APRIL 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 4
As in Guatemala in 1954, So in Nicaragua in 1982
This admirable book could hardly be more timely. The parallels between the U.S. preparations for the Guatemalan invasion of 1954 and the Haig-Reagan maneuvers vis-a-vis Nicaragua in 1982 are numerous and striking. In 1953-54, while Washington was completing plans for an armed assault on Guatemala, official U.S. claims of Guatemalan plans for external subversion were escalating sharply. Secretary of State Dulles was profoundly distressed over a non-existent Guatemalan "reign of terror" in 1954, just as those equally committed humanitarians Alexander Haig and Jeane Kirkpatrick are dismayed over alleged abuses of human rights in Nicaragua in 1982. And when the U.S. armed threat provoked Guatemala into the purchase of arms from Czechoslovakia, this was the basis for still greater frenzy at the imminent threat to Freedom posed by International Communism.
One lesson of Bitter Fruit, conspicuously evident now, is that U.S. official assertions about subversion and military threats in Central America usually require application of the "principle of transference" - i.e., apply the accusations made against Guatemala, Nicaragua, the El Salvadoran rebels to the United States itself, and you will come close to the truth.
A second lesson is the pliability of the U.S. mass media and their essential subservience to determined official and business interests. The press in 1953-54 served unabashedly as a propaganda vehicle of the United Fruit Company and the U.S. government, passing along claims of threats to neighbors, Communist infiltration, an arms buildup, etc., without regard to truth or context.
In 1981 and early 1982, while there is a bit of editorial questioning, and some evidence is presented of U.S. support of internal subversion and of armed groups threatening Nicaragua from the outside, the government's position is given full head no matter how egregious the lying, obvious questions are not asked or pressed, and no indignation is expressed at the clear effort to subvert the first non-terroristic government in Nicaragua in 45 years.
A New York Times editorial of March 11, 1982, for example, discusses the Sandinista "arms buildup" without mention of the gross threat posed to Nicaragua by Washington or comment on the contrast between active U.S. support of terror regimes in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa (etc.) and ; its intense hostility to a nonterroristic Nicaragua. ; A third lesson of Bitter Fruit is the opportunism and hypocrisy with which the U.S. establishment manipulates the Red Menace, the ultimate public relations weapon in the war to advance U.S. corporate interests. Schlesinger-Kinzer pointed out (as does Blanche Wiesen Cook in her excellent book The Declassified Eisenhower) that opposition to Arevalo and Arbenz from the United States began in 1947 when they allowed unions to organize.
Under Arbenz, property taxes went up and a land reform program was initiated that greatly upset the United Fruit Company. The most notable feature of the massive United Fruit campaign against Arbenz that followed - well documented in Bitter Fruit - was the muting of the company's real concerns, over taxes, unions and land reform, and its stress on the "international Communist conspiracy." But while "Communism" was the issue foisted on the public, U.S. officials negotiating with Castillo Armas, Ydigoras and other potential U.S. agents were insisting on detailed promises of concessions to United Fruit in exchange for U.S. backing!
Bitter Fruit shows that the Communists were a minor part of the Arbenz coalition, that no evidence of substantial Communist power, has ever been produced, and that Arbenz' (and his government's) links with foreign Communist powers were negligible. "Communism" was the PR cover for the destruction of a relatively independent and reformist government that threatened the prerogatives of the United Fruit Company.
A fourth lesson of Bitter Fruit lies in its demonstration of the power that specific corporate interests can exercise over U.S. government policies. The influence of United Fruit by itself on the Eisenhower administration was remarkable. The interlocks (Secretary of State Dulles had actually worked for the company), and their effects, helped by the extensive company propaganda campaign, provides a classic case of a single corporation's compelling influence on foreign policy.
U.S. business has a more diversified presence in Guatemala today, with some 200 U.S. firms members of the local American Chamber of Commerce, although the Bank of America has a uniquely large and supportive role (Allan Nairn; MM, March 1982). The U.S. stake in Nicaragua is also fairly substantial (perhaps $150 million in direct investments in 1978; several hundred million in loans in 1981) and more diversified than in Guatemala in 1954. In both of these countries there is a powerful local and U.S.-based business lobby reaching back into the United States.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that corporate interests are all that matters. The Haig-Reagan team is not driven solely or even primarily by immediate special interests. Ideological conditioning, which rests on a broad structure of mainly business concerns, is another factor behind U.S. policy.
With Reagan, the two factors coalesce. Long-standing de facto U.S. policy has been stripped of its liberal veneer and constraints, and the perceived self-interest of transnational business in a "favorable investment climate" (euphemistically referred to as "stability" or "economic freedom") is now openly equated with support of "authoritarian" states run by military mafias. This is perhaps immoral and short-sighted, but it is perfectly in line with the range of Reagan's (and the dominant corporate) view of social-economic issues at home.
A final lesson of Bitter Fruit is its decisive refutation of the claim of a U.S. hostility to "terrorism" and interest in encouraging "pluralism." The only period in recent Guatemalan history free of political murders and characterized by a multidimensional pluralism (many parties, a free press, and freedom of organization) was the ArevaloArbenz era, 1945-1954.
Once again, the principle of transference is applicable - it was pluralism, democracy and the absence of thoroughgoing elite rule that elicited U.S. destabilization efforts. (Here, the analogy with Nicaragua today is extremely clear.)
Reasonably satisfied with the earlier Ubico dictatorship, the U.S. foreign policy establishment not only organized the overthrow of the last democratic government of Guatemala, it also was instrumental in producing the real reign of terror that followed the "saving of Guatemala from Communism."
Readers of Bitter Fruit will see that, rather than the United States serving as a brake on Guatemalan terrorism, in 1954 Ambassador Peurifoy and Dulles were urging more violent retribution than even Castillo Armas was prepared to carry out; and the causal relationship between the huge U.S. police training and counterinsurgency programs of the 1960s and the gradual emergence of death squads and ever more ferocious military regimes is compellingly evident.
Toward the end of this book the authors quote a John F. Kennedy axiom: "Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable." Bitter Fruit shows the clear applicability of this remark to U.S. policy in Guatemala (including that of Kennedy). The U.S. refusal to accept pluralism, its insistence on installing and protecting an elite that brutalizes and exploits the majority without restraint, was a primary factor that keeps producing "insurgencies," under conditions where, by U.S. decision, "peaceful change [is] impossible."
-By Edward S. Herman, Professor of Finance, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Corporate Control, Corporate Power,Cambridge University Press, 1981; The Real Terror Network, South End Press, March 1982.