Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies) Paperback – 23 Dec 2005
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About the Author
Stephen Schlesinger is Director of the World Policy Institute Stephen Kinzer is cultural correspondent for The New York Times.
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Top Customer Reviews
Reading the book made me feel anger bordering on hatred towards Dulles and Eisenhower. The strutting self important Peurifoy dictating to another nation. Eisenhower elsewhere did some good things. I despair in thinking about how they rationalised actions like this coup and the one in Iran and their self righteous public declarations.
Some influential americans disagreed with these policies but they were sidelined. Bernays and United Fruit are fit for contempt only. The US press with exceptions comes across as a passive tool of government policy without curiosity.
I felt sad for the decades long mess in Guatemala and the appalling violence which the US condoned especially in the sities - wack the mole and it will disappear permanently
In a depressingly familiar pattern, we see economic motives tied to blinkered ideology and opportunism resulting in death, the destruction of a country and a generation's dreams, and decades of suffering.
The cast of characters includes E. Howard Hunt, of Watergate infamy.
Observers of modern-day populist leaders in Latin America (e.g. Morales in Bolivia and Chavez in Venezuela) would do well to understand the historical context provided by this book; every leader who opposes the USA is sharply aware of what happened to Arbenz in Guatemala.
United Fruit, the company who were most threatened by Arbenz's land reforms, are now called Chiquita. For more on that side of the story, there's Bananas!: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"Bitter Fruit" explodes some cherished myths that apologists for the coup have proffered over the years. First, it's clear that Roosevelt rather than Stalin provided the inspiration to the presidencies of Juan Jose Arevalo (1945-1951) and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (1951-1954). Both Arevalo and Arbenz were motivated by the policies and practices of the New Deal; their support for labor and their actions towards American businesses must be viewed in this light and were never any worse than the laws passed during the Depression in the United States. Regardless of whatever tolerance Guatemalan Communists may have enjoyed, or influence they may have had--and it's clear that they didn't have much--the Eisenhower administration was motivated as much by scorn of the Roosevelt and Truman years as by anti-Communism. (Tellingly, those who cite Che Guevera's presence in Guatemala often fail to note that his arrival, at the age of 25 in early 1954, postdated the planning of American intervention and predated by many years Guevera's notoriety.)
Second, the succession of American puppets who succeeded Arbenz were certainly not supported by the people of Guatemala: the ragtag opposition "army" never exceeded 400 troops in number, and none of the dictators during the next four decades could have survived a freely held election. Between 1954 and the early 1990s, tens of thousands of civilians were imprisoned, executed, or "disappeared" at the fleeting whims of a series of brutal tyrants--and this, to most Central Americans, is the "bottom line" legacy of American interference. Third, some defend American intervention because the Guatemalan land reforms in the early 1950s "stole" property from the United Fruit Company. What the supporters of the company's property rights rarely acknowledge is that one of the company's early founders, Samuel Zemurray, acquired its land, as well as a railroad monopoly, by organizing from New Orleans a coup in 1905 that overthrew the existing government and installing UFC's own puppet--all in violation of American law. In addition, when the Arbenz government attempted to compensate UFC for the land (all of it fallow), the company admitted that it had fraudulently undervalued their holdings for tax purposes at $627,000; the land was worth closer to $16 million.
And, finally, what is clear from Schlesinger's and Kinzer's account is that the Americans behind the 1954 coup, from Ambassador John Peurifoy to the Dulles brothers to Eisenhower himself, knew that what they were doing was indefensible. In order to "sell" the coup at all they had to invent a propagandistic war against a democratically elected government to a gullible American media. Not surprisingly, they covered up and denied American involvement not only at the time but during the ensuing years. Furthermore, many of the participants who survived into the late 1970s either confessed their regret to the authors of this book or admitted that the horrific long-term consequences of the coup in no way justified its short-term "success."
The American adventure in Guatemala was fostered by bad intelligence, furthered by greedy intentions, and executed with no coherent strategy, and it dealt a serious blow both to democracy and to the immediate and long-term interests of the United States government. Meticulously documented, this blood-boiling yet even-handed study should be read by all who are concerned by the consequences of ill-conceived, unilaterally executed, and short-sighted foreign policy planning.
This is the story of how the United States Government plotted against and overthrew the first democratically elected government in Guatemala. It clearly demonstrates how our government became an instrument, not of Democracy, but of oppression for the benefit of the wealthy. The right-wing coup, planned and supported by the CIA, led to other covert operations, many of which succeeded in enriching American corporations at the expense of Democracy.
