The CIA overthrew governments

e-Dossier: Coup in Guatemala 65 years ago

On June 27, 1954, the democratically elected government of Guatemala was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by the CIA. It was one of the first major US intelligence operations in Latin America. The coup against Jacobo Árbenz, whose father had emigrated from Andelfingen in Zurich to Guatemala, also preoccupied Swiss diplomacy.

Hopeful new beginning

Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was elected President of Guatemala in 1951. In his inaugural address, Árbenz emphasized that he wanted to transform Guatemala from a “backward country with a feudalist economic system” into a “modern and capitalist country”, reported Legation Councilor Ernest Schlatter, whom the Federal Council had delegated to the inauguration. Schlatter saw the fact that Árbenz wanted to push back the influence of the USA as an opportunity for Swiss foreign trade. Árbenz had assured him “his very great sympathy for our country and his desire to develop diplomatic and economic relations as much as possible” (dodis.ch/8695, original in French).

Liberator or Communist?

Árbenz's major land reform project brought Guatemala into conflict with the powerful US food company United Fruit Company and the US government in Washington. Árbenz was a dangerous communist, spread the US media. Swiss observers such as August R. Lindt, head of the Swiss delegation to the UN in New York, tried to assess the situation in a differentiated manner (dodis.ch/9583, cf. also dodis.ch/9382). Pierre François Brügger, Swiss envoy in Caracas, showed understanding for Árbenz '“nationalist” nationalization policy in view of the “daring methods of certain large American companies established in Central and South America […] Everyone knows that the United Fruit Co. ›in Guatemala acted as an omnipotent tyrant» (dodis.ch/9332).

"Green light" from Washington

When Árbenz finally had to flee Guatemala in the course of the violent coup in June 1954, Lindt reported to Bern: “It is generally assumed here that Washington gave the 'green light' for the start of the action” (dodis.ch / 9380). The Árbenz affair first became a problem for Bern in 1955, when he entered Switzerland and announced that he and his family wanted to set up a permanent home for himself in his father's home country (dodis.ch/9378). Would Guatemala's ex-president rely on his Swiss citizenship or could the Federal Council prevent his establishment?

An unwelcome guest

In the meantime, the coup in Guatemala had damaged Switzerland's image in the United States. The country was accused of having delivered weapons to the Árbenz government (dodis.ch/9326 and dodis.ch/9384). In the spirit of the rigid McCarthy era, the Swiss roots of the “communist” were also seen as a flaw (dodis.ch/9200). Bern was relieved when the unwelcome guest left the country after three months. From 1967 to 1969 Árbenz lived in Switzerland again (dodis.ch/34070 and dodis.ch/34072). As a Guatemalan patriot, however, he never claimed his Swiss citizenship, not least because this would have made it impossible for him to return to politics in his country. Árbenz died in 1971 under unexplained circumstances in exile in Mexico.