Pre-World War II

  • The creation of the United Fruit Company (UFCO) in the early 20th century enabled U.S. investors to become very interested in Guatemalan exports, particularly in their large-scale cultivation of bananas.
  • At first, the interests of the private landowners were put ahead of the UFCO, but that all changed when Jorge Ubico took over as president in 1931.
  • Ubico was a dictator and fascist sympathizer who began to confiscate much of the private, agricultural land in Guatemala once he took power.  Many of the elite landowners in Guatemala at the time happened to be of German descent, and the confiscation of their land pleased the U.S. because it created more investment possibilities for them with the UFCO. It also pleased them because  of the anti-German sentiment that had permeated American society.
  • These policies did help stabilize the Guatemalan economy during the post-depression years, when many nations were struggling to maintain their export markets along with their economies as a whole.
  • Even though Ubico’s dictatorial tendencies forced indigenous peoples in Guatemala into working on government projects and for the large fruit company, along with making it impossible for any type of dissent at all, the U.S. government seemed to look the other way in regard to these oppressive conditions, so long as the investors were making money.(20)
  • Ubico was finally forced to resign in 1944, as U.S. support was waning, along with the growing movement for democracy in Guatemala.(21)



Post-World War II 


  • In 1945, a democratic election brought Juan José Arévalo into office as the Guatemalan president.
  • He made many governmental reforms to give indigenous peoples more rights along with establishing rural education and social security programs, as well as giving financial aid to small farmers.  This angered the upper-class and the UFCO because it took some of their agricultural market away.  The United States obviously wasn’t pleased either.
  • 1951 saw the succession of Arévalo by Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán.  Arbenz was even more radical than Arévalo, specifically in terms of land distribution, which was something Arévalo really hadn’t addressed sufficiently, even though it was the basis for many of the economic troubles at hand.
  • Abrenz’s defining moment came when he got the Guatemalan Congress to pass Decree 900. This decree called for the expropriation of all plots of land larger than 600 acres and not being cultivated.  This land was then redistributed to people who owned no land, and the former owners were compensated with money from government bonds.  Decree 900 affected half the private land in Guatemala, including large portions UFCO land holdings in the country.
  • The UFCO and U.S. State Department became angered when Arbenz refused to meet their demands for the amount of money they wanted in compensation for the lands that had been confiscated.
  • U.S. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, along with CIA director, Allen Dulles, who both happened to be former partners in United Fruit’s Washington, D.C. law firm, persuaded President Eisenhower that Arbenz needed to be removed from power for his lack of cooperation.
  • To do so, the CIA chose Carlos Castillo Armas to lead a violent coup along with funding the training of his rebels.  In 1954, the democratically elected Arbenz was overthrown by a U.S.-funded takeover that put Castillo into power.
  • This appalling action was somehow condoned by the U.S. government, as they even granted foreign aid to Guatemala after the Castillo takeover.  The role the United States played in ending the term of Arbenz also led to the end of democracy in Guatemala for a long, long time.  Civil war ensued within the country for four decades after the overthrow. 
  • Also, in response to the U.S.-sanctioned coup, thousands of Guatemalans fled to the hills to form guerilla groups in opposition to the Castillo dictatorship.  These guerilla groups were often the targets of the Castillo’s military, who received a lot of help and funding from the U.S. government and U.S. Special Forces.  Thousands upon thousands of guerilla revolutionaries were slaughtered or wound up missing because of their resistance to the Castillo regime, which was a direct result of U.S. political fear.
  • Thousands of lives were lost and even more families and homes were broken up or destroyed because of the war that broke out of the selfish desires of United States government officials.  Their corporate greed along with their paranoia over the spread of communism or any type of “un-American” democracy led them to sanction the overthrow of a democratically-elected president, the killing of tens of thousands of Guatemalans, along with a civil war that devastated the country for forty years.  This is obviously a sad part of the United States’ history, but what makes it even more disheartening is the fact that is had been and still is unknown to many U.S. citizens today.(22)


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