Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
this webpage last updated February 7, 2011
1. In 1954, in "Operation PB-Success," the US assisted in bringing down an elected leftist government, led by Col. Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz had been supported by many parties, including the Guatemalan Workers' Party (PGT), a communist party. After he was overthrown, a series of generals (primarily) ruled until 1986. The overthrow of Arbenz has produced much scholarship (see the sourcelist at the bottom of this page).
2. In 1960, dissent within the Guatemalan Army over the presence of anti-Communist Cuban exiles training in Guatemala (and other grievances) led to a failed uprising by young officers. This group started a guerrilla war against the bulk of the Army. They soon were joined by communists (i.e., the then banned PGT) and other rebels, and called themselves the Rebel Armed Forces or FAR. This group and others fought against the Guatemalan Army, 1960-96, the longest of the wars in Central America. In 1963, the US supported a military coup to prevent the return to power via elections of Juan Jose Arevalo, a leftist ex-President who had ruled 1945-50.
3. First Guerrilla War. In the late 1960s, the US aided in a successful counterinsurgency war against this movement. In response, the US Ambassador to Guatemala, and the head of the US MAP program there were assassinated by the guerrillas. While this was a bitter struggle, it was geographically concentrated in Eastern Guatemala, and involved (principally) Spanish speaking Guatemalans, not Indians (who compose the poorest among the population and number fully 1/2 of the national census). Two methods of CI war used in the first Guatemalan CI war were paramilitary auxiliaries and pacification (modeled on Vietnam).
a. In Guatemala, paramilitary auxiliaries were organized by right wing anti-communist political parties (i.e., the National Liberation Movement or MLN) and were (and are) called "death squads." US Special Forces, according to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, organized and trained these groups. Two methods used by the "death squads" ran parallel to the tactics of guerrillas: assassination and kidnappings (or "disappearances") of leftist sympathizers. Death Squads, however, did not ransom their abductees, but tortured and killed them.
b. Pacification, as it was applied in rural Eastern Guatemala in 1966-69, involved both civic action (infrastructural development) by the Army --supported by the US-- and repression. Massacres of civilians suspected of supporting the guerrillas, however, appear to have been an original tactic developed by the Guatemalan Army. By 1970, the guerrillas had been virtually wiped out. At this point, the leading officer in the campaign (Col. Carlos Arana Osario) became President. "Disappearances" and assassinations continued.
4. In the 1970s, various forms of openly-organized, grass-roots reform activities began to surface: unions, farmers' cooperatives, and self-help projects of Roman Catholic "base communities" were especially effective in challenging the economic priorities of the Army and the powerful export farming and industrial interests. Violence against these groups was intermittent under military president Gen. Kjell Lagerud.
5. Second guerrilla war. In the mid 1970s, there was a sharp upturn in violence directed at reform groups. By June 1978, the military president (Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia) appears to have authorized a second major wave of repression. Priests, Catholic catechists, union leaders, cooperatives' leaders, university leaders and others began to be targeted. Given hardly any legal protest avenues, the dormant guerrilla movement again began to grow. However, in this second guerrilla war large numbers of poor Indians joined the guerrillas and the rebels were found in much larger areas of the country. The state responded with repression, but unlike the first wave of Guatemalan state terrorism, the US was not even indirectly involved in this campaign.
a. US military aid was cut off by Presidential action, 1977-80; Congress refused to consent to a Presidential request to resume military training in 1980. In 1982, four guerrilla factions formed themselves into the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, URNG.
b. The US Congress rebuffed all Presidential military aid requests, 1981-84. The reasons for this reluctance to get involved grew from the excessive tactics of the Guatemalan Army. Nearly 40,000 Guatemalans were "disappeared," approximately 100,000 were killed, and at one point in the mid 1980s, over one million (of eight million total) Guatemalans were refugees.
c. US aid also was made difficult since the Reagan Administration frequently proclaimed its "ideological" commitment to a foreign policy designed to promote democracy. But, in Guatemala there were only military presidents, and unconstitutional military coups d'etat in 1982 (by Gen. Rios Montt) and in 1983 (by General Mejia Victores) overturned even these military governments.
d. Thus, in the case of aid to Guatemala, Congress and President Reagan could find some common ground upon which to compromise. US Military aid was conditioned on prior return to civilian government. In 1984-86, steps were taken to elect a constituent assembly (1984) and general elections for President and Congress were held late in 1985. After two rounds of Presidential balloting (i.e., using the French model), return to civilian administration occurred in January 1986.
