By Council on Hemispheric Affairs
05/15/07 "ICH" --- - In 1954, United Fruit, in concert with the CIA, successfully orchestrated the overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, charging that the Central American nation had fallen under communist influence. The demise of Arbenz took time to accomplish, with the fatal draught being a casual concoction of miscommunication, corporate arrogance, misinformation, outright deception, a naïve reform-minded government and arrogance on the part of the Eisenhower administration. Arbenz was neither a communist, nor was his government profoundly sympathetic to extreme leftist ideas as charged at the time by U.S. government officials and media outlets. Upon his election in 1951, Arbenz took office in a country in which 70% of the arable land was controlled by 2.2% of the population – only 12% of which was being cultivated at the time of his overthrow in 1954. Like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, he wanted to reform what was palpably neither a good nor just society.
Case Studies of Guatemala and Venezuela
The parallels between Guatemala in 1954 and present day Venezuela are uncomfortably close, which is cause enough for concern that the U.S. government and its compliant media have predictably taken sides. It was of little surprise therefore that land reform was one of the priorities chosen by the democratically-elected Arbenz just as it has become for President Chavez. Soon after taking office, both reformers similarly instituted wide ranging agricultural reform policies that sought to distribute uncultivated land to thousands of poor, landless peasants. Arbenz’s plan, however modest it initially was in scope, struck a raw nerve with the largest landowning enterprise in Guatemala, the United Fruit Company. The holdings of this agro-industrial giant in the country were 85% uncultivated, therefore facing heavy taxes under extant law. A similar shock faced Venezuelan land holders when their fallow and speculative land parcels were scheduled to be seized by the government, to be redistributed to landless campesinos.
Bananas or Oil, the Process is the Same
Back in the early 1950’s, United Fruit, a major hemispheric banana company with extensive ties to U.S. power brokers both within and outside the government, had consistently undervalued the worth of its land reserves for the purposes of evading heavy property tax obligations. Yet, when Arbenz approached United Fruit with a compensation plan for their land scheduled for expropriation, the company balked at the $3 per acre validation price. In fact, this was the artificially low figure which had been previously designated by the company itself for tax purposes. The Guatemalan government, for its part, claimed that in fact the true assessed value of the land should have been pegged at $75 per acre. The details of this squabble mattered little, because ultimately ‘might made right’, a parable regarding the articulation of U.S. hemispheric policy that Hugo Chavez would be well advised to have on his mind without interruption.
In fact, be it Guatemalan bananas or Venezuelan oil, the differences were only in the details. The more recent round in the endemic corruption of Venezuela’s legal and administrative systems could be easily witnessed beginning in the early 1990s. At the time, traditional Venezuelan venal practices chronically engaged in by rotating the Social Democratic and Christian Democratic governments, then traditionally ruling the country, were very much in evidence. These resulted in sweetheart deals for U.S. and other foreign oil companies then seeking prized drilling rights in the Orinoco tar belt in return for shockingly low taxes and royalties.
By 1954, United Fruit was in full gear to bring down the Arbenz administration, claiming through its government and media connections, that communist labor forces had overtaken the Guatemalan government and were spreading their ideological toxicity. It did not take long for United Fruit’s public disinformation campaign to disseminate throughout the U.S. press and then to Washington’s decision makers, which subsequently resulted in the plot to rid Guatemala of Arbenz and his leftist cabal before their noxious leftist reforms had sufficient time to take root in the country. As a result of the staging of the 1954 CIA-orchestrated golpe, Arbenz was pushed out of the presidency on June 27, 1954, giving way to a U.S.-backed military regime that initiated two decades of oppressive rule in Guatemala. This regime left a cumulative death toll of almost 200,000 lives and a legacy of violence that is still being echoed today. Today, a similarly danger–fraught relationship is ongoing between another Latin American nation and the U.S – this time, Venezuela.
Increasingly malignant allegations of illegality and impropriety have been volleyed between the two adversaries for several years. Venezuelan relations with Washington have been particularly strained since shortly after Hugo Chavez’s 1998 electoral victory and again with the U.S.-backed 2002 attempted overthrow of the leftist regime. While these tensions have persisted ever since, they have recently manifested themselves in increasingly acidic comments made by Chavez and some of his senior colleagues regarding Caracas’ potential expropriation of the country’s banks as well as its largest steel producer, Sidor. Additionally, comments from Venezuela also have broadly hinted about the possible nationalization of the country’s private medical facilities. As a result, a brief scan of the news traffic now being run on the national and international media outlets yields an abundance of coverage dedicated to the lampooning, deprecation and disparagement of Venezuela by President Chavez’s political foes. These have been triggered by media reports which initially may have been based on pro-Chavez accounts, but were almost immediately doctored into running anti-Chavez schemes. These adroitly portray a distorted picture of Chavez of pressing to nationalize every sector in sight, when in actuality he may have had something quite different in mind.
