When Che Guevara first visited Guatemala in 1953, the country was struggling to escape its banana republic past. Over the decades, dictators had given the nation’s best farmland to United Fruit. As a result, United Fruit owned more land than any other person or group in Guatemala. The company also owned Guatemala’s railway, electricity system, and only port.
The situation in Guatemala began to change in 1950, when the nation held free and fair elections. Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, a former military officer, was elected president by an overwhelming majority of voters. Arbenz considered himself a Socialist. Socialists believe that businesses should operate according to principles of fairness for all rather than profits for a few. In a Socialist society, state and privately owned businesses work together. Socialist countries often raise money through high taxes on individuals and private businesses. The tax money pays for education, health care and social services.
Guevara arrived in Guatemala during a very tense period in its history. The year before, in 1952, Arbenz had put in place a series of reforms, giving free farmland to thousands of poor families. To make this possible, the government forced United Fruit, and other companies, to sell acreage that was not being farmed. Arbenz himself gave up a large plot of family-owned land. Over eighteen months, the land program distributed millions of acres to about one hundred thousand families.
In 1953 United Fruit and U.S. politicians who supported the company began a political and media campaign against Arbenz. Opponents falsely labeled Arbenz a Communist. They said Arbenz was allowing the Communist Soviet Union to gain power in Guatemala and to use it as a base to start revolutions in the region. In this era, the United States and the Soviet Union were bitter enemies. The USA was extremely fearful of Communism spreading around the world. In this climate of fear and paranoia, the CIA secretly worked with United Fruit to overthrow the democratically elected Arbenz. The company smuggled weapons into Guatemala on its ships, and the CIA began training military forces in neighboring Nicaragua.
At the same time, thousands of Latin American political activists flooded into Guatemala to observe Arbenz’s reforms firsthand. Che Guevara was among them. In a letter to his aunt in Argentina, