By: Daniel Nardini
In a special ceremony held in Guatemala City, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom formally and officially apologized to the family of former President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman for the overthrow of his government in 1954. This effort by the Guatemalan government to end this terrible and dark episode of its country’s history is welcomed. Former Guatemalan Presidernt Arbenz was democratically elected in 1951. A reformer, Arbenz wanted to help Guatemala’s peasantry by distributing land to them that was not in use. Today such a effort would be considered a noble act.
Sadly, Guatemala became caught up in the politics of the Cold War and the fight against Communism. Most of the land that Arbenz wanted to give to the peasantry was owned by the Delmonte Fruit Company. Whether the lands were in use or not the company made it very clear they did not want it to go to Guatemala’s people. Arbenz was willing to pay for the land, but this was unacceptable to the fruit company. At the same time the Guatemalan military was not happy with Arbenz’s policiy to reform it. Arbenz wanted to create a professional police force as in the case of Costa Rica, and abolish the army. All of this started to mount for what would become the perfect political storm.
Delmonte, the U.S. government, and the Guatemalan military all conspired to overthrow Arbenz. The U.S. government used the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to neutralize any opposition to the Guatemalan military, and the military proceeded with a coup against Arbenz. Arbenz was forced into exile to Mexico where he eventually died in 1971. The Guatemalan military installed Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas as Guatemala’s new president. His rule proved to be so brutal that he was assassinated by his own palace guard in 1957. Castillo’s rule became one of the low points in the history of Guatemala, and from there Guatemala was to be plagued by 40 years of civil war, repression, military dictatorships and genocide.
In 1999, then U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized in Guatemala City for the U.S. government aiding and abetting the military dictatorships that ruled Guatemala, and for U.S. policies that led to the death of so many tens of thousands of innocent Guatemalans. The formal apology by the Guatemalan government for what happened in 1954 is the last nail in the coffin against the dictatorships and forces of that era. Let us hope that there will never be another era like that again in Guatemala.