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International Socialist Review, Spring 1961


Bert Deck

Guatemala 1954 – The Lesson Cuba Learned


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.22 No.2, Spring 1961, pp.53-56.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


On June 18, 1954, Castillo Armas, heading up an “army” of 154 mercenaries, crossed the border into Guatemala from Honduras. His aim: to overthrow the government.

Armas called on the Guatemalan people to rise up against the “Red” regime of Jacobo Arbenz but only a handful, at the most, showed any interest in the project. On the contrary, the position of the elected government seemed impregnable: the army had declared its determination to put down rebellion; the major political parties, including the Communist party had signed a joint statement of support to the government; the mass unions of workers and peasants through their Communist leaders offered to take up arms themselves, “if necessary,” in defense of the government. It appeared that Armas’ 154 hired soldiers had taken on a fight with a united Guatemalan nation of three and a half million people. The prospects, it would seem, were rather dim.

But nine days later, President Jacobo Arbenz resigned. The constitutional government gave way to a series of military juntas, which in turn paved the way for the establishment of the dictatorship of Armas just three weeks after his soldiers crossed the Guatemalan frontier. How explain such a rapid reversal?

A social revolution had begun in Guatemala and the crushing of that revolution was the driving motivation for the Armas plot. The workers and peasants, the majority of the population, were firmly committed to the revolution; they had already won important economic and political concessions and had much to lose with a victory of the counterrevolution. Yet at the decisive moment their wills were paralyzed and their actions were fitful, sporadic and ineffective. A tiny minority defeated the majority.

How did it happen? What meaning did the Guatemalan events have for the revolution in the rest of Latin America? The more serious revolutionists, including the future leaders of the Cuban Revolution, studied Guatemala; for in the tragic defeat of June 1954 might lie a key to future victories.

It is impossible to refute the Latin-American charge that Guatemala is a US colony. Apologists are always eager to explain that the US does not have colonies in the “strict” British and French meaning of the term. But notwithstanding some secondary differences the essential relationship of a “mother” country to a colony is expressed in the domination of US corporations over the Guatemalan economy.

For Latin America, imperialism has been personified by the United Fruit Co. with assets in 1953 approaching $600 million. Its reported land holdings in ten Latin American countries were 3 million acres. The company maintained 77,000 head of livestock. It owned and operated 1,700 miles of railways and tramways and a vast amount of rolling stock. It owned a fleet of 65 vessels. It owned the first and biggest radio communications system in Central America, the Tropical Radio Telegraph Company. It owned and operated newspapers, schools, hospitals, recreation centers, housing projects, commissaries, agricultural experimental stations and medical research laboratories. It was the biggest single enterprise in Central America and its budget sometimes exceeded that of Central American governments.

In 1953, United Fruit owned 565,000 acres of land in Guatemala alone. It also had contracts with independent producers covering an additional 14,630 acres. It controlled the International Railroads of Central America as well as the wharfage and port facilities at Puerto Barrios. It owned and operated two hospitals, 18 dispensaries, 35 commissaries, 49 schools and a great amount of housing and other construction.

In addition to United Fruit and its railroad company (IRCA) there is the US corporation, the Electric Bond and Share Co., which dominates the Guatemalan power supplies and charges exorbitant rates to users (such as $50 a month or private residences).

The analogy between the US corporations in Guatemala and Cuba is an obvious one.

The Tyranny

The rule of capital was not easily established in Guatemala. Before money can be transformed into capital, an exploitable labor force must be provided.

The communal landholdings of the Indians were abolished in 1871. This very soon resulted in big plantation owners gobbling up large tracts of land. But this was not enough. The dispossessed Indians were not interested in becoming wage workers for the planters. The government, through a wage-contract system and later a series of vagrancy laws, with force and violence drove the Indians on to the plantations to become wage slaves. Maintaining a supply of forced cheap labor became the major function of the state and imparted its brutal dictatorial aspect to it. And as the best lands passed into the hands of foreign corporations, the government took on the character of a colonial, albeit “independent,” regime.

