The coup is almost funny, if you squint. The year was 1954, and the CIA, still young and enthusiastic, had decided to overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala. Washington was convinced that the tiny republic was a threat, a reflection of growing anti-communist paranoia, and – in particular – of the ministrations of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, who was on the payroll of United Fruit, one of the US’s largest corporations.
The players are exaggerated, almost parodic, even in the history books. There is the adman making a pitch to get involved in international relations, the nervy Central American president pouring out his whisky, the US ambassador with a feather in his fedora and a revolver in his shoulder holster, the Dominican hitman, the rat-eyed leader of a CIA-funded ‘liberation’ army. They already seem cribbed from a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa. All he had to do was lift them out and plop them down in his latest book, without bothering to do much by way of embellishment.
Harsh Times, an understatement of a title, rehearses the coup in Guatemala and its muddled aftermath, the first years of blowback. This was the second (acknowledged) US covert operation aimed at regime change, after Iran – a joint operation with MI6 – the previous year. The CIA equipped and paid Central American rebels, and hired US mercenaries to fly bombers over Guatemala City, dropping first leaflets then bombs, while the US navy blockaded the coast. The coup could be argued to have set in train the US anti-communist crusade of subversion, threats and invasion that played out over the next half-century. It even helps explain the course of the Cuban Revolution, if you like – and Vargas Llosa does like.
Harsh Times is a novel, not a historical tract, but anything Vargas Llosa writes is received across Latin America as a political statement. This story of early regime change surprised the left with its warm appraisal of the left-leaning president overthrown by the CIA, and made Vargas Llosa a few new enemies among his usual friends on the right throughout the Spanish-speaking world. He has said in interviews that he wrote the novel to explain when politics went off the rails in Latin America. This echoes the second line of Conversation in the Cathedral (1969): ‘At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?’ The CIA coup, Vargas Llosa said, ‘led many, myself included, to think that democracy was not possible and that we had to look for a communist paradise.’ He had studied Marxist thought at university and was enthusiastic about the Cuban Revolution before he turned to the right. The political argument he is now trying to advance is that in 1954 the Latin American right aligned itself with murderous dictators, but that the Latin American left lost its way too, by embracing armed struggle rather than reform.
What’s so funny about the coup? The CIA thought it was being sneaky. For decades afterwards, the agency believed its own propaganda – that it had successfully and secretly brought down the regime in Guatemala. And on the cheap! Got out and didn’t leave fingerprints on anything. Never mind that the government’s overthrow was enabled by a series of accidents that fell the CIA’s way. Never mind that the details of US involvement were leaked and shouted out across the front pages of Guatemalan newspapers well before the mercenaries dropped a single bomb. Never mind those effigies of President Eisenhower and the stars and stripes burned after the coup in Havana, Santiago, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. In Latin America, everyone knew it was the CIA. At the agency, they persuaded themselves that no one did.
Why Guatemala? After overthrowing General Ubico – with his secret police, footsie with fascism and backing for conditions of near slavery for Indigenous people on coffee and banana plantations – Guatemalans had voted in free elections for the first time in 1944. An overwhelming majority backed Juan José Arévalo, an academic who was a bit of a windbag but fully committed to what came to be known as the Guatemalan Spring or October Revolution – legalising unions, expanding the vote and breaking diplomatic ties with Franco’s Spain. From the perspective of United Fruit, the new unions were bad enough. But then, in the early 1950s, Jacobo Árbenz, Arévalo’s successor, went further: in an attempt to address social inequality he started pressing for land reform.
This is where Vargas Llosa’s novel begins. He dramatises the first meeting between Edward Bernays and the rough-and-ready head of United Fruit, Samuel Zemurray, a Russian immigrant who had clawed his way to the top of the company after riding a burro through clouds of mosquitoes in Central America to buy up land and cut sweetheart deals with local dictators. Under his leadership, United Fruit became known as el pulpo, ‘the octopus’. In Guatemala, it had a monopoly on the railways, the main port and the country’s only working electric power station. Since starting operations in the early 20th century, United Fruit had paid no tax to the Guatemalan government.
