The Curious Case of Jacobo Árbenz

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The Cold War was a war of two differing courses for humankind.  The United States and its allies fought a bitter war of ideas with the Soviet Union and its Communist brethren.  It was a war, however, that involved more than words.  For the two sides, in their quests for spheres of influence, resorted to anything to ‘secure’ these spheres.

While there were many fronts on all corners of the globe, Latin America was a hot spot throughout the conflict.  For the Socialists, this country was a hotbed of activity, with Marxism percolating through the hearts and minds of the likes of Fidel and Che.  For the Capitalists, especially the United States, this was not only in its ‘backyard’, but huge economic interests were at stake.

The tiny country of Guatemala could be considered, perhaps, a microcosm of the whole conflict itself.  For the United States, had puppets in power, and the United Fruit Company, which still exists today as Chiquita, owned huge swaths of farmland.  At the same time, Fidel and Marx had visited the Plaza Mayor of the colonial town of Antigua, and students, middle class intellectuals and the noble Mayas were ready for revolt.

Enter Jacobo Árbenz.  Son of a Swiss immigrant.  Brilliant military strategist and a true intellectual.  His wife, María Villanova, was the daughter of an affluent landowner in the neighboring El Savlador.  She left a book on Marxist thought in their bedrooom, which started a revolution in Árbenz’s mind.

Through a long chain of events, Árbenz was elected to the Presidency of Guatemala.  There is dispute about the fairness of the elections, but there is no dispute that Árbenz’s land redistribution and distancing from foreign interests in Guatemala were a huge threat not only to the United Fruit Company, but to the United States and, perhaps, even to the outcome of the Cold War in Latin Amercia.

The CIA coup was successful, perhaps because according to some there was limited Soviet aid.  Árbenz, the intellectual, the politician, the radical who rose to great power, only to fall ever so quickly, fled to Mexico City.

While it’s a complicated case of espionage, politics and ideology, it raises some interesting questions:  If the United States had been promoting freedom and democracy, then why couldn’t Árbenz be freely elected to the Presidency?  Were cheap bananas so strategic that it justified overthrowing a regime?  Is this pattern of espionage, politics and ideology being fueled by making and or maintaining cheap commodities in other parts of the globe?

Árbenz rose to power and fell ever so quickly, as if he had been cursed by the gods of Ancient Greece.  But as history usually repeats itself, a new Árbenz springs up ever so often, only to be struck down by Zeus’ wrath.  And, to think, perhaps I contribute to this cosmic battle every time I look in the grocery aisle.


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