The imperialist domination of the country thwarted the growth of an indigenous middle class. What middle class there was rankled at the sight of the wealth produced by Guatemalan workers and peasants flowing into the hands of foreign corporations. The crude foreign exploitation of the country left little living room for the sons of the Guatemalan middle class. Spearheaded by a student revolt in 1944 the petty bourgeoisie overthrew the tyranny of Ubico and established its own political rule with the aid of the army. The new regime, led by a Social-Democrat, President Juan José Arévalo, introduced a certain expansion of political democracy. Ballot rights were extended; the unions were legalized and began a rapid growth. At the same time, however, the government bureaucracy mushroomed.

The expanded state apparatus provided the means for many of the petty-bourgeois “revolutionaries” to solve their own personal career problems. Thus their enthusiasm cooled for a direct struggle with the North American corporations, a struggle that might threaten the privileges already won.

But on the other hand the revolution had awakened the hopes of the workers and peasants. Unlike a section of the “revolutionaries,” the masses had not yet solved their social problem. The mass grew dissatisfied with the government’s slowness in proceeding with promised reforms, especially on the land. The broad coalition that had made the 1944 revolution began to crack and break up into its class components.

With the election of Arbenz in 1950 the revolution veered to the left. The Agrarian Reform Law was passed in 1952; in 1953 and 1954 the government expropriated over 70 per cent of United Fruit’s land and distributed it to the peasants.

The Counterrevolution

Arbenz had come into political life via the army. He was confident that his friends in the army would back up his deep-going reform program. In other words Arbenz attempted to begin a serious land reform with the bourgeois state apparatus and army intact and the workers and peasants unarmed. In such a situation the counterrevolution held all the aces and the Arbenz land reform took on the aspect of a gambler’s bluff. This adventuristic invitation for an imperialist intervention was accepted by the US State Department.

Washington forced an anti-Guatemalan resolution through the Organization of American States and assumed the role of bill collector for United Fruit’s expropriated land. The Guatemalans had offered to pay for the land at its tax-value rate. When United Fruit refused to accept payment the government deposited the proper amount in escrow. The bill presented by the State Department was ten times the value of the land which United Fruit had itself set for tax purposes. Finally Eisenhower sent in John E. Peurifoy as the new ambassador with explicit instructions to overturn the Guatemalan government.

The army, frightened at the growth of the worker and peasant movements, and under pressure from Peurifoy, demanded that Arbenz open a witch hunt against the Communist party. Soon after the Armas attacks, when Arbenz realized that the army was not going to support his regime, he went to Peurifoy to discuss terms. The US ambassador’s terms were: unconditional surrender. Arbenz chose to accept and resigned. Peurifoy continued to serve as the “impartial” arbitrator between the various factions and soon engineered Armas into power.

The Communist party was, by 1954, the dominant political tendency in the workers’ movement both in the cities and the countryside.

The party was extremely young in composition and as an organization. The old Communist party of the nineteen twenties had been destroyed by the Ubico dictatorship. As an organized tendency it did not reappear until 1947 and then only as a secret caucus of forty members within the left petty-bourgeois party of Revolutionary Action (PAR). The caucus, named the Guatemalan Democratic Vanguard, soon divided into two factions led respectively by Jose Fortuny and Víctor Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez was a young teacher at the time of the 1944 revolution. He founded the Teachers Union, became its Secretary General and a representative to the CGT, the big labor federation.

In 1946, at the age of 24, he was elected to the top post in the CGT and was, until the victory of the counterrevolution, the undisputed leader of the Guatemalan labor movement.

Gutiérrez charged Fortuny with having a middle-class approach to the revolution. He proposed an immediate break with the PAR and the formation of an open Communist party as a party of the working class. He favored recruitment almost exclusively from among the militant workers, and the party’s raising of the slogan of agrarian reform.

Fortuny’s strategy of penetrating and taking over the PAR received a setback at the March 1949 convention of the PAR. The Communists withdrew and formally launched their own party in September.

