BITTER FRUIT is about the means and methods the U.S. government, through the CIA and the American ambassador to Guatemala, used to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954. The Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz was leading an administration that was working to enact land reform. It was hoped that these efforts, among others, would stem the tide of poverty in a country still bound to a labor system that forced poor people to work a certain number of days on large farms or face prison time. Shaking off the vestiges of a dictatorship that was defeated by popular elections in the 1940s, Guatemala sought such reforms to enfranchise more citizens.
The "fruit" of the title is that of the United Fruit Company, an American concern with large land, labor and capital holdings in Guatemala and the Caribbean. UFC also had a lot of influence in government, particularly with Eisenhower's Republican administration. When Arbenz's government took the rights to Fruit Company land (much of its land was left uncultivated, held as an "in case" the company said) and paid it the value the company had listed on its Guatemalan tax returns, influence was peddled in Washington, the word "communism" was thrown around, and Eisenhower gave the go-ahead to covert operations to overthrow the democratically elected Arbenz and replace him with an American supported military junta. Ironically, the Guatemalan move to democracy in the 1940s was inspired by FDR and the country's belief in rights for all humans, whatever the economic level. (Truman, apparently, would not approve such operations, so the Fruit Company had to wait for Eisenhower to effect the outcome it wanted.)
The book is a model historical work, heavily footnoted, clearly written, factually presented and overwhelmingly upsetting. It has a chapter on Edward Bernays, an early practioner of PR, who was Freud's nephew, and who was hired by the United Fruit Company to advance its goals in the United States. Bernays did powerful work and was probably instrumental in the coup taking place by building public sentiment in the United States against the Arbenz government.
The greatest and most painful irony of all was that not long after the coup, which was instigated, basically on behalf of United Fruit Company, the U.S. government, concerned that it would seem a little "too convenient" to have overthrown a popularly elected president on behalf of a banana company, decided to bring an anti-trust suit against United Fruit, hobbling the company. One has to ask at that point, "What the heck was it all for, then?"
The final chapter answers that: An April 1998 report found that 150,000 people had been killed and 50,000 had disappeared in the time since the coup in 1954, with 80 percent of the casualties caused by government forced.
What this book reports on made me sad and disgusted, but the book is well written and fascinating, a model historical account of a pivotal incident in the history of both Guatemala and the United States.