6. Democratization. The civilian government of Vinicio Cerezo, a Christian Democrat administration that declared itself committed to change, served its full term 1986-90, and received substantial US economic aid and a small amount of military aid. Negotiations with the URNG guerrillas began in October 1987, but failed to end the war. In its final two years of rule, several unsuccessful military uprisings caused Cerezo to back away from earlier reform programs.
7. A Christian fundamentalist civilian, Jorge Serrano, won the presidency in 1990, with 68% of the second ballots (up from 24% in the first round). His candidacy was not closely linked to the larger established parties, and his supporters secured only 15% of the Congressional seats then elected. Opposition to his government was substantial from the beginning. U.S military aid again was cut off in 1990 after Pres. Serrano proved unable to resolve several cases involving gross human rights violations against US citizens in Guatemala. Indian advocates, especially Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, brought attention to Guatemala's problems. Serrano was removed from office (June 1993) after he attempted to suspend the constitution and impose a military-dominated government.
8. A transitional administration headed by Ramiro de Leon Carpio, formerly chief human rights investigator, restarted negotiations with the URNG guerrillas, but made little progress on other fronts. Peace negotiations annoyed rightist factions: in a legislative election August 14, 1994, a party, the FRG (Guatemalan Republican Front), led by former dictator Gen. Rios Montt won 32 of 80 Congressional seats. Human rights violations continued, though at a much diminished level compared to the 1980s. The US continued to press for further democratization, improvements in state protection of citizens' human rights, and for resolution of several cases involving killings of Americans or their Guatemalan spouses. All US military training was terminated in March 1995.
9. Peace Process: In late July 1994, government peace negotiations with the URNG in Oslo produced two agreements, one on repatriation of refugees, the other establishing a "Truth Commission" to formally delineate the extent of human rights violations, 1954-95. After civilian Alvaro Arz˙ Irigoyen was elected President and took office (January 1996), further progress toward peace was made. In December 1996, the Arz˙ government signed a final peace agreement with the URNG. In July 1996, a 100+ page report on CIA and DoD activity in Guatemala was issued by the Intelligence Oversight Board, appointed by Pres. Clinton; it detailed ties between CIA operatives and some of the murders of Americans.
10. A February 1999 U.N. study, conducted as part of the official peace agreement, "Guatemala: Memory of Silence," found 626 separate massacres of whole villages, and 200,000 persons overall to have been killed in "genocide" conducted against the indigenous by the Guatemalan Army, and found that 93 percent of the killing of 42,000 civilians had been done by the Guatemalan Army and its allies.
11. Pres. Clinton on March 10, 1999 formally apologized for the U.S. role in Guatemala.
12. In January 2000, Alfonso Portillo was inaugurated as Guatemalan President, completing his term in January 2004. This was the first time that two consecutive elected civilian presidents served out their entire elected terms.
13. In January 2004, Oscar Berger was inaugurated as Guatemalan President, having been elected in a two round balloting in November - December 2003. He defeated Alvaro Colom. Berger had been mayor of Guatemala City, 1990-99, and is identified as a conservative. On February 13, 2004, he appointed Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu to his Cabinet, where she has continued to serve as "goodwill ambassador to the (1996) peace accords."
14. In January 2008, Alvaro Colom was sworn in as President, having defeated Otto Perez Molina, 53-47, in a run-off election. In the first round, indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu received 3% of the vote, in which more than a dozen other candidates competed.
Students wishing to research Guatemalan politics, and U.S. relations with Guatemala can find abundant high quality resources on the internet. They include:
- The CIA's official history of Operation PBSUCCESS: Nicholas Cullather, "Operations PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952-54," (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency: History Staff of the Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1994): classification: Secret; declassified sanitized 1997; http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB4/cia-guatemala5_a.html
- Additional Documents on the 1954 overthrow of Arbenz, and related materials, declassified and released in 1997 by the CIA and made available by the National Security Archives. Includes an assassination manual, apparently of U.S. authorship.
- Documents on U.S. policy, 1966-96. Thirty-two separate declassified reports and documents, assembled and introduced by Kate Doyle and Carlos Osorio of the National Security Archives a private Washington DC based organization. Interpretive essays by the editors also are provided as part of this June 2000 report.
- Materials obtained from Guatemalan Government files, documenting the fate of detainees at the hands of the Guatemalan military and intelligence agencies in the mid-1980s form one of the collections at the National Security Archives, a private Washington DC based organization. These are actual photos and files of about 175 abducted individuals; in Spanish.
