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The 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état was a covert operation organized by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, the democratically-elected President of Guatemala. Arbenz's government put forth a number of new policies, such as seizing and expropriating unused, unfarmed land that private corporations set aside long ago and giving the land to peasants, that the U.S. intelligence community deemed communist in nature and, suspecting Soviet influence, fueled a fear of Guatemala becoming what Allen Dulles described as a "Soviet beachhead in the western hemisphere".[1] Dulles' concern reverberated within the CIA and the Eisenhower administration, in the context of the anti-communist fears of the McCarthyist era. Arbenz instigated sweeping land reform acts that antagonized the U.S.-based multinational United Fruit Company, which had large stakes in the old order of Guatemala and lobbied various levels of U.S. to take action against Arbenz.[2] Both Dulles and his brother were shareholders of United Fruit Company.

The operation, which lasted from late 1953 to 1954, planned to arm and train an ad-hoc "Liberation Army" of about 400 fighters under the command of a then-exiled Guatemalan army officer, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, and to use them in conjunction with a complex and largely experimental diplomatic, economic, and propaganda campaign. The operation effectively ended the experimental period of representative democracy in Guatemala known as the "Ten Years of Spring", which ended with Arbenz's official resignation.[3]

The operation was preceded by a plan, never fully implemented, as early as 1951, to supply anti-Arbenz forces with weapons, supplies, and funding, Operation PBFORTUNE. Afterwards there was an operation, Operation PBHISTORY, whose objective was to gather and analyze documents from the Arbenz government that would incriminate Arbenz as a Communist puppet.[4]



The operation name, PBSUCCESS, is a cryptonym, otherwise known as a codename. Each CIA cryptonym contains a two character prefix called a digraph, which designates a geographical or functional area. In this case, PB stands for "Presidential Board" and with the words that followed, SUCCESS and FORTUNE, simply being indicative of the general optimism and confidence amongst its planners at the CIA at the time. This varied from the normal CIA practice of choosing arbitrary or deliberately misleading words to complete a cryptonym.


Under the regime of General Jorge Ubico, and Ubico's predecessor Manuel José Estrada Cabrera, Guatemala was widely opened up to foreign investment, with special favors being made from Ubico to the United Fruit Company (UFC) in particular. The UFC responded by pouring investment capital into the country, buying controlling shares of the railroad, electric utility, and telegraph, while also winning control over the majority of the country's best land and de facto control over its only Atlantic port facilities. As a result, the Guatemalan government was often subservient to the UFC's interests.

In the "October Revolution" of 1944 General Jorge Ubico was overthrown. Juan José Arévalo Bermejo was elected. A new constitution allowed for the possibility of expropriating land. This, as well as Arévalo philosophy of "spiritual socialism", alarmed Guatemala's landed elite who began to accuse Arévalo of supporting communism. In 1947 he signed a labor protection law that implicitly targeted the UFC. The US embassy in Guatemala sent alarming messages that Arévalo was allowing communists to organize and had reputedly provided known communists with support. Arévalo supported the Caribbean Legion, a group of ostensibly reformist Latin Americans who plotted to overthrow dictatorships in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. A 1949 CIA analysis described it as a "destabilizing force."[5]

Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who as an army captain had played an important role in the "October Revolution" of 1944, won 65% of the vote in the 1950 election.

Land redistribution

Arbenz advocated social and political reforms, unionization, and land reform. For the latter, Arbenz secretly met with members of the Communist Guatemalan Labor Party (known by its Spanish acronym 'PGT') in order to establish an effective land reform program. Such a program was proposed by Arbenz as a means of remedying the extremely unequal land distribution within the country: in 1945, it was estimated that 2.2% of the country's population controlled 70% of all arable land, but with only 12% of it being utilized.[4]

While impoverished peasants welcomed Arbenz's Agrarian Reform Act of 1952, known as Decree 900, the landowning upper-classes and factions of the military accused him of bowing to Communist influence. Tension resulted in civil unrest in the country and fueled the indignation of the UFC. In March 1953 uncultivated lands owned by UFC were to be expropriated with a proposed compensation plan, whereby the Guatemalan government would pay the United Fruit roughly US$600,000 based on the company's declared taxes, in essence offering the company what it publicly said the land was worth as compensation. In the following October 1953 and in February 1954, the Guatemalan government took another 150,000 acres (600 km²) of uncultivated land from the United Fruit Company, bringing the total amount of appropriations to almost 400,000 acres (1,600 km²). In April 1954 the U.S. State Department delivered a note to the Arbenz government demanding that Guatemala pay $15,854,849[6] for the UFC properties expropriated on the Pacific Coast alone. Guatemala denied this overture, charging violation of its sovereignty.

After the expropriations began in 1953 the UFC began lobbying the U.S. government in an attempt to draw them into their confrontation with Arbenz. The U.S. State Department responded by, amongst other things, successfully seeking approved cuts in economic aid and cuts in trade, with devastating effect to Guatemala, since "85% of Guatemala’s exports are sold in the country and 85% of their imports come from the U.S." Internal U.S. State Department documents stated that the cutoff would have to be done "quietly" because this was "a violation of the Non-intervention agreement, to which we are party... If it became obvious that we were in violation of this agreement, other Latin American governments would rally to the support of Guatemala."[7]

A U.S. State Department report released in 2003 states that social unrest within Guatemala and Arbenz's alleged Communist ties were the reason the CIA first drew up a contingency plan to oust Arbenz, entitled Operation PBFORTUNE (later changed to Operation PBSUCCESS.) The plan was drafted in 1951, before the United Fruit Company's landholdings had been expropriated. "In the Agency's view, Arbenz's toleration for known Communists made him at best a 'fellow traveler,' and at worst a Communist himself. The social unrest that accompanied the passage and implementation of the Agrarian Reform Law supplied critics in Guatemala and Washington with confirmation that a Communist beachhead had been established in the Americas. Agrarian reform was not the issue--communism was."[8]

Richard Bissell, a former Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence, has stated that there "is absolutely no reason to believe" the desire to help United Fruit played "any significant role" in reaching the decision.[2][9] CIA agent Howard Hunt, who was involved with the coup, has suggested to the contrary that United Fruit's lobbying campaign was a contributive factor in making policy; although Hunt suggests that the action was justified by security concerns, he believes that United Fruit's political clout was nonetheless a key factor.[10]


As early as 1951, before the agrarian reform law had been written or passed, CIA apprehension about a Communist takeover caused the agency to seriously explore options for Arbenz's overthrow. Arbenz's toleration for known Communists made him at best a "fellow traveler," and at worst a Communist himself.[11] The most viable option being considered was the covert backing of rebel groups and dissidents already active in Guatemala and the then CIA Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Walter B. Smith sent an agent to Guatemala City to investigate potential candidate individuals or organizations. At the time the state of the opposition to Arbenz was inert, divided, and increasingly fractious. The agent returned empty handed. Fortunately for the CIA, this roughly coincided with the first state visit of the President of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza. He informed them of Castillo Armas's small rebel group and stated that, with the CIA's support, he and Armas could unseat Arbenz. They also could expect financial backing from Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and, as Armas later claimed, from internal elements within the Guatemalan army. DCI Smith urged his subordinates to follow up on this and to establish contacts with Armas, which they did in June of the same year. At the CIA's request, Armas then relayed to them a plan for invasion, which was to launch from El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras (from UFC land) and would be coordinated with simultaneous uprisings within Guatemala. Armas requested arms, money, aircraft, and boats and informed them that he would launch the invasion as planned regardless of the CIA's support if need be. In July the CIA secured arms, transport, and $225,000 (US) for Armas, and furnished a few WWII-era airplanes. In September the CIA secured State Department approval and Operation PBFORTUNE was set.

One of two major setbacks occurred shortly afterwards when, while preparing for the arms shipment, the operation had to be called off. Somoza had been speaking of the invasion plan with other Central American leaders and the operation's cover, which was very important due to the fragile diplomatic situation the United States had with the region, was blown. While Operation PBFORTUNE was officially terminated, the operation led a twilight existence with the arms shipment prepared prior still kept in waiting and with Armas being kept on a $3,000 a week retainer, which allowed him to hang on to his small troupe of rebels.

The Coup

With almost all of their local assets destroyed, the CIA was forced to rely solely on the much more fragmented exile groups.

After all but abandoning the project in mid-1953, the U.S. National Security Council revived the project in August of that year after a review of the situation in light of the success of the recent CIA-organized coup against Mossadegh in Iran. CIA officers involved included Tracy Barnes, the CIA officer in charge, David Atlee Phillips, Jacob 'Jack' Esterline, E. Howard Hunt, David Sanchez Morales, Frank Wisner, William "Rip" Robertson, William Pawley, Gerry Droller.[12]

When PBSUCCESS was initiated a leader had to be chosen to lead a rebel army. The CIA had an important decision to make due to the fact that whoever they chose was probably going to succeed Arbenz. The CIA had three Guatemalan exiles in mind. At first the CIA were leaning towards Juan Cordova Cerna. Cerna was a coffee finquero, UFCO consultant and former cabinet member for Arevalo. He helped the UFCO have an uprising in 1953. Another candidate was Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes. He was previously a notable general, department governor for Ubico. Fuentes was pro-Nazi up until 1943, when he became pro-United States and even went to the states to mediate the overthrow of Ponce. The third candidate was Carlos Armas. Armas had military skills and attended the national military academy with Arbenz. The CIA eventually chose Armas .

Upon establishing operation headquarters in Florida in December 1953, the Agency started recruiting pilots, oversaw the training of rebels, set up a radio station to use for propaganda purposes, and stepped up the diplomatic pressure on Guatemala. Although they couldn't halt the exports of coffee, a major industry in Guatemala at the time, they succeeded in foiling two deals to buy arms and ammunition from Canada and Germany. Faced with dwindling military supply and witnessing the buildup of armaments in neighboring countries, Arbenz started to seriously take into account the possibility of an invasion, which had been rumored for months and finally confirmed when a defector from the Agency's stable of rebels informed the Arbenz regime of PBSUCCESS and its details, and began looking for potential sellers of crucial supplies. This brought Arbenz to conclude a deal, announced in the newspaper El Imparcial, with Czechoslovakia for arms; apparently Czechoslovakia had kept tons of captured German arms in storage since the end of World War II, a decade before. The Czechoslovakian arms were delivered on a Swedish freighter named Alfhem which departed from the Polish port Szczecin. The freighter delivered the arms in the city of Puerto Barrios. The States Department of the United States and the CIA tried to delay and stop the freighter. In one instance they worked quickly to stop the shipment but they miscalculated and believed the shipment was on a ship called Wulfsbrook. This provided a window for the Alfhem to make it to Guatemala. Arbenz intended for shipment to be a secret. He wanted to give some of the arms to the workers’ militia and then give the remaining to the army. Now he was forced to give them all to the army. This was seen by politicians as a rift between Arbenz and the military. While the cash-and-carry deal was made with a Soviet Bloc country, not with the Soviet Union, when the arms shipment arrived, the CIA took their opportunity and promoted the transaction as proof of the Soviet hand pulling the strings. The American public was told only that Guatemala was undergoing a "revolution."

After the revelation of the Czech arms shipment and the domestic support it whipped up, the US drastically stepped up both its covert and overt campaigns. On May 20, 1954 the US Navy began air-sea patrols under the twin pretexts of arms interdiction and protection of Honduras from Guatemalan invasion.[13] On June 7, a "contingency evacuation" force, consisting of five amphibious assault ships plus an "anti-submarine warfare" (ASW) aircraft carrier was dispatched to the area. Embarked was a US Marine Battalion Landing Team; meanwhile the only utility of the ASW carrier in the situation could have been for helicopter assault (then under development by the US Marines).

On May 24 the U.S Navy created a sea blockade on Guatemala called operation HARDROCK BAKER. The Navy stopped all ships using submarines and warships to search for arms. Instructions stated to stop ships by any means, even if they had to use force and damage the ships. British and French ships were stopped and boarded but the British and French did not protest because they were having colonial troubles in the Middle East and did not want the United States to get involved. This event opened further action on the part of PBSUCCESS against the army. Castillo Armas ’ warplanes were seen flying over Guatemala’s capital dropping leaflets. The leaflets had messages to the army stating, “Struggle against communist atheism , Communist intervention, Communist oppression . . . Struggle with your patriotic brothers! Struggle with Castillo Armas!” The messages were intended to turn the army against Arbenz and Communism. The warplanes were seen as a practice bombing and people in Guatemala now believed they were going to be invaded at any given time. Operation HARDROCK BAKER and Armas’ warplanes showed the people of Guatemala that now no one was going to interfere against the United States.



Psychological warfare was prominent in the operation.[14] The CIA planned to make heavy use of rumor, pamphleteering, poster campaigns, and, most of all, radio, which had turned the tide at the critical moment in the Iran operation. Although relatively few Guatemalans personally owned a radio, the radio was considered to be an authoritative source, and the CIA hoped that word of mouth would assist in the dissemination of their propaganda to an audience greatly exceeding those with radios. The radio station, La Voz de la Liberacion (The voice of liberation), was set up in Miami but claimed to be operating from "deep in the jungle" and broadcast a mix of popular music, humor, and anti-government propaganda. While the broadcasts were overtly tailored to the general populace, they were specifically and subversively targeted at "men of action", particularly the officers in the Guatemalan military, whose complicity was essential to the success of the operation. The Guatemalan army, made up of around 5,000 well trained and armed soldiers, was more than a match militarily for Armas's 400 undisciplined rebels. Depending on a strictly military success was not an option, and winning the officer class over, mostly through intimidation, was pivotal to the success of the operation. Immediately preceding the invasion propaganda efforts were intensified with Armas sending warplanes to fly low over the capital, buzzing the presidential palace, and drop leaflets urging the military to disavow their Communist government.