Absent from the rampant speculation and rush to judgment by the media regarding Chavez’s intentions are a set of facts presenting a different story. More to the point, what seems to be at work here is mainly a sustained attempt by anti-Chavez elements to ridicule his government, rather than to accurately spell out exactly what was being proposed by Venezuelan government sources, as well as providing an active context in which these statements were being made by he and his associates. On the part of these Chavistas, such speculations were never meant to be a hard agenda of things to come, but more akin to blue sky thinking.
Immunizing Oneself from Coups
The ineffectiveness of Arbenz in demonstrating the intrinsic fairness of his land reforms in the 1950’s brought on disastrous consequences, when challenged by the wild misrepresentation of an alleged communist threat that United Fruit falsely claimed was being posed by the Arbenz government. In this instance, a thoroughly responsible effort to enact land reform was vetoed by an organized campaign of mockery and misinformation that played off the main weaknesses of the Arbenz administration – its chaotic nature and its shortage of effective administrative skills. In a similar spirit, who is to blame for today’s exchange between the incendiary words emanating from Caracas and being answered by a mendacious press and the negative commentary that it generates, with only rare attempts to accurately present the government’s economic policy?
The New York Times has characterized Chavez’s recent words regarding the potential nationalization of the country’s banks as “saber rattling.” The implication here is that the Venezuelan president’s words amount to nothing more than hollow boasts, which is dramatized by speculative quotes offered up in a number of Associated Press and other articles syndicated across the U.S. The Wall Street Journal’s slashing sword went even further, malevolently publishing a beggaring article on, “How Chávez Aims to Weaken U.S.”, one of the many rants it has directed against Chavez. The attack was severe enough to evoke a letter to the editor from Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States, who wrote the Journal in order, “to correct your suggestion that the Venezuelan government’s purchase of oil reserves along the Orinoco River is an affront to U.S. energy interests.” While it may have been a question of time for the Ambassador to respond to what is arguably the most reactionary editorial page in the U.S., someone had to answer the brand of jingoist journalistic bias that is to be found in that paper on this subject, let alone in its more respectable media brethren, including the New York Times and The Washington Post.
Though one is naturally hesitant to join in the hyperbole that characterizes so much of the commentary featured in the mainstream media regarding contemporary Venezuela, it is becoming increasingly evident that the extreme disparity between Chavez’s counter-hegemonic messages and what should be the practice of responsible journalism in the U.S. media, may not merely be a matter of random ex parte fulminations by Chavez’s ideological foes.
President Chavez has always been ready to indulge himself in rapid come-backs to malignant barbs featured in the U.S. major media (at times even provoking them) even if it means dispatching arrows in return, only to have them quickly countered by the Ambassador’s reply. Such a process is meant to cast grave doubts on the earnestness and authenticity of Venezuela’s progressive reforms up to this point. Such harsh polemics on the part of much of the U.S. media reflects an unrelenting bias on the part of the anti-Chavez media. But, it also exposes a needlessly random and often counterproductive tone emanating from Caracas. The theme here is that Chavez has every right to come forth with a nationalization program backed by a majority of Venezuelans, but it should be done in a responsible manner befitting the importance of his mission and the need of an effective strategy to put his best foot forward and not to needlessly arm his enemies.
The often conflicted nature of Chavez’s message to the people of Latin America and beyond has allowed the U.S. media to engage in mischief making and to dismiss Caracas’ words in a derisive manner – a dilemma that recently has allowed for the transformation of the speculative musings of Chavez and some of his senior colleagues regarding the banking, medical and steel industries into a veritable road map for nationalization, as depicted by his enemies. These, in turn, have been twisted into miles of conjecture and disrespect in newspaper columns across the globe, presenting a common, although largely unwarranted, interpretation that Venezuela intends to go ahead with a reckless nationalization policy heading in all directions, and that there now is solid proof that Chavez is on his way to emerge as an authoritarian figure who lacks an authentic democratic vision of what is best for his country.
If there is anything for Venezuela to learn from United Fruit’s fateful role in bringing down the Arbenz government, it is the critical importance of the targeted victim (in this instance, Venezuela) speaking with a single voice regarding the complex matters associated with the country’s economy. To do otherwise invites obfuscation and confusion. Today’s political climate throughout Latin America is such that President Chavez’s words reverberate to every corner of the hemisphere. Often, the reactions to the leadership role he now plays and the visions he now espouses are very positive, but sometimes they are not.
If Venezuela is to avoid having its message being bushwhacked by the State Department as well as by a hostile and dismissive Western media, the country would be wise to anticipate the possible likelihood that its own ‘United Fruit’ saga may be waiting in the wings to be played out against it. If Chavez’s reform policies are to meet a different and kindlier fate than those of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán’s, it might be able to ward off such bad fortune by effective coherence, fixity of purpose, the amplitude of popular support and continuity of programs in order to protect the revolution from the web of its own miscommunication and self absorption, as well as the animus of its own foes. What must be avoided is the present confusion coming from different wings of the presidential palace and ministerial offices that over half a century ago led to the overthrow of the Guatemalan government.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Staff