July 8

This Day in History

Cold War

Jul 8, 1954:

Colonel Castillo Armas takes power in Guatemala

Col. Carlos Castillo Armas is elected president of the junta that overthrew the administration of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in late June 1954. The election of Castillo Armas was the culmination of U.S. efforts to remove Arbenz and save Guatemala from what American officials believed to be an attempt by international communism to gain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere.

In 1944, Guatemala went through a revolution that saw the removal of a long-time dictator and the establishment of the first democratically elected government in the nation's history. In 1950, Guatemala witnessed another first with the peaceful transfer of power to the newly elected president, Arbenz. Officials in the United States had watched the developments in Guatemala with growing concern and fear. The Guatemalan government, particularly after Arbenz came to power in 1950, had launched a serious effort at land reform and redistribution to Guatemala's landless masses. When this effort resulted in the powerful American-owned United Fruit Company losing many acres of land, U.S. officials began to believe that communism was at work in Guatemala.

By 1953 and into 1954, the U.S. government was intent on removing Arbenz from power and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was given this task by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The CIA established a multifaceted covert operation (code named PBSUCCESS). Beginning in June 1954, the CIA saturated Guatemala with propaganda over the radio and through leaflets dropped over the country, and also began small bombing raids using unmarked airplanes. It also organized and armed a small force of "freedom fighters"--mostly Guatemalan refugees and mercenaries--headed by Castillo Armas. This force, which never numbered more than a few hundred men, had little impact on subsequent events.

By late June, the Arbenz government, diplomatically and economically isolated by the United States, came to the conclusion that resistance against the "giant of the north" was futile, and Arbenz resigned on June 27. A short time later, Castillo Armas and his "army" marched into Guatemala City and established a ruling junta. On July 8, 1954, Castillo Armas was elected president of the junta.

For the United States, the election of Castillo Armas was the culmination of a successful covert operation against international communism. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared that Guatemala had been saved from "communist imperialism." The overthrow of Arbenz had added "a new and glorious chapter to the already great tradition of the American states." Many Guatemalans came to have a different perspective. The new regime rounded up thousands of suspected communists, and executed hundreds of prisoners. Labor unions, which had flourished since 1944, were crushed, and United Fruit's lands were restored. Castillo Armas, however, did not long enjoy his success. He was assassinated in 1957. Guatemalan politics then degenerated into a series of coups and countercoups, coupled with brutal repression of the country's people.

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