History, Non-fiction

Bitter Fruit

Over a hundred years ago George Santayana wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” an aphorism often paraphrased as “Those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.”


These bells of doom sound often in the history of American foreign policy and if anyone doubts this they could start by reading Bitter Fruit, the extremely well-documented story of the 1954 American conceived, inspired, financed, led and dictated coup in Guatemala that set a precedent for future U.S. efforts at ‘regime change’ throughout the world. 


Apologists (not to mention deniers) will no doubt regard what the CIA and the State Department—led respectively by a pair of rabid anti-communist brothers, Allen and John Foster Dulles—did then as necessary in order to prevent the spread of communism.  But the authors of Bitter Fruit, Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, make it absolutely clear that the anti-communist zeal of the two brothers was only one of the two major considerations that led to their hatching the plot to overthrow the legitimately elected and only moderately reformist Guatemalan government led by a former military officer named Jacobo Arbenz.  The other crucial considerations were the financial ties and resulting empathy of the Dulles brothers for the United Fruit Company and its Guatemalan monopoly. 


In their view [that of the Dulles brothers], Arbenz’s policy [of agrarian reform in particular] proved his regime Communist in all but name.  The Arbenz government’s continued employment of Communists in low-level posts was taken as a demonstration of bad faith, and evil intent.  But the takeover of United Fruit land was probably the decisive factor…Without United Fruit’s troubles, it seems probable that the Dulles brothers might not have paid such intense attention to the few Communists in Guatemala, since larger numbers had taken part in political activity on a greater scale during the postwar years in Brazil, Chile and Costa Rica without causing excessive concern in the U.S. government.


Both brothers had been well paid for the legal work they had done for the United Fruit Company and remained on its payroll for almost forty years.  Allen Dulles even sat on the banana company’s board of directors at one time.  Other members of the Eisenhower administration were also connected to the largest importer of bananas in the United States.  And when it came time to remove Arbenz from power the CIA and the State Department coordinated their diverse efforts with those of the multinational company.


In this respect the case described in Bitter Fruit is highly instructive.  In retrospect it seems astonishing not only that the CIA and the State Department would so blatantly lie to the American public but that the American public—via the means of what some now refer to as the ‘liberal media’—would swallow their lies so thoughtlessly.  But then again, we’ve all lived through similar episodes ourselves.


Equally astonishing is the lack of sophistication in these leaders of powerful government organizations.  Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, “like religious zealots he often resembled, viewed the world in stark black and white; those countries not for him were against him.  No distinctions of neutralism, nationalism, socialism or Communism ever entered his head.” 


Sound familiar?  That’s because those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them!  And unleash disaster.


The authors quote at length from a 1977 speech given by Manuel Colom Argueta, a former mayor of Guatemala City:


The liberal policies towards Latin America initiated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed with the ascension to power of the Republican Party.  McCarthyism unleashed an internal inquisition and a changed foreign policy:  support for political democracy and economic development for the majority of the countries of Western Europe [but] the strengthening of fascist and conservative dictatorships in Latin American and other regions of the world under the pretext of continental security against communism.


If the economic and social reforms in Guatemala generated sympathy among the peoples of Central and Latin America, many dictatorial governments frightened by the Guatemalan experiment and favored by the Cold War unfurled the banner of anti-communism to use all means to combat the Guatemalan regime.


The CIA/State Department orchestrated overthrow of Arbenz had an unintentional effect “on other Central American nations, for whom Guatemala had always been and remains something of a regional leader,” given its relative size:


“If Arbenz had survived his term in office, it would have influenced and strengthened democrats in Honduras and El Salvador and isolated Somoza in Nicaragua.”  His downfall, on the other hand, fortified reactionary forces in the area and guaranteed that future movements for social change would be more extreme and more anti-American than Arbenz’s had been.


The history of Guatemala after the American coup in 1954 involved decades of civil war fostered by increasingly violent and repressive regimes backed by the United States government, and the establishment of right-wing paramilitary groups and political assassination as a means of terrorizing opponents of the regime and eliminating opposition leadership or simply anyone who was suspected of failing to support the man who happened to be dictator at that time (Manuel Colom Argueta himself was gunned down days after delivering the speech quoted above). 


As part of the agreement signed on December 29, 1996, that finally put an end to almost four decades of fighting, a Historical Clarification Commission was established.  Three years later this commission “estimated that the conflict [in Guatemala, which can be said to have begun in 1960] had caused more than two hundred thousand deaths,” ninety-three percent of which the military was responsible for.  A separate report, conducted by the Catholic Church, came to similar conclusions.


Bishop Gerardi and his aides conducted more than six thousand interviews with survivors of the war; and in April 1998 presented the grim results of their study in a 1,440-page report entitled ‘Guatemala: Never Again.’ The report estimated that during thirty years of fighting, 150,000 people had been killed and another fifty thousand had disappeared.  Eighty percent of the casualties, it asserted, were inflicted by government forces.


After reading this brilliant and finely detailed history of another U.S. foreign policy catastrophe I think, “Never again?  Wouldn’t that be nice.”


When President Bill Clinton visited Guatemala in 1999 he surprised everyone by saying, “It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”[1]


But now that the Republicans have another man in the White House we hear instead Trump proclaim that he will never apologize for anything the United States has done.  Or continues to do.


So I wonder:  if we refuse to even admit to our mistakes, how can we possibly hope to prevent repeating them?


Image:  Soman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

[1] For an article on that visit read Clinton apology to Guatemala in The Guardian:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/mar/12/jeremylennard.martinkettle