The award-winning documentary Harvest of Empire unveils a moving human story that is largely unknown to the great majority of citizens in the US. “They never teach us in school that the huge Latino presence here is a direct result of our own government’s actions in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America over many decades - actions that forced millions from that region to leave their homeland and journey north,” says Juan González, award-winning journalist and author of the book upon which the documentary is based.
The 1954 CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala
Robert White, former US ambassador to El Salvador reveals that “If you had to pick one date where US foreign policy towards Latin America went wrong, the date would be 1954 and the place: Guatemala. That was the beginning of this terrible, terrible attitude that the United States developed towards Latin America and, particularly, towards Central America, where change became our enemy.”
From the documentary we also learn that Guatemala was one of the few countries in Latin America that, after World War ll, actually experienced a period of democratic rule. President Jacobo Arbenz was determined to reduce widespread poverty by effecting major land reform in Guatemala. Only 2% of the owners controlled 75% of the arable land. Out of all of those, the United Fruit Company was the largest, with some 600,000 acres of property.
In the US Government, John Foster Dulles, who was the Secretary of State under president Eisenhower; his brother Allen Dulles, who was the head of the CIA - had both been law partners in the main law firm that represented United Fruit Company. Melvin Goodman, former CIA division chief says that “The feeling was we could very easily overthrow this progressive government and make it a lot easier for the United Fruit Company and other American businesses to operate in Central America.”
The CIA got heavily involved in managing public opinion. It created the image of Arbenz as a crazy radical. And it was a systematic effort, mobilization and financing of opposition forces, until the Arbenz government was overthrown.
A vicious repression of all progressives and supporters of the Arbenz government ensued. Guatemala really began to establish a new pattern whereby the United States government used covert operations, employed local proxies to destabilize and overthrow governments in the region. A civil war erupted in the county that lasted 20 years. The brutality of the US-backed regimes forced many people to flee to the United States. That common US policy nearly to all the Latin America, in order to promote the interests of the US big capital, created massive waves of immigrants towards the US soil.
How the coup was designed with anti-Communist propaganda as basic tool
Adam Curtis, through his documentary The Century of the Self, goes deeper inside that story, exploring the method and the man who actually designed the coup for the CIA and the United Fruit. The man was Edward Bernays, the father of modern propaganda, or, public relations, if you prefer.
In 1953, the Soviet Union exploded it's first hydrogen bomb and the fear of nuclear war and Communism gripped the United States. Those in power became concerned about how to reassure the population. Committees were set up and public information films made appealing for calm in the face of new threats like nuclear fallout.
At this point, Edward Bernays was living in New York. In the 1920s he had invented the profession of Public Relations and was now one of the most powerful PR men in America. He worked for most of the major corporations and advised politicians, including President Eisenhower. Like his uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays was convinced that human beings were driven by irrational forces. The only way to deal with the public was to connect with their unconscious desires and fears.
Bernays argued that instead of trying to reduce people's fear of Communism, one should actually encourage and manipulate the fear. And in such a way that it became a weapon in the cold war. Rational argument was fruitless.
One of Bernays' main clients was the giant United Fruit Company. They owned vast banana plantations in Guatemala and Central America. For decades, United Fruit had controlled the company through pliable dictators. It was known as a 'banana republic'. But in 1950, a young officer, Colonel Arbenz was elected president. He promised to remove United Fruits' control over the country, and in 1953 he announced the government would take over much of their land. It was a massively popular move but a disaster for United Fruit, and they turned to Bernays to help get rid of Arbenz.
In reality, Arbenz was a Democratic Socialist with no links to Moscow, but Bernays set out to turn him into a Communist threat to America. He organized a trip to Guatemala for influential American journalists. Few of them knew anything about the country, or its politics. Bernays arranged for them to be entertained and to meet selected Guatemalan politicians who told them that Arbenz was a Communist controlled by Moscow.
During the trip, there was also a violent anti-American demonstration in the capital. Many of those who worked for United Fruit were convinced it had been organized by Bernays himself. He also created a fake independent news agency in America called the Middle America Information Bureau. It bombarded the American media with press releases saying that Moscow was planning to use Guatemala as a beachhead to attack America. All of this had the desired effect.
But what Bernays was doing was not just trying to blacken the Arbenz regime. He was part of a secret plot. President Eisenhower had agreed that America should topple the Arbenz government, but secretly. The CIA were instructed to organize a coup. Working with the United Fruit Company the CIA trained and armed a rebel army and found a new leader for the country called Colonel Armas. The CIA agent in charge was Howard Hunt, later one of the Watergate burglars.
As planes flown by CIA pilots dropped bombs on Guatemala City, Edward Bernays carried on his propaganda campaign in the American press. He was preparing the American population to see this as the liberation of Guatemala by freedom fighters for Democracy. He totally understood that the coup would happen when conditions on the public and the press allowed for a coup to happen and he created those conditions. He was totally savvy in terms of just what he was helping create there in terms of the overthrow. But ultimately he was reshaping reality, and reshaping public opinion in a way that is undemocratic and manipulative.
On June 27th, 1954, Colonel Arbenz fled the country and Armas arrived as the new leader. Within months, Vice President Nixon visited Guatemala. In an event staged by United Fruit's PR department, he was shown piles of Marxist literature that had been found it was said in the presidential palace.
Bernays had manipulated the American people but he had done so because he, like many others at the time, believed that the interests of business and the interests of America were indivisible. Especially when faced with the threat of Communism. But Bernays was convinced that to explain this rationally to the American people was impossible. Because they were not rational. Instead, one had to touch on their inner fears and manipulate them in the interest of a higher truth. He called it The Engineering of Consent. He was doing it for the American way of life to which he was sincerely devoted. And yet, he felt that the people were really pretty stupid.