The US takes over Guatemala, as democracy slips over a banana peel.
The lid is on again in Guatemala. The ousting of President Arbenz and his replacement by Castillo Armas accomplished that at any rate. United Fruit has a nice new contract, agrarian reform has been stopped in its tracks, and the big landowners are happily cutting wages again.
Yes, the lid is on again; but if reform has to come by violence for want of legislation, God help the few hundred ladinos and foreigners who are squatting on top. The Communists no doubt figured prominently in the efforts of the Arbenz government to modify the existing economic inequalities, but that does not make the inequalities tolerable. Calling the Arbenz regime Communist-controlled was pure McCarthyism. By initiating agrarian reform in a country where 2 percent of the people owned 70 percent of the land, by encouraging workers to join labor unions and by furthering public education for a population two-thirds illiterate, Arbenz and his predecessor, Arevalo, had aroused the implacable opposition of Guatemala’s feudal aristocracy — army leaders, churchmen, and landowners.
Deep down everyone in Guatemala knows that communism was not the issue. Feudalism was the issue, and those who profited from feudalism won. Guatemala did have some tough, intelligent, well-disciplined Communists in posts of power and influence. The country reeks of poverty, and the stench of it drew them like buzzards. But they were a mere handful. Our State Department could find none in the Arbenz Cabinet.
Possibly some Communists had the ear of President Arbenz. The President of Guatemala has to have an ear like a switchboard operator, but it is the line to the army that he always keeps open. No Guatemalan President lasts very long if he lets himself get cut off from the army. Colonel Arbenz had good contacts, for a while, until the State Department got busy. Then the army would neither fight for him nor allow his followers to have arms.
His allegedly tremendous Communist backing proved to be a myth. So when the army told him he was through, Arbenz stepped aside.
How well the Arbenz administration did for itself is still unclear. There was undoubtedly graft; there has always been graft, south and north of the Rio Grande. But when Castillo took over, Guatemala was not only well along on a vast public-works program but had some $40,000,000 in gold to its credit. There can be no question that under Arbenz the country was making real progress toward democracy. The administration’s main projects — land reform, the highway to the Atlantic, public port facilities at San Tomas, and public-power development — had all been suggested by either the World Bank or the United Nations. Land reform was needed to free the people from domestic tyranny; the highway program and the rest to free them from foreign monopolies.
Fortunately for Guatemala, Castillo Armas seems honest and conscientious. But to picture him as the Guatemalan St. George who rid his country of the Communist dragon is ludicrous. Any study of the “liberation” shows there was no dragon, and the new government’s acts show it is headed by no St. George. Like most of Washington’s friends in Latin America, Castillo rules by force, without a congress or a constitution — although a constitution is being written. Stability is the watchword these days.