Ernesto, who hadn’t yet acquired his nickname of “Che” went to Guatemala in late December 1953. That visit and the deep impression that the CIA-instigated coup against the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (1913-1971) were decisive moments in Guevara’s political outlook. It was also the immediate prelude to his decision to join Fidel Castro’s guerrilla band in Cuba despite his severe allergy problem, which he concealed from the Cubans before departing on the mission for fear they would reject him on that basis.
Ernesto actually had a plan to go to Ecuador instead of Guatemala, but those plans fell through. O’Donnell pauses to speculate whether his life might have been radically different if his trip to Guatemala had been postponed. (p. 97)
Arbenz became President of Guatemala in March 1951. He was a reformist social democrat. His government undertook a serious agrarian reform, which included compensated expropriation of property from the powerful United Fruit Company.
Guevara wrote to his aunt from Costa Rica in December 1953 (p. 98):
Tuve la opertrunidad de atravesar los dominions de la United Fruit y me convencí una vez más de lo terribles que son estos pulpos capitalistas. He jurado ante un retrato del viejo y llorado camarada Stalin que no descansaré hasta ver su aniquilación. En Guatemala me perfecionaré y conseguiré lo que necesito para ser un auténtico revolucionario.That passage is intriguing for several reasons. Joseph Stalin had died earlier that year, and the official repudiation of “Stalinism” by the Soviet-line Communist Parties had not yet occurred. It’s not clear whether he was being partly satirical in his reference to swearing an oath to the decreased Stalin as though he were some Catholic saint. It pretty obviously did indicate that he was taking a radical and anti-capitalist view of the world by that time of his life, at age 25.
[I had the opportunity to traverse the dominions of United Fruit and it convinced me yet again of how terrible these capitalist octopuses are. I swore in front of a portrait of the old and lamented comrade Stalin that I would not rest before seeing their destruction. In Guatemala I will perfect and obtain what I need to be an authentic revolutionary.]
But it’s worth noting here that Guevara also saw hope and constructive change in the agrarian reforms of Arbenz. And that he saw in Arbenz’ attempts to defend his government from regime change efforts by United Fruit and the CIA as having the potential for real popular mobilization for a revolutionary, anti-imperialist cause that acted within the framework of liberal democracy.
Codenamed Operation Success, the regime change effort against Arbenz worked almost by chance. The National Security Archive document, CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents (Edited by Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh; National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 4; n/d, accessed 07/19/2015) provides a striking summary of this ugly adventure in a summary of what the briefing calls “Document 5”:
A narrative history of the CIA's role in planning, organizing and executing the coup that toppled Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on June 27, 1954. Cullather, now a diplomatic historian at the University of Indiana, worked on contract for one year with the CIA, where he was given access to thousands of agency records and secret operational files in order to produce this overview. The result is a surprisingly critical study of the agency's first covert operation in Latin America. Beginning with a review of the political, economic and social forces that led to Arbenz's presidency in 1951, the document is an intimate account of how cold war concerns convinced President Eisenhower to order the removal of the democratically-elected leader by force. It also provides countless new details of a covert mission plagued by disastrous military planning and failed security measures: according to Cullather, "Operation Success" barely succeeded. The CIA scrambled to convince the White House that it was an unqualified and all but bloodless victory, however. After Arbenz resigned, Eisenhower called the Director of Central Intelligence, Allan W. Dulles, and his senior covert planners into a formal briefing of the operation. Cullather's account now reveals that the agency lied to the president, telling him that only one of the rebels it had backed was killed. "Incredible," said the president. And it was. At least four dozen were dead, according to the CIA's own records. Thus did the Guatemala coup enter agency lore as an "unblemished triumph," Cullather explains, and become the model for future CIA activities in Latin America.
In Guatemala, of course, "Operation Success" had a deadly aftermath. After a small insurgency developed in the wake of the coup, Guatemala's military leaders developed and refined, with U.S. assistance, a massive counterinsurgency campaign that left tens of thousands massacred, maimed or missing. [my emphasis]
“Document 5” itself can be found at Operation Success: The United States and Guatemala 1952-1954 (1994).