What Bernays offered the company – the reason he was hired and invited to name his salary – was the chance to retain United Fruit’s privileges despite the Guatemalan Spring. Supreme adman that he was, he would do this in a modern, subtle fashion. Vargas Llosa quotes Bernays’s 1928 book, Propaganda: ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power.’
Whatever one might think of his use of the word ‘democratic’, Bernays was good at his job. His previous (marketing) coup had been to rebrand cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’ consumed by liberated women. United Fruit was less keen on the freedom promised to landless Guatemalan farmers by the land reform bill of 1952, which would expropriate much of the property it owned. A further indignity: when awarding compensation, the Árbenz administration would base the figure on United Fruit’s declaration of value for tax purposes, not on the vastly higher real value of the land. Cue the wounded howling of United Fruit, which reached the ears of the Dulles brothers: John Foster Dulles, secretary of state, and his little brother, Allen, head of the CIA. Both were former legal advisers to United Fruit. Stephen Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger’s classic history of the coup, Bitter Fruit (1982), showed that many of the players behind it were either United Fruit stockholders, or angling for a seat on the company board, or both.
Bernays managed to persuade an important swathe of US journalists and decision-makers, against all the evidence, that communism was on the march in Guatemala. He made hay of the fact that one of Árbenz’s advisers on land reform was a communist, though there were at most four thousand party members in a country of three million. He started a rumour that the Soviet Union was infiltrating Guatemala as a beachhead in the Western hemisphere and a possible threat to America’s strategic control of the Panama Canal. In 1953 the husband of Eisenhower’s private secretary, a flack for United Fruit, made a film called Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas. That same year, one of Eisenhower’s aides laid out the view that was taking hold: ‘We should regard Guatemala as a prototype area for testing means and methods of combating communism.’
We know what happened next from the CIA’s own history of the coup, which, along with Bitter Fruit, was clearly a major source for Vargas Llosa. In the early 1990s, the CIA hired a young historian, Nick Cullather, to sort through its classified documents and produce a narrative of the operation – codenamed PBSUCCESS – for internal training purposes. Then, in a brief fit of transparency, it decided in 1999 to publish his account – though it nearly changed course at the last minute and heavily redacted the book. It went to press under the title Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-54. Cullather left eloquent blank spaces where material had been excised. Many of the pages are half-empty.
What can be gleaned from the CIA’s own account is that it had no intelligence assets in Guatemala’s army, trade unions, government or Communist Party – in short, it didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on in the country. Lacking local knowledge, it drew parallels with Russia, Eastern Europe, China and Korea, portraying events ‘as part of a global pattern of communist activity’. An unredacted part of Cullather’s book records that the coup was thought to be both ‘more ambitious and more thoroughly successful’ than Iran 1953, about which the Iran operation chief officer found John Foster Dulles ‘almost alarmingly enthusiastic’. Guatemala 1954 went down in CIA lore as proof that covert operations were a ‘safe, inexpensive substitute for armed force’ against communists. But what kind of success was this? ‘PBSUCCESS,’ Cullather wrote, ‘used an intensive paramilitary and psychological campaign to replace a popular, elected government with a political nonentity.’
The political nonentity was Carlos Castillo Armas – in the novel he’s nicknamed ‘Caca’ by fellow military cadets after his unfortunate initials. Vargas Llosa describes him as the ‘bony, consumptive-looking colonel with the Hitler moustache and sheared skull’. The CIA found him skulking in Honduras after previous plots to overthrow Árbenz. Although he had secured funding from Rafael Trujillo and Anastasio Somoza – dictators of the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua respectively – his attempts hadn’t got off the ground because he had little support inside Guatemala. Caca made it clear to his CIA handlers that he wouldn’t try again without their backing. They chose him as their puppet despite their psychological evaluation of him as ‘a firmly stubborn man who in the face of indisputable evidence is prone to maintain his own point of view’. According to one spymaster, he ‘had that good Indian look about him. He looked like an Indian, which was great for the people.’
