60 Years After CIA Coup, U.S. Policy Hasn't Changed

by Teo Ballvé

McClatchy-Tribune News, Op-Ed, Jun 16, 2014

Sixty years ago this month, the democratically elected president of Guatemala was ousted in a coup engineered by the CIA. To this day, Washington has failed to learn the lessons of its Cold War interventions in Latin America.

Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz had drawn Washington's ire by implementing the central pledge he made in his electoral campaign: distributing idle farmlands to the rural poor.

The reform ran afoul of Guatemala's biggest landowner, the U.S.-based United Fruit Co., which began lobbying hard for Arbenz's removal. With the pretext that Guatemala had become a "communist dictatorship," President Eisenhower gave the CIA the go-ahead.

On June 27, 1954, under siege from CIA-backed mercenaries and bomber pilots, Arbenz resigned from office to spare his country further bloodshed.

Washington was on the wrong side of history.

The coup led to 36 years of military rule and a civil war that claimed the lives of 200,000 people - mostly at the hands of the U.S.-backed intelligence services. Italso convinced a generation of reformers in Latin America that the U.S. government would crush any peaceful and democratic moves for political change in its self-proclaimed "backyard."

The victory of Cuban revolution in 1959 - just five years after the Arbenz coup - reinforced the belief that change could be achieved only by force.Rather than follow Arbenz's frustrated experiment in social democracy, young radicals emulated the Cuban example and joined the rebel groups proliferating throughout the region. In response, the U.S. government backed repressive military regimes to suppress the often-overblown threat of communism.

Today, things couldn't be more different, but Washington has refused to scrap its Cold War playbook.

Left-leaning leaders - a handful of them former guerrillas - now control a majority of Latin American countries.

In Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, where reforms have been the most far-reaching, historically marginalized sectors of society are now playing a larger role in government decision-making, particularly at the local level. As in the days of Arbenz, it appears democracy can be too much of a good thing in the eyes of U.S. lawmakers.

Since 2000, Congress has spent $90 million in Venezuela alone trying to destabilize the government by supporting opposition groups. And Secretary of State John Kerry recently threatened the Venezuelan government with sanctions for not negotiating with these groups.

Over the last decade, the United States has stood by in tacit approval as three progressive presidents have been ousted by coups. The White House even expressed support for the 2002 coup attempt against Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who was reinstated thanks to massive street protests against the unconstitutional power grab.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, another progressive leader in Washington's crosshairs, actually had his plane grounded in Europe at the behest of U.S. authorities who wrongly suspected National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board.

Following in Arbenz's footsteps, the region's progressive leaders have embraced democratically driven reforms as a way of building more prosperous and egalitarian societies.

Washington should stop trying to stand in their way.

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