Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jungle Capitalists (1)

Historians can be just as guilty of churnalism as journos. Us bloggers on the other hand can surely be forgiven our predeliction for apocrypha.

One of those stories I've seen 'churned' out in various forms by more serious commentators than I will ever profess to be is that of the collaboration between the CIA and the United Fruit Company in bringing about the 1954 coup that curtailed democracy in Guatemala for three decades.

I was however encouraged to discover that Peter Chapman, author of Jungle Capitalists, had knocked up a thesis about UFC whilst studying at Sussex University and was therefore more likely to be au fait with the more primary kind of material available on this subject.

What I found especially interesting was his account of the role of some of the pioneers of the American PR industry in this seminal piece of regime change.

United Fruit had long been making use of the services of Edward Bernays - 'the father of spin' - a nephew of Sigmund Freud whose magnum opus Propaganda spoke of the 'group mind' and 'invisible government' whilst establishing his own profession as the 'unseen mechanism of society'.

Bernays had famously repositioned cigarettes as 'lights of freedom' in a 1929 campaign targeted at women, so it is unsurprising that United Fruit would contract him to re-brand Central America as Middle America (and to help them set up the 'Middle American Information Bureau'.)

The soon-to-be-displaced government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala was causing offence to all lovers of Carmen Miranda and Señorita Chiquita Banana with his land redistribution policies, which involved handing over UFC's fallow estates to poor Indians and then paying the company compensation at book value, and in bonds withal.

The brother of United Fruit's former CEO was in charge of Latin American affairs at the State Department and duly sent the Guatemalan goverment an invoice for what the US thought was a more appropriate valuation: $16m.

Langley plotting against Guatemalan democracy had started under Truman but didn't really get going until John Foster Dulles was handed the State Department by Eisenhower.

CIA agent Howard Hunt, who went on to do great things at the Bay of Pigs and the Watergate Hotel, was instructed by Director Allen Dulles to build a case that Árbenz was intellectually challenged and under the control of his wife, Maria Cristina Villanova, a progressive-leaning lady from one of the '14' families of El Salvador. (One could see something similar going on in the local media when Colom was standing for election last year)

Hunt created a phony radio station called the Voice of Liberation and hired an actor to anchor it. He then recruited exiled General and part-time furniture salesman Carlos Castillo Armas to fulfill the role of liberator personified.

Meanwhile Bernays had helped el pulpo to produce a 20 minute film entitled Journey to Banana Land which was widely shown in American schools during the crisis year of 1954. He was also organising a series of notorious press junkets to Guatemala involving mocked-up disturbances designed to convince editors that the country was a hotbed of communist agitation.

Another PR called John Clements produced a 'Report on Guatemala' which advised Eisenhower's government that the ultimate aim of la Señora Árbenz and her commie compadres was nothing less than the seizure of the Panama Canal no less.

As Castillo Armas and his rather compact army of liberation approached Guatemala City, Hunt made sure that the roads behind him were littered with dead mules, suggestive of heavy fighting - which was backed up by reports on The Voice of Liberation. Pictures were shown to US newsmen of bodies, reportedly the result of government atrocities but more likely, Thomas McCann later admitted, to be archive images of earthquake victims.

CIA planes then dropped a few bombs on the capital's slums along with a letter signed by the Archbishop declaring Árbenz to be a godless communist.

Che Guevara, in Guatemala because he'd failed to get a post at a United Fruit hospital, urged Árbenz to 'take to the hills' but instead the President fled the country and the long nightmare of successive dictatorships and civil war began. Che meanwhile headed for sanctuary at the Argentinian embassy. Hunt later claimed to have briefly captured the future guerrilla leader and to have made the glaring error of sparing his life.

More on this fascinating book later...

1 comment:

scott said...

Excellent review. I am going to order the book today.

If you've seen El Silencio de Neto, the backdrop of that Guatemalan film is the PR campaign against Arbenz.

There's a persistent rumor in la capital that to this day you can see CIA damage to El Palacio Nacional. I've casually looked but have not seen anything glaring.other than the green color.