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  • Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s mural “Glorious Victory” indicts the 1954 U.S. coup in Guatemala.

    Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s mural “Glorious Victory” indicts the 1954 U.S. coup in Guatemala. | Photo: Diego Rivera

June 27 marks the anniversary of the 1954 CIA coup that toppled Guatemala's only democratic government, resulting in decades of conflict and genocide.

What a dismal anniversary. So much death and destruction to lament. And so much ongoing death and destruction linked to the 1954 coup.

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Over the years, a friend and colleague has asked a number of times: “When reporting on human rights violations in Guatemala, when will you [and Rights Action] stop talking about the 1954 military coup? That was decades ago.”

This is like asking when will First Nation peoples in Canada stop talking about the historical and on-going impacts of colonialism, genocide and ethnocide? Or when will African-Americans stop talking about hundreds of years of slavery as part of the foundation on which the U.S. was built, and about on-going racism and race-based economic exploitation and disparity deriving from that history?

Guatemala today is characterized by endemic economic exploitation and disparity, racism, state and private sector repression, generalized violence, corruption and impunity. The U.S.-driven “war on drugs” has, over the past 15 years, made all of this worse.

However, the roots of this do not begin with the 1954 coup that ousted the democratically-elected government of President Jacobo Arbenz largely at the behest of the United Fruit company and in the name of fighting communism. They go back through hundreds of years of European imperialism and ensuing colonialism, through Guatemala’s formation as an undemocratic, racist country in the early 1800s and the ensuing ladino and wealthy-sector dominated governments of the 1800s and 1900s. Eduardo Galeano’s book “Open Veins of Latin America” remains as important an historical narrative today as when written in the 1970s.

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The “Guatemalan Spring”, as many refer to the 1944-1954 period, is the exception to the country’s history of state-sponsored exploitation, racism, repression, corruption and impunity. Putting an end to Guatemala’s only time period of real democracy was not, however, a mistake made by the U.S. It was a clear decision to put back in power the same undemocratic elites as before 1944. The CIA coup restored the country’s normal order that favors the economic and military interest of the dominant sectors of Guatemala and the U.S. It is an order kept in place through corruption, impunity and repression.

In the 1970s and 1980s, U.S.-funded, trained and armed regimes killed and disappeared more than 250,000 Guatemalans and forcibly displaced over one million people. In 1999, the United Nations’ Truth Commission report concluded that government repression was so calculated and widespread in certain Mayan regions of the country it amounted to genocide.

Deceitful “Apology”

Given the attention received by the Truth Commission report, U.S. President Bill Clinton was obliged to apologize: “For the United States, it is important that I clearly state that support for [Guatemalan] military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong. The United States must not repeat that mistake.”

Apologies without truthful acknowledgment of intent and behavior, without changing actual behavior, and without paying for harms caused, are worse than saying nothing.

As with the coup in 1954, the U.S. did not make a “mistake” funding, training and arming brutal military regimes in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in the 1970s and 1980s. These were decisions and actions calculated to keep in power in Guatemala (and Honduras and El Salvador) a political, economic order favorable to U.S. and other global corporate and investor interests.

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The U.S. can no more honestly apologize about the 1954 coup and 1980s genocides and massacres in Guatemala than it can about the 2009 coup in Honduras, or countless other coups and military interventions across the globe. The 52nd anniversary of “Operation PB SUCCESS” is as much about the historic and ongoing injustices and exploitations in Guatemala, as it is about on-going U.S. interventionism across the globe.

Admittedly, this commentary is based on generalizations. A major element missing from this storyline is discussion about who are the real democrats in Guatemala: the majority of the population that supported the governments of the “Guatemalan Spring” (1944-1954), that organized and struggled for change through the 1960s and 1970s (until crushed by the genocidal regimes of the1980s), that are organizing and struggling peacefully today in defense of community, human rights and the environment and for profound change and transformation.

The anniversary of the U.S. coup is a day of mourning and lament in Guatemala, and should be, as well, in the U.S. And it is a day to honor again the real democrats in Guatemala—Mayan and non-Indigenous people working and organizing, one community at a time, one region at a time, for another world is necessary and possible. Likewise, it is a day to honor the real democrats in the U.S.—those people and organizations working tirelessly to acknowledge, challenge and transform the globally interventionist U.S. society and state.

Grahame Russell is co-director of Rights Action, a community development, environmental and human rights solidarity organization.

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