United Fruit Company, Sullivan and Cromwell, Dulles, CIA, Guatemala
The capital of the United Fruit Company empire was in Guatemala, in the town of Bananera, where it made its headquarters. From here it master-minded its empire and corrupted every level of government and politics in Guatemala. United Fruit also managed to exempt itself from virtually all taxes for 99 years. UFCO had its fingers in almost every pie in Guatemala. UFCO had the unconditional support of right-wing dictators who maintained their power by terrorizing the people and arresting prominent citizens who were either killed on the spot or tortured in prison to extract confessions. During one wave of repression under Jorge Ubico, hundreds were killed in just two days.
In 1944, the people of Guatemala overthrew the right-wing dictator then in power, Jorge Ubico. Guatemala held its first true elections in history. They elected Dr. Juan Jose Arevalo Bermej to the presidency. A new constitution was drawn up, based on the U.S. Constitution. Arevalo was a socialist and an educator who built over 6,000 schools in Guatemala and made great progress in education and health care.
At this time in Guatemala, just 2.2 percent of the population owned over 70 percent of the country’s land. Only 10 percent of the land was available for 90 percent of the population, most of whom were Indians. Most of the land held by the large landowners was unused. Arevalo was succeeded in another free election by Jacobo Arbenz who continued the reform process begun under Arevalo. Arbenz proposed to redistribute some of the unused land and make it available for the 90 percent to farm. Here is where the problem arose: United Fruit was one of the big holders of unused land in Guatemala. The pressure mounted against UFCO and finally the company complained to the many friends it had within the U.S. government including President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, saying that Guatemala had turned communist.
The U.S. State Department and United Fruit embarked on a major public relations campaign to convince the American people and the rest of the U.S. government that Guatemala was a Soviet “satellite”.
“It [United Fruit] began with enviable connections to the Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his former New York law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, had long represented the company. Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, had served on UFCO’s board of trustees. Ed Whitman, the company’s top public relations officer, was the husband of Ann Whitman, President Eisenhower’s private secretary. (Ed Whitman produced a film, “Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas,” that pictured UFCO fighting in the front trenches of the cold war.) The fruit firm’s success in linking the taking of its lands to the evil of international communism was later described by one UFCO official as “the Disney version of the episode.” But the company’s efforts paid off. It picked up the expenses of journalists who traveled to Guatemala to learn United Fruit’s side of the crisis, and some of the most respected North American publications – including the New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, and New Leader – ran stories that pleased the company. A UFCO public relations official later observed that his firm helped condition North American readers to accept the State Department’s version of the Arbenz regime as Communist-controlled and the U.S.-planned invasion as wholly Guatemalan.” (Quoted from Inevitable Revolutions – The United States in Central America by Walter La Feber, 2nd ed. 1993, pp. 120-121.
The campaign succeeded and in 1954 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated a coup, code-named “Operation PBSUCCESS”. The invading force numbered only 150 men under the command of Castillo Armas but the CIA convinced the Guatemalan public and President Arbenz that a major invasion was underway. The CIA set up a clandestine radio station to carry propaganda, jammed all Guatemalan stations, and hired skilled American pilots to bomb strategic points in Guatemala City. The U.S. replaced the freely elected government of Guatemala with another right-wing dictatorship that would again bend to UFCO’s will.
The history of Guatemala since the Spanish conquest is one of continuous domination and repression. For a brief ten years from 1944 to 1954, Guatemala experienced the fresh air of democracy. However, with a right-wing dictatorship back in power, Guatemala was thrown back into the dark ages and the stage was set for the next 30 years of repression and killing. As part of their efforts in the coup, the CIA made a list of 70,000 “questionable individuals”. During Guatemala’s 36 year civil war that just came to an end this year (1996), the government often referred to this list originally put together by the CIA.