US Democratic Hypocrisy and Economic Exploitation in Guatemala

What do you call a foreign policy supposedly promoting the ideological tenets and values of liberal democracy yet implemented on a circumstantial basis and often only with the end goal of economic exploitation and the furthering of self-interest? Flagrant hypocrisy. Throughout history —and arguably still to this day— United States foreign policy has been just that: a policy plagued by the dissonance between stated ideology and realized action. All anyone has to do to see proof of this is take a look at the history of US relations with the developing country of Guatemala. United States vindicationist promotion of democracy throughout the world is much more convoluted and multifaceted than what meets the eye, and while it is said to be done in the name of goodwill to other nations, self-interested ulterior motives lie at the heart of it.

The key contradiction in US democratic promotion as a foreign policy is that the US has upheld and supported authoritarian regimes in some nations and blatantly toppled democratic movements struggling for social and political reform in others. Unbeknownst to much of the American public, the cold, hard ugly truth is this: whether or not the US supports a foreign government has more to do with the economic and political self-interests of American leaders and what the US as a nation stands to gain from it than the political and ideological model of that government. To put it bluntly, the US would favor an authoritarian, oppressive government just as fervently as a democratic one if that authoritarian government were cooperative and acted in line with American interests. This ideologically hypocritical and contradictory tendency has especially characterized foreign policy in relation to Latin America, and US involvement and intervention in Latin American affairs for the furthering of its own selfish economic and political gains, under the mask of morality and altruism, has done infinitely more harm than good. The case of US military intervention in Guatemalan politics in the 1950s is an exemplary testament to this, as the nation continues to suffer from the aftermath of the US’s unwelcome and exploitative actions.       

United States-Guatemala relations started off on the wrong foot. The United Fruit Company (UFCO) was a private American corporation created in 1899 that took advantage of the lucrative tropical lands of Central and South America in order to monopolize fruit sales in the United States and Europe throughout much of the 20th century. Its influence was especially potent in Guatemala, where its intrusive omnipresence in virtually all aspects of Guatemala’s economy and extensive exploitation of Guatemalan banana plantations earned the company the nickname of ‘El Pulpo,’ Spanish for ‘The Octopus.’ The UFCO essentially had its Latin American operative headquarters based in the Guatemalan town of Bananera- the epicenter from which the epidemic of exploitation and corruption slowly spread to infect the rest of the country, paralyzing its political autonomy and economic development. Throughout the early 1900s, the UFCO had virtually all of Guatemala’s means of communications and transportation— as well as its right-wing dictators— wrapped around its finger. Guatemalan banana plantations were the sites of about 25% of its total production, and the company forced landless peasants to do the arduous, endless labor of growing and harvesting the bananas, often under poor working conditions and with low pay. Guatemalan agricultural workers in the banana and coffee growing fields were also expected to pay very high tariffs, while the UFCO sat back, supervised, and evaded tax-paying altogether. After nearly a decade of brutal repression under the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico and its government being strong-armed and influenced by the Fruit Company, Guatemala decided to take back its country and remodel it according to the famous democratic principle of “by the people, for the people.” With a popular revolution in 1944 that removed Ubico from power and called for the country’s first democratic elections, newly elected leader Juan José Arévalo took the political reins and aimed to steer Guatemala on a path towards progress. He was later succeeded by  Jacobo Árbenz, who began to implement social and democratically progressive reforms that aimed to regain control of the economy from foreign influence and give land back to Guatemala’s landless peasants. This did not sit well with the US Fruit Company, who intended to maintain their exploitative dominance over the ‘banana republic’. As a result of this threat to American economic interests, in 1954, the Truman Administration and CIA fabricated the threat of an impending communist coup in Guatemala and intervened militarily to remove Árbenz from power when the fragile seedlings of democracy had just started to take root. In his place, the United States installed yet another dictatorial military regime and set the stage for years of repression and injustice to come. How ironic that this was the foreign policy action chosen by a country that proclaims itself to be  ‘The Land of the Free’ and ‘The Protector’ of democracy throughout the world. US intervention ultimately crushed Guatemala’s chances of ever truly democratizing and developing, instead sending the nation on a downward spiral marked by a 36-year-long Civil War replete with governmental corruption, social and ethnic stratification, and violent atrocities such as the attempted genocide of its indigenous Mayan population. All in the name of bananas, money, economic prestige, and private interests.

The wounds are still fresh. Guatemala has yet to recover, and it is yet to be determined if it ever will. Its society is still economically underdeveloped and rife with government corruption, poverty, and racism. Its streets are plagued by drug and gang-related crime, rape, and murder- normalized vestiges of the legacy of bloodshed and violence that have marked its history. Its people, despite looking hopefully to the future, are still hopelessly haunted by the past.

The story of Guatemala is the story of many Latin American countries, such as Chile and Argentina, and even numerous countries in the Middle East ranging from Iran to Egypt. It is a story that needs to be brought to light and examined through an especially self-critical lens, as it begs the following question: is this the international reputation we want for our nation? Do we want to be known as a nation that only lends support when it’s in our best interest? The United States’ inconsistent promotion of liberal democracy and its hypocritical and contradictory foreign policy actions is an issue I continue to grapple with. With that said, in the interest of long overdue reparations and out of consideration for underdeveloped, struggling countries around the world, I hope we find some policy consistency soon.