Bitter Fruit: The untold story of the American coup in Guatemala

by Adriana Guzmán

Backroom deals, CIA meddling, and overthrowing a government at the request of a powerful corporation.

This sounds like the plot of the latest Tom Cruise movie, but it’s not fiction, and so far, there hasn’t been a happy Hollywood ending. Bitter Fruit is the story of the U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954 that continues to affect Central American politics more than 60 years later.

Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer wrote Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala for the very reason enclosed in the title, to reveal what really happened in the 1954 coup d’état in Guatemala and to explore the stories of those involved in orchestrating Operation Success.

The authors go on to explore the tumultuous history that sprouted just six years after the coup and grew into a nightmarish civil war. At the time of the book’s publication in 1982, the civil war was in its 22nd year, and Guatemala was in the midst of the worst two years of it.

In 1983 the authors republished the book with a prologue that explored then-current happenings of Guatemala’s civil war, recounting President Efrain Rios Montt’s egregious violations of human rights and provocation of genocide of the Ixil indigenous population. Rios Montt was convicted of genocide in 2013 and was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but was later exonerated.

Today, Bitter Fruit is both relevant and insightful, not only about historical events, but because of how it challenges assumptions of the United States as benevolent global leader and purveyor of democracy around the world.

In order to better understand the present global situation, especially as it seems corporate America is driving U.S. foreign policy with the goal of obtaining cheaper resources and labor, we would do well to consider the case of Guatemala in the 1940s and ’50s.

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In 1944, the October Revolution removed General Jorge Ubico, a dictator, from power, and Juan José Arévalo became the first democratically elected president of Guatemala. At the end of Arévalo’s six-year term, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was elected to further the ideals of the October Revolution. President Arbenz was responsible for agrarian land reform that repossessed fallow land from large landowners.

One of those landowners was the American-owned United Fruit Company, which held a monopoly over the banana trade, railroads, telegraphs, telephones and the only naval port in Guatemala. The United Fruit Company used its influence with American politicians to drive an intervention in Guatemala led by the CIA that resulted in the ousting of President Arbenz and the installation of Colonel Castillo Armas. This coup, called Operation Success by the CIA, ultimately led to a downward spiral into civil war, delaying the next democratic elections until 1996.

Bitter Fruit explores the stories of those involved in orchestrating Operation Success. The book goes beyond the specifics of Guatemala and into the depths of U.S. foreign policy, making a case that the U.S. government and corporations believe that they are above the law, that they are superior to the people of developing nations, always pushing their own interests and, unfailingly, getting away with it.

Bitter Fruit looks specifically at the external meddling with regard to the 1954 coup orchestrated by the CIA, the U.S. Department of State, other U.S. officials and neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua at the urging of United Fruit.

The authors explain the intricacies of planning the coup, transforming public opinion, and creating a public façade that nearly everyone outside (and some inside) Guatemala ate up as the truth. Bitter Fruit is a crucial addition to the history books and the reporting of the situation in Guatemala because it explores in detail the events that transpired, the connections exploited and the ugliness of global politics when influence trumps virtue, good intentions and human rights.

 

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