Jacobo Arbenz, elected to the presidency of Guatemala was faced with a crisis of poverty. Most of the nation's land belonged to a very few rich, and to United Fruit Company. Much of that land lay fallow. Arbenz instituted a land reform package which called for turning over fallow land to the country's impoverished campesinos. Land would be purchased by the government from the owners at the value THE OWNERS had declared for property tax purposes. Sounds fair enough, right? Honest landowners would receive fair recompense for unused land. Dishonest landowners would get their just desserts.
Nevertheless, United Fruit Company, using its pull with John Foster & Allen Dulles, Secretary of State & CIA Director, respectively, managed to have their own revolution created and funded by the US Government, wrapped in a shroud of anti-communism. The dictator they instated continued the tradition of repression that Guatemala had known for decades before.
The only real winners of in this story were the stockholders of United Fruit. Today, in the "New World Order," we're more subtle, using international development loans and free trade agreements to undermine Democracy in third world nations. The tools may have changed, but the goal remains the same: Corporate wealth continues to supersede and destroy Democracy worldwide.
Kinzer and Schlesinger's writing is impeccable, and somehow manages to stay apolitical. The authors do an excellent job of not flaunting the miscues of the American overthrow of Guatemala's democratically elected government, but merely let the facts from all angles tell their own story. In addition, the writing is quite fast-paced in style but pays attentive detail to fact and exhautively denotes the sources behind the writing. I purchased this for reading as part of a class assignment - and then cited it in two places in my senior essay!
So instead of buying a FICTIONAL thriller or adventure or spy novel for your downtime reading, why not pick up a book where the plot . . . actually happened?! In addition, despite being originally published a quarter century ago, the book is amazingly relevant to issues in today's foreign policy (*cough* Iraq *cough*). Also, I HIGHLY recommend for history buffs like myself - but this book can be enjoyed by anyone. Well, "enjoyed" isn't really the word - after reading this book, I felt a sense of anger towards our government for their selfish actions 50 years ago, and a sense of pity toward the people of Guatemala, who had no idea what hit them. But the feelings weren't on the level as to wish that I had never read the book - on the contrary, it made me feel more enlightened both about the Cold War era as well as today's international climate.
The Kinzer-Schlesinger book is one of those rarities--in two sub-disciplines: an area studies and a foreign policy classic. The rigor of the research that undergirds the book is clear from the early pages; the story is compelling;and the moral is timeless. Both as an examination of politics in Guatemala in the early 1950s AND as a study of U.S. foreign policy in that period, the book is almost without peer. As John Coatsworth notes in his introduction, "Now that the Cold War ... has ended, the lessons Bitter Fruit sought to convey are just as relevant [as] they were" when it was written.
John Coatsworth's fine Introduction is very useful in placing the book in historical perspective. Particularly for students for whom the Vietnam war is as ancient a history as World War II is for the authors and me, and for whom the Cold War is primarily memories of people breaking down the Berlin Wall with hammers, Coatsworth's introduction reminds the reader that history CAN repeat itself--if under different guises. As Walter Lefeber (whom Coatsworth cites) argues in Inevitable Revolutions, the U.S. goal in Central America from the nineteenth century forward was control of the region; only the rationale changed from era to era. This introduction reminds us of that reality; my only comment in this context is that the latest means of control is (as it was for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) economic--this time neo- liberal economic policies.
Kinzer's Afterword is an appropriate and useful reflection on Guatemala in recent years. Reading Coatsworth and Kinzer together was a good exercise; the two essays are excellent "bookends" for the original manuscript.
Tommie Sue Montgomery, Ph.D.
As a graduate student in political science, I have been trained to explain political phenomena as functions of identifiable and measurable independent factors. While the parsimony afforded by the academic approach has its advantages, Schlesinger and Kinzer's account reminds us that political reality is shaped by fallibe individuals often guided by imperfect information and their own ideological commitments. Indeed, the most vexing question that came to my mind was how men like the American Ambassador to Guatemaula in '54 and the dogmatic Dulles brothers ever attained positions of such prominence. Their belief that the social reforms being enacted in Guatemala represented the initial stage of a Communist revolution that would spread through all of Latin America seems ludicrous in hindsight, and Schlesinger and Kinzer's account makes clear that the evidence upon which this domino theory rested was shaky to begin with. The role that the "liberal" media played in reproducing the American accusations against Arbenz's government is one of the most interesting aspects of this book.
In conclusion, the authors are clearly antagonistic to the neoconservative ideology that justified American intervention around the world in the name of "anti-communism." Advocates of this view will naturally find weaknesses in their account. That said, Schlesinger and Kinzer are not apologists of the Guatemalan revolution of 1944. They devote ample space to detailing the weaknesses of the economic and social reforms enacted in the name of the revolution. All in all, their tone and their evidence permit the reader to form his or her own conclusions regarding the sagacity of America's interference in Guatemala's political and social evolution.
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