Castillo Armas led his band of five hundred ‘liberationists’ across the border in a beaten-up station wagon on 18 June 1954. Inspired by Orson Welles’s ‘panic broadcast’ in the radio version of The War of the Worlds, the CIA had set up a radio channel, Voice of Liberation, pretending to be live from the ‘jungles of Guatemala’, but really broadcast from Nicaragua and later from the roof of the US embassy in Guatemala City. For decades afterwards, the agency presented this as a classic disinformation campaign. ‘At our command post here in the jungle,’ one broadcast began, ‘we are unable to confirm or deny the report that Castillo Armas has an army of five thousand men.’ In a bit of good luck for the agency, the official national radio station happened to be down that week, with a transmitter under repair, so many more Guatemalans tuned in than might have otherwise done so. But the Voice of Liberation certainly didn’t spark a mass uprising against Árbenz. According to Cullather, the coup planners’ faith in radio propaganda was, yet again, ‘derived from their experience in other areas of the world, and it ignored local conditions that limited the strategy’s usefulness in Guatemala.’ Only one in fifty Guatemalans owned a radio, most of them living in and around the capital.
More important was the psychological effect of bombers flying over Guatemala City. They didn’t do much damage, but a smoke bomb at Fort Matamoros on the outskirts of the capital did spook Árbenz. (It was lost on no one that Caca wouldn’t have had access to bombers without US support. Not exactly covert.) On 27 June, Árbenz stepped aside, announcing that he wanted to remove the ‘pretext’ for the invasion. He sought refuge in the Mexican embassy. ‘Bully! Bully! We did it!’ Allen Dulles exulted back in Washington. The highlight of the street celebration in Guatemala City was the explosion of hundreds of firecrackers provided by the CIA.
The sections of Vargas Llosa’s novel that deal with well-known historical figures – Árbenz, Bernays, Castillo Armas – lie rather flat on the page. ‘I do research to lie with knowledge of the case,’ he has said. The novel lingers longer on the aftermath than on the coup itself. Caca was not in power long – he was assassinated in 1957 by a leftist sympathiser in his presidential guard. The soldier supposedly acted alone, but whether he was part of a larger conspiracy remains unknown. The novel’s version of the assassination follows a not terribly well-sourced theory – put forward in an essay by the Dominican poet and politician Tony Raful Tejada – that it was a hit ordered by President Trujillo from Santo Domingo. Implausible though the theory is, it allows Vargas Llosa to reprise his greatest-hits character Johnny Abbes García, head of Trujillo’s secret police, from his much better historical novel The Feast of the Goat. In Harsh Times, Abbes García shows up in Guatemala, organises the assassination and then seems to voice the author’s frustration: ‘Compared with the Dominican Republic, Guatemala certainly was a sombre country.’ Trujillo’s hitman finds that Zacapa rum, of which Guatemalans are proud, is every bit as good as Dominican rum, but a friend warns him: ‘The whorehouses in this country are like a morgue.’
Raful’s account is based in part on interviews with a former beauty queen who was the lover of Castillo Armas. Vargas Llosa calls her ‘Miss Guatemala’ in his novel. In a book stuffed with limp historical actors and long Wikipedia-like passages, she is the only character who achieves lift-off. She has the colonel ‘mesmerised’ and guides his decisions, including in matters of state. She then sells off bits of information and gossip to a CIA spook, pocketing envelopes of cash. The best actual evidence for the Dominican conspiracy theory is that Abbes García did indeed, it seems, spirit her out of Guatemala after the assassination – first to the Dominican Republic, and then to Miami – to help her avoid being accused of complicity.
Miss Guatemala is still alive: in real life she is Zoila Gloria Bolaños Pons, wearer of large sunglasses, flashy jewellery and blonde pincurls. She is 83 and lives in Florida, where she writes a blog and comments on current events on Twitter in all caps, including on the threat posed to ‘our beloved Donald’ by communists. Vargas Llosa recently recalled meeting her in her home
in an elegant neighbourhood in a house filled with plastic flowers where there is a photograph – that occupies an entire wall – of the Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas and a votive candle at his feet. There are also photos of Trujillo and of the lady of the house with two generations of the Bush family: the two ex-presidents and Jeb, who was governor of Florida, hugging her. There is also a photo of her with Ronald Reagan.
