Final Project

December 18th, 2012

Guatemala, United Fruit and the CIA
Why did the United Fruit Company use the CIA to overthrow the Arbenz government in Guatemala?
Last semester I took Geography of Latin America there was a book I read that piqued my interest in a time period and region that I had previously shunned. It is common knowledge that most countries of Central and South America have had many obstacles and difficulties when establishing their governments after they won their independent. Many countries suffered from ruthless dictators, massive debt and low literacy rates or uneducated lower classes. After reading “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World” by Dan Koeppel I learned that in many countries corporations from the United States and the US government itself often exacerbated or caused most of these problems. After reading the book I did more research on my own reading about the banana and the United Fruit Company.
After reading some more books on the topic I decided to narrow my research on Guatemala. I had knowledge of the CIA coup that overthrew the Arbenz government in the 1950’s. As most coup carried out during the cold war I became a little suspicious. After reading about Jacobo Arbenz and his predecessor Juan Arevalo and the positive direction they were taking the country I became even more confused. Then I read “Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala” by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, and the answer became simple: The United Fruit Company. What reason would this company have to overthrow a government that not only first democratically elected one in Central America but also genuinely cared about the citizens of their country? Money.
The first map shows all of the ports of call for the Great White Fleet of the United Fruit Company. The Great White Fleet was refrigerated ships (the first of their kind) that were used to transport bananas between ports in North and South America. The United Fruit Company pretty much controlled the banana market in Latin America. They had ports in the majority of countries in Central America, with some countries having more than one.
The second map shows the CIA backed invasion of Guatemala called Operation PBSUCCESS. The CIA supplied “rebels” with arms, planes and ammunition. The rebel forces were staged in Honduras and attacked from over the border. Due to the fact that the Guatemalan army outnumbered the rebel forces, the CIA also distributed pamphlets, and posters as well as spread political rumors. In addition, the CIA also carried out air raids in the capital area, railroad routes and gasoline storage. All of these elements combined made Operation PBSUCCESS quick and effective. After only 9 days of fighting President Jacobo Arbenz surrended and resigned his post.
The timeline shows the development of the Guatemalan government from a dictatorship that catered to the United Fruit Company’s ever need to a democratic government that worked for the people. It was during the “10 year of Spring” when Arevalo and Arbenz enacted laws to protect workers and build up the middle and lower class that the United Fruit Company began to plot their fall. The laws that Arevalo and Arbenz enacted were seen as a direct threat to the company’s profits and assets. They began a PR campaign against the Guatemalan government in the United States to rally support to have them overthrown.
The graphs really show why the company was felt so threatened by the Guatemalan government. United Fruit had devalued their land in order to reduce their tax liability. After decree 900 was enacted, in which all unused and fallow land was seized by the government and redistributed among the citizens. The Guatemalan government offered the company 627,572 in bonds based on the declared tax value. The U.S. State Department demanded 18,854,849 in bonds claiming the evaluations was not fair or just.
The second graph shows how much the Guatemalan government offered per acre based, how much the United Fruit Company originally paid per acre and finally how much the U.S. State Department demanded per acre.
The Wordle pictures are compiled from articles about Edward Bernays, the main architect of the company’s PR campaign against Guatemala and the CIA’s relationship with Guatemala respectively. In the first picture, United Fruit and Guatemala are obviously mentioned the most. Public and Arbenz are mentioned a fair amount was well. In the second picture PBSUCCESS was obviously mentioned frequently. United and Fruit were mentioned a fair amount as well showing the ties of the company to the agency. Communist was another word that mentioned often. That word is important because the “claim” and subsequent “belief” that Arbenz and many in his government were communist was the main reason for the invasion.
There is a picture of a Google Ngram of Guatemala. You can see that books about the county peaked when there were period of political upheaval. I also included banana in search because the fruit was so closely tied to the country. It appears that as the fruits popularity increased so did writings about it. An increase can been seen in recent decades but that is probably due to the threat of Panama Disease and extinction.
My research has shown that the CIA coup of Guatemala was not over communism or an unstable government but it was largely due to the money and greed of the United Fruit Company. Jacobo Arbenz was the president of a nation that was finally putting the needs of the people first. Unfortunately for him, the needs of the people did coincide with the needs of a corporation.
Due to the fact that most of this project is largely interactive, printing it would take away from its impact. I definitely want to keep this up on my blog for preservation but also much on my information was I got from books and archives.

Nicholas Cullather, Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952-1954 (Washington, D.C.: CIA, 1994)

Mintz, S., & McNeil, S. (2012). Digital History. Retrieved December 18 2012. from

Larry Tye, Watch Out For Top Banana. Cabinet Magazine 2006. Retrieved December 10 2012.  from




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