But the Fortuny and Gutiérrez groups remained unreconciled. Gutiérrez resigned from the newly formed Communist party two months after the founding convention taking with him the bulk of the leaders of the rapidly growing CGT.

The Gutierez faction launched the Revolutionary Workers party of Guatemala and successfully attracted the more militant urban workers to its banner. Thus, for two years there were two separate open parties in Guatemala speaking in the name of Communism.

Early in 1952, after the intervention of leading Latin American Communists (Toledano from Mexico, Prestes from Brazil and Rocca from Cuba) and a trip to Moscow by Gutiérrez, the two groups were reunified. This ended Gutiérrez’s five-year attempt to formulate a revolutionary proletarian policy for Guatemala.

The political basis of the unified movement was firmly established at its December 1952 Congress. The party adopted a seven-point program which became known as “The Guatemalan Way.” The program was essentially reformist in that it foresaw the carrying out of the agrarian reform and basic improvement in the position of the working class within the confines of a capitalist society and in collaboration with a section of the bourgeoisie.

Fortuny, however, did promise the party that the capitalist stage need not be prolonged, as evidenced by the experience of China. He reminded his comrades that Stalin himself had pointed out that the bourgeoisie was not sufficiently revolutionary to carry out the bourgeois anti-imperialist revolution and that this could only be done under the leadership of the working class. Nevertheless, Fortuny warned, inasmuch as Guatemala was so far from the Communist countries it inevitably must pass through a capitalist stage.

The Guatemalan CP eschewed any hope for an anti-capitalist revolution for the foreseeable future. Its central tactic was to construct a “national liberation front” – “A united front of the democratic, progressive and anti-imperialist forces.” This program conformed entirely with the political line being developed by the Communist parties in the rest of Latin America.

Cuba and Brazil

The policy of the Cuban CP was explained by Alfredo Gómez in Political Affairs, October 1954, as follows:

“Such a solution [of the vital problems of the country] could be brought about only by the constitution of a Democratic National Front government, that is, a government representing the alliance of the working class, the farmers, the city petty bourgeoisie, and the democratic and progressive sectors of the national bourgeoisie, and capable of applying a program of national independence, democracy and peace under the leadership of the proletariat and its party.”

Luis Carlos Prestes, reporting as head of the Brazilian CP to its 1954 Congress, was explicit on the nature of the “Democratic National Front.”

He said,

“Let us take, for example, such an important problem as the party’s position with respect to the national bourgeoisie. We now expressly proclaim that ‘the democratic national liberation government will not confiscate the enterprises and capital of the national bourgeoisie,’ while in the August 1950 program we demanded the nationalization of the banks and ‘all the big industrial and commercial enterprises of monopolistic nature or having a predominant influence on the nation’s economy.’ We also called for the ‘complete nationalization of mines, water power and all public utilities.’ This means that whereas in the new proposed program we do not attack the bases of capitalism, we committed the error in August 1950 of thinking it impossible that a considerable part of the national bourgeoisie could, under the conditions of the people’s fight for liberation from the imperialist yoke, take a position supporting the people or at least one of benevolent neutrality. That is to say, we had a wrong idea of the nature of the revolution in our country ... The Communist party of Brazil is convinced that the democratic transformation needed by our people can be achieved only by a democratic government in which along with the working class there would participate the peasant and intelligentsia, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. The Communist party is fighting for Socialism, but it is convinced that in the present economic, social and political conditions in Brazil socialist transformations are impossible. But it is quite possible to fulfill the task of replacing the present anti-national and anti-people’s government by a people’s government which would free Brazil from the domination of the US imperialists and their lackeys – the owners of the latifundia and the big capitalists.”