Vargas Llosa launched the Spanish-language edition of Harsh Times on 3 December 2019 in the National Theatre of Guatemala in front of an audience of two thousand people, and was joined on stage by Árbenz’s son. The left-leaning intelligentsia was pleasantly surprised by his vindication of Árbenz. A headline in the newspaper La Hora read: ‘A Literary Rectification for the Lie that Denigrated the October Revolution’. The country’s leading right-wing university, in whose library Vargas Llosa had conducted his research, had declined to host the launch. But Vargas Llosa’s defence of Árbenz sits oddly with his weekly column in El País, which is read – often hate-read – all over the Spanish-speaking world. It is the best example of his right-wing politics clashing with the lefty sympathies of his fiction.
He urged Peruvians to vote in this year’s presidential elections for Keiko Fujimori, whose father, Alberto (president between 1990 and 2000), is in jail for human rights violations and embezzlement. Vargas Llosa called Keiko the ‘lesser of two evils’ compared to the eventual winner, Pedro Castillo, a left-wing union leader who would leave Peru ‘with all the characteristics of a communist society’. Before the final count was in, Vargas Llosa claimed that ‘electoral fraud is being perpetrated’ in Peru. El País’s ombudsman published a swift repudiation: ‘The facts are sacred and there is no legal or official basis to maintain this type of accusation of fraud.’
In Guatemala itself there is still no agreement at all on the facts. Destabilised by the coup, the country was engulfed by civil war from 1960 to 1996. According to one version of history (which is based, it must be emphasised, on a significant body of evidence, including the findings of two truth commissions), a small guerrilla movement committed some abuses, but the vast majority of atrocities – including the genocide of Maya groups – was committed by the military dictatorships that followed Castillo Armas’s assassination. Guatemala’s present-day right – a group that includes military officials, the oligarchy, and many of the followers of the Pentecostal churches that have converted a third of Guatemalans away from Catholicism – holds to a completely different version of history: any abuses committed during the civil war were worth it because they stopped Guatemala becoming ‘another Cuba’. They see Árbenz as a communist removed from power just in time. Right-wing characters in Harsh Times voice this view: ‘the Indians would raise their heads and start killing decent people, the communists would take over the landholders’ fields and would send the children from good families off to Russia to be sold as slaves.’
When the novel came out, Guatemala’s ambassador to the UK, Acisclo Valladares Molina, published a series of columns in Diario de Centro América called ‘The Lies of Mario Vargas Llosa’, accusing him of fabricating some events and ignoring others – without acknowledging that the book is a work of fiction – in the service of ‘supporting the erroneous thesis … that the Árbenz regime was not leading Guatemala towards a communist dictatorship’. But even if Vargas Llosa, siding with the evidence, admits that Árbenz was never a communist, he laments that the coup helped attract new followers to communism all over Latin America. ‘My impression is that history would be different if the US had not overthrown Árbenz,’ he said in a speech introducing the novel at Casa de América in Madrid. ‘Fidel Castro would not have been radicalised. His first programme was closer to social democracy.’ It’s true that Castro didn’t declare himself a Marxist-Leninist until two years into the revolution, after the Bay of Pigs: ‘What the imperialists can’t forgive,’ he proclaimed in a speech, ‘is that we have made a socialist revolution right under their noses!’