-"Guatemala: Memory of Silence": official report documenting human rights abuses in the Guatemalan war, 1960-96.
Appendix: Guatemalan Policy and the Decline in effectiveness of U.S. Intelligence Agencies
One effect of revelations about U.S. Guatemalan policy was that, in the Clinton years, a serious "scrubbing" clean of the list of the people with whom U.S. intelligence could work occurred, after 1995-96. This distanced U.S. intelligence from unsavory elements in Guatemala, but as a general policy it made more difficult the CIA's task of penetrating dangerous terrorist groups worldwide, particularly Al Qaeda. As a result of the Guatemala revelations, CIA's contacts were ordered severed with any intelligence asset who had a record of human rights violations, or who was suspected of involvement in criminal activities. Two cases from Guatemala stimulated this new policy, as did leaking of the CIA's internal investigations into the matter by then U.S. Senator Torricelli (D-NJ). The two cases are the murder cases from 1990-92 of:
- Everado Bamaca, a Guatemalan and spouse of U.S. citizen Jennifer Harbury. Her account is chronicled in Searching for Everado (Warner Books, 1997).
- Michael Devine, a hotel owner in El Peten department, Guatemala, and a U.S. citizen.
The CIA asset named in the inquiry into these two cases was Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez. Documents from the DIA discuss Alpirez at: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB11/docs/31-01.htm
This is part of a large collection of declassified materials about the CIA in Guatemala which is found at the National Security Archive: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB11/docs/
The State Department's public chronicle of this is found in its larger presentation about human rights violations in Guatemala in the decade preceding: http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu/ERC/bureaus/lat/1996/960503GuatemalaHumanRights.html
The scandal which led to the change in CIA regulations can easily be found in the press or on the web by use of any of the principals' surnames.
sources on the main timeline:
Recent publications on Guatemala by Professor Gordon L. Bowen (author of this website):
"U.S. Invasion of Guatemala," The Fifties in America (Pasadena CA: Salem Press, 2005).
"Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians" in Human Rights Violations, Charles F. Bahmueller, editor (Pasadena CA: Salem Press, 2003): 548-554.
"Guatemala Takes Steps Toward Peace" in Great Events: 1900-2001 revised edition, v. 7 (Pasadena CA: Salem Press, 2002): 2577-2579.
"Guatemalan Death Squads Target Indigenous Indians" in Great Events: 1900-2001 revised edition, v. 5 (Pasadena CA: Salem Press, 2002): 1911-1913.
Other Other publications by Prof. Bowen on Guatemalan politics and U.S. foreign policy toward Guatemala:
- "Guatemala," in World Conflicts and Confrontations, Charles F. Bahmueller, editor (Pasadena CA: Salem Press, 1999): 130-139.
- "Indigenous Indians Become the Target of Guatemalan Death Squads," in Great Events from History II: Human Rights, ed. Frank N. Magill (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1993): 1972-1977.
- "U.S. Approaches to Guatemalan State Terrorism, 1977-1986," in Terrible Beyond Endurance? The Foreign Policy of State Terrorism, ed. Michael Stohl (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988): 119-163.
- "Prospects for Liberalization by way of Democratization in Guatemala," in Liberalization and Redemocratization in Latin America, ed. George Lopez (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987): 33-56.
- "No Roadblocks to Death: Guatemala's War Against the Church," Commonweal CXI, no. 12 (June 15, 1984): 361-364.
- "Guatemala: A New Form of Totalitarianism?" Commonweal CXI, no. 3 (February 10, 1984): 76-78.
- "United States Policy Toward Guatemala, 1954-1963," Armed Forces and Society X, no. 2 (Winter 1984): 165-191.
- "Guatemala: The Origins and Development of State Terrorism," in Revolution and Counterrevolution in Central America and the Caribbean, eds. Donald Schulz and Douglas Graham (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984): 269-300.
- "American Foreign Policy Toward Radical Change: Covert Operations in Guatemala, 1950-1954," Latin American Perspectives X, no. 1 (Winter 1983): 88-102.
Significant works by other authors:
- Richard Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Interventionism (Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 1982).
- Susanne Jonas, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala's Peace Process (Boulder CO: Westview, 2000).
- Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala expanded edition (Cambridge MA: Harvard U.P., 1999).
this webpage last updated February 7, 2011
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