The Communist parties of Latin America, including the Guatemalan CP, held that the struggle for national independence was incompatible with an immediate anti-capitalist struggle, for this would break up the necessary alliance between the workers, peasants and the progressive national bourgeoisie. The latter, of course, would not agree to an alliance if it meant its own expropriation. And since the national capitalists would accept only a capitalist regime, the workers must not attempt to establish their own regime but rely on the “progressive” capitalist government to defend them against counterrevolution. Meanwhile the Communist party would struggle for a maximum of social reforms compatible with the maintenance of the multi-class alliance and the “progressive” government.

How it Worked

There is no doubt that the Guatemalan CP actually believed that the Arbenz regime and the army would fend off the Armas counterrevolution.

Alfredo Guerra Borges, editor of the CP’s Tribuna Popular, in a special dispatch to the Daily Worker, June 22, 1954 wrote,

“The invaders penetrated 15 miles around Chinqumula and Izabel without any repulse by the National Army, which sought to avoid provocations at the frontier and to prevent false accusations against Guatemala of aggression against Honduras.”

Thus at the very moment that the army was planning to use the invasion to force the government to make an attack on the labor movement, the CP explained its moves to the workers as a clever stratagem to outwit the counterrevolution.

Two days later Borges wrote,

“The government is in full control here, and the people have organized themselves into brigades and are ready to bear arms if necessary. Business establishments, and government offices are functioning normally in Guatemala City.”

The Daily Worker had already reported without comment the fact that the CP had placed full confidence in the government and the army. It quoted Castillo Flores, head of the Peasant Union Federation as saying, “Every farm worker’s organization has turned its membership lists over to the national army.” Víctor Gutiérrez announced that the CGT had placed its members “at the disposal of the President and the Chief of the armed forces.”

On June 27, the government, the one which Tribuna Popular had described as being in full control, resigned, leaving the army (which now had the membership lists of the peasant organizations and the CGT “at its disposal”) free to turn the power over to the counterrevolution.

Self Criticism

How did the Communist movement explain this crushing defeat of the working class? In the August 1954 Political Affairs A.B. Magill analyzed The Rape of Guatemala.

“Among the negative factors,” he wrote, “the most decisive proved to be the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leadership of the Guatemalan struggle, which resulted in rapid surrender once the invasion began ... the government failed to mobilize the people for the defense of the country and did not permit the trade-union and peasant movements, the Communist and other democratic forces to mobilize them. Whether this ban was imposed at the orders of the army high command, as seems likely, is not known. The paralysis inside Guatemala was all the more striking in view of the fact that up to the moment of the invasion the country had been seething with all kinds of patriotic activity. And on the military plane the resistance was half-hearted.

“It is evident that the paralysis of mass action and the perfunctory character of the military action was the course dictated by frightened bourgeois and petty-bourgeois elements lacking faith in the people, in order to pave the way for surrender to imperialism. Thus, the Guatemalan people were not defeated in battle; they were stabbed in the back ... Guatemala in fact confirms the lesson of Spain: toleration of reactionaries in the government and army tightened the noose around bourgeois democracy.”

By June 1955, Political Affairs added one more to the list of the guilty –

“The inadequacy of the support rendered by the working class of our country thanks to the policy of the Right-wing AFL and CIO leaders who backed the overthrow of the democratic, anti-imperialist government.”

Everybody was guilty, it would seem, but the Communist party. The latter was willing to fight as soon as it could get permission from its “allies” in the government who in turn were waiting permission from the army high command. For this permission they all waited and waited ... and waited. The workers trusted the CP; the CP trusted Arbenz; Arbenz trusted the army; and the army trusted Peurifoy, agent of US imperialism. Thus the mass movement was paralyzed and the initiative passed to the State Department.

The CP’s intentions concerning the arming of the masses were thoroughly honorable in relation to the army. They envisaged marriage, not rape. They truthfully proclaimed that they had no intention of replacing the army. They saw armed workers brigades merely as auxiliary forces for the regular army. But the professional army leaders feared even this. They might have trusted the Communist leaders but could they trust the workers themselves once they had arms in hand? It was too risky! Permission was never granted and the Communists gave up without a fight.

