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The Legacy of the CIA Coup in Guatemala is felt in Grand Rapids

June 7, 2011

Fifty-seven years ago today the CIA was successful in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Guatemala in a campaign known as “Operation PBSUCCESS.”

This CIA campaign was the first of its kind in Latin America and took place over several years in an attempt to undermine the democratic efforts of the Guatemalan government. The Central American government was guilty of nothing more than trying to utilize the resources of its own country to improve the lives of its citizens.

This self-improvement plan involved a land reform effort where land that was owned by the United Fruit Company (land not being used) was appropriated so that local communities could be self-sufficient. The United Fruit Company was closely connected to the Eisenhower administration with both CIA director Allen Dulles and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles both being former lawyers for United Fruit.

The CIA coup involved many tactics, such as hiring the father of the PR industry Edward Bernays to take US reporters on “fact-finding” trips to Guatemala, collaborating with the arch-conservative Catholic Church, plus arming and training Guatemalan soldiers to defeat the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz.

One of the legacies of the 1954 CIA coup was decades of political repression that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans being murdered, tortured, disappeared and targeted for political assassination. The worst of this repression was in the 1980s, in what Amnesty International called a “genocidal campaign” against the Mayan population in Guatemala.

This brutal repression, which continues to this day (in a lesser form), has also resulted millions of Guatemalans being displaced. Many were displaced within the country, others fled to Mexico and many made their way to the US.

Before the 1980 there were very few Guatemalans living in West Michigan, but as a result of the political repression and economic policies of the last 20 years there are now thousands. The flight of Guatemalans did not end with the end of the war in 1996 and has only been exacerbated with the implementation of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005.

According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission there are an estimated 1.5 million Guatemalans living in the US who collectively send back to Guatemalan about $4 billion annually in remittances.

So what does this legacy actually mean for those of us who live in the Grand Rapids area? First, it means that we have to recognize that there are thousands of Guatemalans here and that many of them have suffered torture, political repression and a life of poverty. Before we are quick to judge or look critically at their behavior here in Grand Rapids we need to realize that they are not here because they thought it would be fun or because they wanted a part of the American dream……they are here because of a 60 year legacy of US support for political repression and economic exploitation.

Second, it means that we have to consider this historical context in relating to the Guatemalans who are here. If you work in the medical field you cannot lump Guatemalans into the “Hispanic” category and assume they speak Spanish. Most of the Guatemalans who are in this community are Mayan and speak one of many Mayan languages such as Qanjobal, Mam or Quiche.

This reality has to be factored in to those who educate Guatemalan children, those who work in social services and the non-profit sector. There are significant linguistic and cultural factors that must be considered.

Third, the Guatemalan Diaspora community is all around us if we would just pay attention. Guatemalans own small shops and restaurants, they have a few of their own religious congregations and several soccer teams. I have attended some of the soccer games and at times it felt like I was back in Guatemala, since the men and women were speaking their native language, they sat on brightly colored, hand-woven blankets and eating elote locos (crazy corn) – a traditional food, which is corn on the cob with lots of toppings.

Once we recognize that they are here we also need to be extremely sensitive to the fact that most Guatemalans live in fear of immigration and other law enforcement officers. This is not to say that most of them are undocumented. In fact, it is difficult to get a handle on the number of those who are here with legal documentation and those that are not, but regardless of their legal status most Guatemalans I know have a well-founded fear of harassment and deportation. This too is a legacy of the CIA coup, in that Guatemalans living in West Michigan are in a position of being a second-class citizen by virtue of their immigrant status, which is a direct result of the economic and military policies the US has imposed on Guatemala for the past 60 years.

The last point worth mentioning is that considering that there are these larger global dynamics that make up the social fabric of the Grand Rapids area those who are gravitate to the recent love affair of localism need to reconsider the limitations of such a philosophy. We do not live in a vacuum and what we do here impacts what happens around the world, even if we are not included in the decision-making process about policies that result in forced relocation of populations from other countries.

The legacy of the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala is not just a walk down memory lane, it is an acknowledgement of the long term consequences of US foreign policy and its impact at the local level. Grand Rapids is forever impacted by that CIA action.

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