Internal propaganda activities were taken up mostly by student groups under direct instruction of CIA experts stationed at the Florida headquarters. Employing many advanced ideas and techniques, they met with immediate success. They started a weekly pamphlet and plastered the number "32" -- for Article 32 in the constitution that prohibited international political parties—on buses and walls across the whole country, garnering much local media attention. Encouraged by this initial success the group began using an increasingly wide variety of ideas and approaches. One scheme was to put stickers saying "A communist lives here" on the homes of Arbenz's supporters. Another was to send out fake death notices for Arbenz or other leading members of his cabinet to local newspapers. These activities reached such a height that Arbenz found it necessary to take harsh measures to stymie them, arresting many members of the student groups, limiting freedom of assembly, and intimidating newspapers into ignoring their activities. These severe clampdowns[citation needed] essentially turned Guatemala into the repressive regime that the Agency was trying to portray it as, which only succeeded in giving ammunition to Agency claims and hastening Arbenz's downfall.


At 8:00 p.m. on June 18 Castillo Armas's forces crossed the border. Divided into four groups, his roughly 480 strong party invaded at five key points along the Guatemalan-Honduran and the Guatemalan-Salvadoran border. This was done to give the impression of a massive forces invading along a wide front, and also to disperse the men so as to minimize the chance of the entire force being routed in a single unfavorable engagement. In addition to these regular troops, ten trained saboteurs slipped in ahead and were given the task of blowing up key bridges and cutting telegraph lines. All of the invading forces were instructed to minimize actual encounters with the Guatemalan army, for many reasons but most of all to avoid giving reason for the uniting of the army against the invaders. The entire course of the invasion was specifically designed to sow panic and to give the impression of insurmountable odds in order to bring the populace and the military over to its side, rather than defeat them. During the invasion, radio propaganda also assisted towards this end, transmitting false reports of huge forces joining the local populace in a popular revolution.

Almost immediately, Armas's forces met with decisive failure. Invading on foot and hampered by heavy equipment, it was in some cases days before the rebels reached their objectives. This weakened the psychological impact of the initial invasion, as local Guatemalans realized they were in no immediate danger. One of the first groups to reach its objective, the group of 122 rebels whose task it was to capture the city of Zacapa, were severely crushed by a small contingent of 30 Guatemalan army soldiers, leaving only 28 rebels who had escaped death or capture. An even larger defeat was handed to the group of 170 rebels who undertook the task of capturing the heavily guarded port city of Puerto Barrios. After the police chief spotted the invading force, he quickly armed local dock workers and assigned them defensive roles. In a matter of hours the vast majority of the rebels were killed or captured, with the remaining men fleeing back into Honduras. Within three days, two of Armas's four prongs were out of commission. Attempting to recover momentum, Armas ordered an air attack on the capital the following day. This too failed, as a single slow flying plane managed to bomb a small oil tank, creating a minor fire that was doused in 20 minutes.[15]

After these rebel failures, Arbenz ordered his military commander to allow Armas's forces to advance deep into the country. Arbenz and his chief commander didn't fear Armas's ragtag army, but there was a concern that, were the rebels to be too severely crushed, it would provide a pretext for open American military intervention. This fear spread widely amongst the officer class, with no one wanting to engage and defeat Armas's increasingly decimated force. Rumors spread - fueled greatly by the presence of the American amphibious assault force - that a Honduran landing by US Marines was in progress; preparatory to an invasion of Guatemala. Arbenz feared that the officers would be cowed into striking a deal with Armas. Confirmation of Arbenz' fear came when an entire army garrison surrendered to Armas a few days later in the town of Chiquimula. Arbenz summoned his cabinet to explain that the army was in revolt, and on June 27 Arbenz announced his resignation.


When Arbenz resigned, it was not easy to persuade all of the army officers to abandon Arbenz and be the army under Armas. The United States had to bribe some of the officers to make the switch. Most military officers agreed to abandoning Arbenz because they did not agree with his agrarian reform but they did not want Armas either. The reaction of the Guatemalan people was mixed to the fall of Arbenz. Upper class landowners were relieved to see the Agarian revolution end, and hoped the United States would reinstate their former landholdings. The Indian population received the revolution with mixed reactions; some were earlier disenfranchised by the restrictions on their local powers, others viewed Arbenz (like most of the general population) favorably and realized the importance of Decree 900. On the other hand people in the cities of Antigua, San Martín Jilotepeque and San Juan Sacatepéquez started an uprising and resistance due to Arbenz’s resignation. These people had significant land reform under Arbenz and burned their crop after learning they were going to lose the land under Armas.

