The Cold War between the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia on one side and the Soviet Union and its satellites and allies on the other side left little of the world untouched by the intrigues and military maneuvers each side directed against the other. Much of the developing world, especially in Africa and Latin America, but also in Southeast Asia, became the sight of Cold War-era rivalries between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. that were played out on the local stages, with American and Soviet-Bloc officials acting behind the scenes to gain advantage and, occasionally, acting overtly with military forces to decisively eliminate the other side’s allies. Guatemala could be considered a microcosm of these regional ideological confrontations that usually left enormous suffering in their wakes.
As with the rest of Latin America, Guatemala’s history is one of sublimation of native peoples at the hands of wealthier and more powerful outside forces. Native Guatemalans, especially the Mayans, were historically subjected to policies and practices by European, especially Spanish and German, migrations that marginalized the indigenous populations. These demographic transitions placed the countries of Latin America in a perpetual state of conflict between native peoples and the heirs to the European settlers, mainly the Spanish, that saw the establishment of permanent divisions between native poor and colonial wealthy. As the latter usurped more and more of the lands traditionally farmed by the indigenous populations, the native tribes were increasingly marginalized and destined to live on the fringes of the societies built on their ancestral homes.
It is in this context that Jacobo Arbenz Guzman rose to power in Guatemala. A colonel in the Guatemalan Army, Arbenz was a social liberal who rose up the ranks of the military, at one point leading an unsuccessful coup attempt against the government, and eventually becoming minister of Defense and, in 1951, president of Guatemala. As president, Arbenz sought to carry out policies that threatened the status quo and, consequently, the welfare of the country’s elite. Chief among those polices was his plan for land reform, in which the massive estates of the wealthy would be divided, especially the vast, un- or under-utilized tracts of land that could provide sustenance for the country’ indigent. President Arbenz Guzman’s social policies were anathema to Guatemala’s powerful elite, and, more importantly, were anathema to Guatemala’s neighbors, especially the right-wing dictator in Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza, who feared that Arbenz’s successes might bleed over into his country, where the social dynamics were largely the same. Another major factor was the role of the U.S. multinational corporation United Fruit Company, which had profited enormously from previous, right-wing and corrupt dictators in Guatemala and which was now threatened by Abenz’s land reform policies.
The Cold War in the early 1950s was extremely tense, with any hint of communist expansionism, especially in Latin America, which the United States identified as its own sphere of influence with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and pledged to keep free from European and later communist control, serving as justification for repeated instances of intervention in Central America. The suggestion that Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was sympathetic to or, even worse, collaborative with communist influences was sufficient to make him a target of the United States national security apparatus. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, consequently, set about attempting to destabilize Arbenz’s government, finally succeeding in precipitating a coup d’etat in Guatemala in June 1954. From that date on, Guatemala would be ruled by military generals close to the United States, and the notion of land reform was relegated to the ash heap.
During the 1970s and 1980s, as the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, as well as of its main Latin American ally, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, expanded, it began to become increasingly involved in Latin America, especially in Peru, which became a major customer for Soviet weaponry. What most concerned the United States was the possibility of guerrilla insurgencies, funded, trained and armed by the Soviet Bloc, especially the Russians themselves and the East Germans, destabilizing pro-U.S. regimes in Central America. Cuban military advisors and intelligence personnel became more and more active in supporting those insurgencies, which precipitated an increasingly active U.S. response. The 1979 revolution in Nicaragua, in which Somoza was overthrown and its pro-U.S. regime replaced by the Marxist-Leninist Sandinista National Liberation Front, a former guerrilla army led by close allies of Cuba and the Soviet Union, completely undermined the status quo throughout the region. Nicaragua’s regime began supporting similar guerrilla insurgencies in other Central American countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala, where indigenous tribes long suppressed by right-wing regimes were themselves fighting their governments. The result was that Guatemala and El Salvador both became the center of vicious civil wars, with well-armed government armies mercilessly attacking native villages and towns in an effort at defeating the communist-inspired insurgencies. Guatemala, in short, became a battleground of the Cold War, with human rights an afterthought. Thousands of indigenous peoples were massacred. Unlike Nicaragua, however, the insurgencies were ultimately unable to overthrow the U.S.-allied governments in Managua and Guatemala City.
The legacy of the U.S. role in Guatemala is not pretty. While the repressive atmospheres established in countries where Marxist-inspired regimes took power, and Nicaragua was a case in point, the excesses perpetrated in the name of anti-communism took a major toll on Central America. Only with the Cold War’s end was democracy finally given a chance in these countries, with Cuba remaining an exception and the return to power in Nicaragua of the Sandinistas a continuing blemish on democracy in the Americas.