende, were against U.S. involvement in Guatemala and when Castillo Armas invaded in June, protesters congregated in the Plaza de Armas, the central square of Santiago, to condemn the action. At the rally, a group of protesters burned a U.S. flag and this incident, above all else, would lead to Allende’s ouster in 1973. When the American people saw the burnt flag in the newspaper, they were convinced that Communists had taken considerable control in Chile. In coming weeks and months, Chileans from throughout the political spectrum adopted a more anti-American position because they could visibly see that “the United States had proclaimed that it promoted and defended democracy against a totalitarian Soviet Union; meanwhile, it actively undermined and overthrew a democratically elected Latin American president.” In his new anti-imperial role, Allende rose to political prominence.

Unlike Guatemala before Arbenz, Chile was a model democracy. However, it too would face the same fate, as the threat of communism was apparently so pronounced that the U.S. overthrew one of the most stable governments in the world and replaced it with a repressive dictatorship. Allende and his predecessor Frei, were interested in making ‘Chileans the active subjects of their own history, rather than being passive objects beneath externally generated forces.’ For the United States however, such independence was a threat. In his third bid for president, Salvador Allende won the 1970 elections with 36.2 percent of the vote. However, weeks after Allende was elected, President Richard Nixon told the CIA that ‘an Allende regime in Chile would not be acceptable’ and that the U.S. would do what it could to destabilize his administration if they came to power. In point of fact, Nixon’s main weapon was to ‘make the economy scream.”

On September 11th, 1973, Allende was overthrown in a violent campaign that included the bombing of the presidential palace. Allende was no match for the joint CIA-Pinochet plot and whereas ‘Pinochet had control of the army, navy, marines and police…Allende had refused to organize his supporters into armed defense leagues.” The 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende was remarkably similar to that of Arbenz. The accusation, of course, was that he was a communist. Indeed, Allende was an open Marxist, but he was also an avowed social democrat. Whereas Arbenz ouster eventually led the country into a civil war, Allende’s ouster allowed for the implementation of a new economic plan that had been formulated by Milton Friedman. Chile under Pinochet became the laboratory for the new policies of neoliberalism, which was composed of what Naomi Klein calls the ‘free market trinity’, namely cuts in social spending, deregulation and most importantly, privatization. As would be later revealed in a U.S. Senate Committee, “CIA collaborators were involved in preparing an initial overall economic plan which has served as the basis for the Junta’s most important economic decisions. Whereas United Fruit played an instrumental role in Arbenz’s ouster, another U.S. multinational firm, the International Telephone and Telegraph Company played a prominent role in Allende’s ouster.

Arbenz and Allende were both victims of a finely orchestrated campaign of calumny and both democratically elected governments were overthrown because their policies ran counter to the policies of the United States. Whereas Arbenz was ousted because he posed a threat to U.S. hegemony in Guatemala, Allende was overthrown in order to impose U.S. hegemony in Chile. Certainly, no American company had as much stake in Chile as United Fruit had in Guatemala, but the neoliberal policies instituted in Chile served to nevertheless impose the monetary hegemony of the World Bank, IMF and U.S. Treasury on Chile. Both coups served the same function, namely, to increase the power of the United States vis-à-vis its neighbors. Interestingly, the campaign against Arbenz served as one of the main drivers for Allende to take the anti-imperial position that ultimately led to his demise .

In today’s political economy, people often lament that Latin American democracies are insufficiently democratic. The prognosis often is that Latin America has a history of personalistic rule and people generally favor clientalist systems. Perhaps the democratic deficit in Latin America can be partly explained by what happened Arbenz and Allende. Latin American leaders and populations have learned that to institute revolutionary social change is an impossible task, at least within a ‘liberal democracy’. The young Che Guevera learned this fact when he was in Guatemala in 1954 and today’s revolutionary leaders are wise to not allow too much ‘democracy’ into their system.


Gleijeses, Piero. Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954. Princeton,N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Pg. 3

Saxon, Dan. To Save Her Life : Disappearance, Deliverance, and the United States in Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. pg. 14

Hove, Mark T. “The Arbenz Factor: Salvador Allende, U.S.-Chilean Relations, and the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala.” Diplomatic History Vol. 31.No. 4 (2007): Pg. 630

Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara : A Revolutionary Life . New York: Grove Press, 1998 pg. 144

Jon Lee Anderson writes : “The United States was engaged in a blocking maneuver to thwart Guatemala’s request for a special session of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis. The acting council president for June was U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who went to battle with UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld over the affair. Lodge finally agreed to convene a session on June 25, by which the new bombers had wreaked their havoc, allowing Castillo Armas’ forces to regroup and launch new assaults.” Anderson goes on “Ambassador Lodge was busily lobbying other council members to vote against Guatemala’s request for a UN investigative team to be sent to Guatemala. Particular pressure was put on Britain and France, with Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles leaning on visiting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Washington. Their message was that if London and Paris didn’t go along with the Americans on Guatemala, U.S. help would not be forthcoming in dealing with their own problems in Cyprus, Indochina, and the Suez. When the Security Council vote was taken on June 25, the United States scored a narrow victory, a 5-5 vote against a UN inquiry, with Britain and France abstaining. Guatemala was on her own.” Pg. 149-15

Gleijeses writes “In the early summer of 1954, several American newspapers had demanded that Arbenz not be replaced by a regime of the far right. The New York Times had intoned, “We have a right to expect…that revolts against tyranny of the Left shall not bring in a tyranny of the Right.” Many U.S. officials had also expressed the hope that the new regime would not be embarrassingly reactionary.” However, “There was no way, however, that the United States could have replaced Arbenz with a centrist, moderate government-even if it had truly wanted to-for the center and the moderates had supported Arbenz. The only Guatemalans who had been easier to overthrow him, and the only Guatemalans who were not tainted by collaboration with his regime, were those who bitterly opposed social reform. To oust Arbenz was to return them to power.” Pg. 381

Cullather, Nick. Secret History : the CIA. 2nd ed. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2006.
Feinberg, Richard E.. “Dependency and the Defeat of Allende.” Latin American Perspectives 1. No. 2 (1974): pg. 30

Schmitz, David F.. The United States and Right-wing Dictatorships, 1965-1989. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. pg. 96

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007. pg. 75


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Great post! Guatemala was at its best when Arbenz was president. It is sad to know that the hunger of United States of America for money has ruin its reputation. All I can wish for is for one day for Latin America to come together and fight against all the exploitation/imperalism/capitalism of the US.

Comment by heidygm

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