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Hope in Guatemala

There have been many well-known examples of political engineering carried out by the United States through sponsored coups or assassination. Syria in 1949 and Iran in 1953 are oft-cited examples. And as even the most ardent interventionists must now admit, these interventions haven’t worked out to American advantage in the long run. “Blowback” is the trade term. It’s interesting that political engineering aimed at securing the “commanding heights” of state power for friendly elements often doesn’t work over time. This is equally true of engineering from the right and from the left. Society and culture matter: they cannot be casually swept aside. Or if they are in the long run they will reassert themselves. In the short term however there can be endless pain for those in society identified as hostile to the newly manufactured political order. Guatemala offers a harrowing example of pain suffered but may also be showing that over time society can eventually wear down tyranny. In that troubled country the scales are currently shifting away from the traditional centres of power, the military, business and the Catholic Church. In the current issue of the New York Review Stephen Kinzer publishes an essay on Guatemala which provides details of a police state at war with large elements of the population over several decades: President Jacobo Árbenz, a former army officer who was elected in 1950, was ousted in 1954 in a coup organised by the CIA, and replaced by a military junta. His name has been taboo in Guatemala for most of the time since then. Many in the ruling elite still consider the causes he championed ‑ land reform above all ‑ repugnant and mortally dangerous. A civil war followed, and from the 1950s the apparatus and mechanics of state violence were developed, reaching their zenith in the 1980s. The initial impetus derived from American cold war fears. As Kinzer explains: The overthrow of Árbenz in 1954 was among the most ill-conceived CIA operations. In the hypercharged atmosphere of the early cold war, President Dwight Eisenhower, secretary of state John Foster Dulles, and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, decided that Guatemala threatened the United States. The United States had an army 140 times the size of Guatemala’s, a territory ninety times larger, and a population fifty times greater. Nonetheless the land reform program Árbenz advocated, his friendship with Guatemalan communists, and opposition to him in Washington on…

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