In the 11 days after Arbenz's resignation five successive juntas occupied the presidential palace, each more amenable to American demands than the last, with Armas himself finally taking office at the end. He proved to be embarrassingly inept and his corrupt and repressive policies renewed civil conflict unseen in the country since before the revolution of 1944.

The coup was reviled by the international press. Le Monde and The Times both attacked America's "modern form of economic colonialism." There was a widespread and long-lasting protest of the coup in Latin America, with Guatemala becoming a symbol of resistance to American designs for the region. United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld accused the US's actions of being at odds with the UN Charter and even West German papers, usually gentle to America, were condemning the coup.

According to Kate Doyle, director of the Mexico Project of National Security Archives and a regular contributor to Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource Center, most historians now agree that the military coup in 1954 was the definitive blow to Guatemala's young democracy. Over the next four decades, the succession of military rulers would wage counter-insurgency warfare, destabilizing Guatemalan society. The violence caused the deaths and disappearances of more than 140,000 Guatemalans, and some human rights activists put the death toll as high as 250,000.[16] At the later stages of this conflict the CIA tried with some success to lessen the human rights violations and in 1993 stopped a coup and helped restore the democratic government.[17]

Following closely on the heels of the successful CIA-orchestrated coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran to allow the Shah to rule autocratically in 1953 (see Operation Ajax), some argue that it employed ideas and methods that were relatively new at the time and, due to the ostensible success of the operation, led to Operation PBSUCCESS becoming the de facto model for the overthrow or destabilization of a defiant government for some time to come, including the Bay of Pigs Invasion.


After the campaign, the CIA sent a handful of agents to Guatemala in order to gather and analyze government documents that would, amongst other things, find evidence that would support the CIA's belief that Guatemala was a rising Soviet puppet state, in an operation that was known as Operation PBHISTORY. Despite amassing well over 150,000 pages, they found very little to substantiate the key premise of the invasion.[15] The socialism that gained influence under Arbenz's presidency in fact had no ties to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, some private sector leaders and the military began to believe that Arbenz represented a Communist threat and supported his overthrow despite most Guatemalans' attachment to the original ideals of the 1944 uprising.

See also

Further reading

  • Chapman, Peter (2008). Bananas!: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World. Canongate U.S.. ISBN 1841958816. 
  • Cullather, Nick (1999). Secret History: The CIA's classified account of its operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-3311-2. 
  • Gleijeses, Piero (1992). Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691025568. 
  • Immerman, R. H., The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1982.
  • Kinzer, Stephen and Schlesinger, Stephen. 1999. Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • La Feber, Walter (1993). Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. Norton Press. ISBN 0-393-03434-8. 
  • Miguel Ángel Asturias, Week-end in Guatemala, 1956, is a fictional account of these events.
  • Vidal, Gore, Dark Green, Bright Red, Ballantine Publishing Group, 1950, revised 1968. Gore's fiction uncannily presages the Guatemalan coup d'état.


  1. ^ Cullather, Nick (1999). Secret History: The CIA's classified account of its operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. Stanford University Press. pp. 17. ISBN 0-8047-3311-2. 
  2. ^ a b Crisis in Central America on PBS Frontline, The New York Times April 9, 1985, p. 16.
  3. ^ Shea, Maureen E. (2001). Culture and Customs of Guatemala. Culture and Customs of Latin American and the Caribbean Series, Peter Standish (e.) London: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30596-X.
  4. ^ a b Stanley, Diane (1994). For the Record: United Fruit Company's Sixty-Six Years in Guatemala. Centro Impresor Piedra Santa. pp. 179. 
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^,9171,890902,00.html
  7. ^ La Feber, Walter (1993). Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. Norton Press. pp. 116–117. ISBN 0-393-03434-8. 
  8. ^ Foreign Relations, Guatemala, 1952-1954: Introduction
  9. ^ US State Department document
  10. ^ CNN Cold War: Interview with Howard Hunt
  11. ^ [2]
  12. ^ Spartacus biography
  13. ^ ;see entry #29.
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b Cullather, Nick (1999). Secret History: The CIA's classified account of its operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954. Standford University Press. pp. 90. ISBN 0-8047-3311-2. 
  16. ^ [3]
  17. ^ Report on the Guatemala Review Intelligence Oversight Board. June 28, 1996.

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