The precarious but ultimately successful coup attempt worked in spite of the bumbling actions of the CIA coup plotters, as John Prados relates in Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (2006). Coming after the fortuitous success of the Iranian coup of 1953, whose significant negative repercussions the United States is still dealing with until this day, the success of the regime change operation in Guatemala encouraged further recklessness on the CIA’s part. Prados writes (p. 122):
In retrospect, and with more of the true record now open to view, it seems perplexing that the Central Intelligence Agency, and indeed secret warriors in many places, for decades held out Iran and Guatemala as models of successful covert action. The inner stories reveal that both Projects Ajax [against Iran] and Success [against Guatemala] skirted with failure. At some point in each case the CIA came close to canceling the operation. The projects may be said to have succeeded despite themselves, not marched forward according to meticulous plans. Gaps in CIA knowledge of local conditions, unrealistic expectations, fixation on a certain worldview, the personal weaknesses of CIA allies, the competing interests of groups working with the secret warriors, the physical properties of weapons and equipment, and the limitations of tradecraft all number among the reasons why success hovered at the edge of failure. The deep secrecy in which CIA held the stories of the covert actions served to disguise this characteristic and to hinder, even long afterward, careful evaluation of the strategy. [my emphasis]O’Donnell records that it was in Guatemala that Guevara experienced his first aerial bombardments, made in support of the rebel army of Col. Carlos Castillo-Armas, who was working hand-in-hand with the CIA on the coup. (p. 108) The CIA opened a file on Dr. Ernesto Guevara during this time.
Guevara’s experiences in Guatemala were a decisive turning point in his political development, but not only because of what happened to the Arbenz government. It was there that he met several men who were veterans of Fidel Castro’s early attempts to mount an armed resistance against the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Antionio “Ňico” López was especially impressive for him, and they became friends in Guatemala.
But the coup against Arbenz deeply impressed him, as did the failure in that case of the kind of peaceful reforms using democratic means that the US made a pretense of supporting in its foreign policy. Instead, the US was willing to topple a democratically elected government, acting largely on behalf of the United Fruit Company. Although, as Prados explains, United Fruit kept its distance from Operation Success, but it had actively backed earlier coup efforts against Arbenz.
O’Donnell (p. 109):
Pero lo importante fue que, a pesar de su ineficacia e impotencia para oponerse a la ominosa agresión a un gobierno democrático y popular, en el joven argentino había estallado un sentimiento hasta entonces desconocido por él mismo, una tumultuosa ansia de pelear por lo que él consideraba justo, una voluntad de defender sus convicciones con los puños o con las armas, abandonando su talentosa dialéctica verbal. Una violencia impensable en aquel niño de quien su niñera Rosarito nos contó que regañaba a sus amigos por cazar pajaritos con gomeras, a quien ninguno de éstos, ricos o pobres, recuerda tomándose a golpes durante su infancia y juventud.The reference there is to Guevara’s role, central to polemics against him, of acting as the final arbiter of executions of members of the Batista government who were judged to have been especially criminal in their actions on behalf of that regime.
Guatemala dejará una imborrable secuela en el futuro Che: la convicción de que la violencia es indispensable para imponer cambios sociales profundos. El futuro fusilador de La Cabaña razonaría varios años antes: «Durante el gobierno de Arbenz no hubo asesinatos ni nada que se le parezca. Debería de haber habido unos cuanto fusilamientos al comienzo, pero eso es otra cosa; si se hubieran producido esos fusilamientos el gobierno hubiera conservado la posibilidad de devolver los golpes».
[But the important thing is, despite its inefficiency and impotence in opposing the ominous aggression against a democratic and popular government, it had instilled in the young Argentine a sentiment that he had not previously known within himself, a tumultuous eagerness to fight for what he considered just, a will to defend his convictions with his fists or with guns, abandoning his talented verbal dialectic. A violence unthinkable in that boy of whom his nanny Rosarita told us how he scolded his friends for hunting little birds with slingshots, of whom none of them, rich or poor, remembers him resorting to fighting during his infancy and youth.
Guatemala would have an indelible sequel in the future Che: the conviction that violence is indispensable to impose profound social change. The future executioner by firing squad of La Cabaña several years later would rationalize: “During the government of Arbenz there were no killings or anything that resembled them. There should have been some executions by firing squad at the beginning, but that’s another issue. If such executions had taken place, the government would have preserved the possibility of returning the blows.”]
Part 1: Che the Argentine
Part 2: Che Guevera and Peronism
Part 3: Arbenz and Guevara’s politicization
Part 4: Two, three, many Vietnams