Vargas Llosa is right that the radicalisation of the Cuban Revolution had a Guatemalan connection. In 1953, Ernesto Guevara had moved to Guatemala City to witness the unfolding of land reform and, as he put it in a letter home, to ‘perfect himself’. It was Guatemalans who nicknamed him ‘Che’, after the Argentinian verbal tic that means, roughly, ‘hey, you’. Che used to hang around what is still the best bar downtown, El Portalito, meeting up with leftists from all over Latin America. In these circles he met his first wife, the Peruvian economist Hilda Gadea. Che wanted to take up arms to fight for Árbenz, but, when no popular militias materialised, he was forced to seek protection inside the Argentine consulate. He secured a safe conduct pass to Mexico, where he met Fidel. ‘It was Guatemala which finally convinced him of the necessity for armed struggle and for taking the initiative against imperialism,’ Gadea recalled. ‘By the time he left, he was sure of this.’ Che helped convince Fidel that to ensure the revolution’s success they had to purge the army – the army’s betrayal in Guatemala had been decisive.
Vargas Llosa’s view, expressed more fully in interviews than in the novel, is that the bloody battles of the time were a result of the left seeking ties with the Soviet Union and arming themselves with AK-47s. He sees 1954 as the watershed moment. But while US covert action certainly helped push some Latin Americans into the arms of the Soviets, it’s delusional to think that the guerrilla movements which raged through Latin America in the later 20th century can be traced back so neatly to the overthrow of Árbenz. There had been continuous rebellions throughout the continent since colonial times, often around issues of landholding, slavery, race-based violence and dispossession. El Salvador’s dictator had violently quashed a communist peasant uprising in 1932. Years later, the leader of the Guatemalan Communist Party (a friend of Árbenz, which led to much of the paranoia around him) told the historian Piero Gleijeses: ‘They would have overthrown us even if we had grown no bananas.’ Take a quick look at the landowners who were unwilling to give up a single hill unless forced, and it’s obvious: there would have been guerrillas even if there had been no gringos.
But, as Vargas Llosa says, 1954 did set a malign pattern. Throughout the 1960s, guerrilla groups in Latin America – many of them trained in Cuba or with contacts there – attempted revolutions in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, El Salvador and Uruguay. In most places they were crushed with extreme violence by national armies, many of whose officers were trained in counterinsurgency at the US School of the Americas in Panama. It’s surprising to read in Cullather’s history that the CIA had originally considered a reformer to overthrow Árbenz, someone who supported and would continue land reform. The idea was that farmers who were given small plots and who were less brutally exploited were less likely to become communists. ‘Ironically,’ Cullather concludes, ‘by attaining its short-term goal – removing Jacobo Árbenz – PBSUCCESS thwarted the long-term objective of producing a stable, non-communist Guatemala.’ But by then, the operation had become a model for covert action around the world.
Believing its own propaganda about Guatemala, the US ended up sowing suspicion and anti-Yankee feeling in a region that had at least partly warmed up during the Good Neighbour Policy in the 1930s. Now, whenever someone sneezes in Latin America, someone else is quick to say that the CIA was behind it. Living and working on and off in the region for more than a decade has made me a bit of a conspiracist too. When all is said and done and the documents are declassified, it often was the CIA.
The CIA’s own intelligence, limited as it was, found that in 1954 Árbenz’s idol was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Árbenz didn’t want communism but a New Deal for Guatemala. In 1981, two decades into a civil war that ended up costing more than 200,000 Guatemalan lives, a US State Department official reflected on the extreme repression carried out by the military dictatorships the US continued to support. ‘What we’d give to have an Árbenz now,’ he said. ‘We are going to have to invent one, but all the candidates are dead.’ In 1986, after the Iran-Contra scandal broke, revealing US covert action in Nicaragua, a former CIA case officer, Philip C. Roettinger, published an article about his part in PBSUCCESS:
‘Operation Success’ was a failure. The new regime burned books. It disfranchised three-fourths of Guatemala’s people. It dismantled social and economic reforms such as land redistribution, social security and trade-union rights. Our overthrow began 31 years of repressive military rule and the deaths of more than 100,000 Guatemalans … I am seventy years old now. I have lived and worked in Latin America for more than thirty years. Done with skulduggery, I devote my time to painting the region’s beautiful scenery. It is painful to look on as my government repeats the mistake in which it engaged me 32 years ago. I have grown up. I only wish my government would do the same.
Listen to Rachel Nolan discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.