All the cries, “We were betrayed,” could not cover up the big questions, “Why did you permit yourself to be betrayed? Why did you base your whole strategy on such unreliable allies?” The CP’s criticism of its former allies boiled down to a charge that the bourgeois politicians turned out to be ... bourgeois.

The failure of the CP and Arbenz to arm the workers and disarm the old army was not a mere oversight. This “mistake” was thoroughly consistent with the policy of the “Democratic Front.” This policy, in fact, made the mistake inevitable. As though a capitalist-controlled government and professional army had ever “granted permission” for the working class to independently arm itself!

In the following years, the Guatemalan CP was forced to conclude that it had relied too much on middle-class elements, that it had too much confidence in the OAS and the UN, and that it had failed to neutralize the army. Fortuny was purged from leadership as the scapegoat for the old policy.

But the basic line of the “Democratic Front” remains unchanged. The CP still feels that its crucial task is to convince the “democratic bourgeoisie” to ally with the Communists rather than with discontented military cliques and pro-US groups. Thus it is preparing itself for a new fiasco a la 1954.

But something new has been added to Latin-American politics – in fact, to world politics. The victory of the Cuban revolution.

Future Prospects

For the first time in Latin America the revolution broke its dependence on the “progressive” national bourgeoisie and the result was the most far-reaching social program yet achieved in this hemisphere. In Cuba the revolution did not wait for the Communist party to secure “permission” from the liberals and the army to independently arm the workers and peasants. Instead the revolution smashed the old army completely and politically expropriated the liberals.

The experience of the Cuban revolution not only demonstrated that an alliance with native capital was incompatible with a real social program – Guatemala had already proven that – but confirmed the fact that the revolution could actually win once it had divested itself of its so-called allies and based itself on the working masses.

The Guatemalan defeat, followed by the Cuban victory has broken the ideological grip of Moscow on the young revolutionary movements in Latin America. Not that the CPs have disappeared – they still exist and propagate the program of the popular alliance with the liberals. But alongside the CPs, and to the left of them, have appeared new revolutionary currents described generally as “Fidelista.”

As a Cuban revolutionist in C. Wright Mills’ Listen, Yankee explains:

“The plain fact is, our revolution has outdone the Communists on every score. From the beginning up till today, always at every turn of event and policy, the revolution is always faster than the Cuban Communist party, or individual Communists. In all objective facts, then, we are much more radical, much more revolutionary than they. And that is why we are using them, rather than the reverse; they are not using us. In fact they are being very grateful to us for letting them in on the work of the revolution.

“In fact, this is the case generally with local Communist parties in Latin America. In a real revolution today, in Latin America at least, the local Communists are to the right of the revolution. Here in Cuba, certainly the revolution has outpaced them and does on every front. They always arrive too late and with too little. This has been the case in Cuba and it is still the case: they lag behind the revolution.

“The Communist parties in Latin America generally go for ‘popular front’ and ‘national democratic coalitions’ and so on. They haven’t got sufficient popular support to make a revolution, and so they sacrifice immediate revolutionary action – and even thought – for ‘national movements of liberation.’ They are small everywhere, although sometimes rather well organized. But they are not really very well adapted for Latin American conditions of revolution. They are too much like some ‘Society of Friends of the Soviet Union,’ and they won’t even go into ‘the China Question’ when you raise it; and the Chinese in Latin America, they don’t fool around at all with the Communist parties here. They go directly to the left-wing element!”

The Cuban revolution has shattered the old structure of radical politics in Latin America by providing a new example to follow. New currents and tendencies are emerging. Two roads present themselves to the Latin American revolutionists: “The Guatemalan Way” or “The Cuban Way.” Fidelismo, a more revolutionary alternative to the Communist parties, already exists. The possibility of avoiding the trap of popular front politics has been improved immeasurably.

In this new, open situation the Marxists have an unprecedented opportunity to win support for a consistent revolutionary program. In the complex process of political realignment now taking place within the workers movement lies the hope of avoiding future Guatemalas – lies the hope for a Socialist United States of Latin America.

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