IT IS SURELY one of the most ironic footnotes to history. In his inagural in 1945, leftist Juan Jose Arevalo, the first popularly elected President of Guatemala., movingly cited Franklin Roosevelt. "He taught us," said Arevalo, "that there is no need to cancel the concept of freedom is the democratic system in order to breathe into it a socialist spirit."
Just nine year later, Arevalo's involution, which had made real progress in relieving the poor from grinding poverty, came to its unnatural end. The CIA, with the full support of President Eisenhower, deposed Arevalo's successor Jacob Arbenz and installed a military government. Since that day, Roosevelt's freedom has disappeared, reforms have been obliterated, and thousands of Guatemalans have died at the hands of rightist death squads. Guatemala, which for a brief decade was a source of hope for moderate progressives the world over, is now a human-rights disaster area.
In their engrossing book Bitter Fruit, Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer tell the previously untold tale of the American coup in Guatemala. Using government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the authors recount in a straight forward but not simplistic manner the details of Arbenz's overthrow For an American. Bitter Fruit makes agonizing reading: the arrogance. Callousness and stupidity of our countrymen is hard to swallow.
Of course, the CIA coup was more than just the haphazard act of a virulently anti-communist administration. As Schlesinger and Kinzer tell it, the United Fruit Company, which had been well-entrenched in Guatemala since the turn of the century and profited enormously from a succession of anti-labor right wing dictators, felt threatened by Arbenz's reforms. So United Fruit called on its many friends in Washington--including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, director of the CIA--to take action. Thanks to an impressive public relations campaign, the company managed to paint Arbenz as an anti-U.S. communist bent on driving United Fruit out of Guatemala. The CIA. fresh from its success in Iran where it had overthrown Prime Minister Mohammed Mosadegh, was only to eager to help United Fruit in its time of need.
That a popularly elected government in a distant nation should be deposed for the sake of a bunch of banana salesmen may seem absurd and even comical. Mostly though, it is terrifying. Arbenz's policies--essentially the legalization of labor unions and a modest land reform that expropriated only unused fields, including much of United Fruits holdings--were hardly those of a Marxist revolutionary Nor did they pose a lethal threat to United Fruit's interests, its fruit-producing lands remained untouched But America, caught up in the hysteria of McCarthysim and the Cold War, flinched. The reflex to react immediately and decisively against any perceived danger to the capitalist status quo, in the United States or abroad, became highly developed Arbenz, a flawed politician in Schlesinger and Kinzer's eyes was nonetheless a true pluralist and certainly not a Marxist. But in Washington, where the CIA was steadily gaining influence and officials saw red in every corner, the Guatemalan reforms were radical enough to arouse suspicion.
Ironically, while the coup achieved its initial goal of ousting Arbenz, it did not keep United Fruit in Guatemala. Plagued by anti-trust suits from the American government of all places--specifically the Justice Department--the Boston-based company gave up its hold-
BITTER FRUIT, an invaluable historical narrative, also sounds a timely warning. The parallels between American perceptions of Arbenz's Guatemala and present day Nicaragua are striking. Only this time, the Administration itself is playing the role of United Fruit. Concerned that the Sandinista are best on exporting revolution to neighboring Central American countries, Washington is apparently considering financing a paramilitary group to destabilize the Nicaraguan regime through economic sabotage--and eventually overthrow it. In charge of the group would be--surprise, surprise--the CIA.
As for Guatemala. Administration officials said last week Washington wants to revive military aid that came to a halt four years ago. Disgusted with human rights violations by the government of General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia. President Carter had harshly criticized Guatemala, forcing it to renounce U.S. military assistance. President Reagan, in a gesture of "good will" toward the month-old regime of Efrain Rios Montt, who took power in a coup, will send Guatemala some $4 million in spare parts for the American-made helicopters it uses to fight leftist rebels No matter that Rios Montt has so far reneged on his promise to call elections. Or that the new leader, a general himself, has the backing of the historically repressive Guatemala military. And who cares that an economic program to help the nation's poor has yet to be announced ? Or that it hardly seems prudent to change policy drastically toward a newly born, unpredictable junta
The conclusion to Bitter Fruit, then, remains to be written Like the result of a scary time warp, the Reagan Administration is taking up right where Allen Dulles and his CIA left off. As Schlesinger and Kinzer so effectively argue, this type of policy has no victors--only victims. Eventually, the people of Guatemala, after much senseless bloodshed, will rise up as they did in 1945 and rid themselves of whichever dictator happens to be in power. Then the United States, rightly perceived as the ally of repression, will lose another potential friend to the Soviet camp. The bitter fruit of 1954 is already tough enough to digest. Imagine the revulsion if that fruit, a product of narrow-minded. cruel policy, turns rotten.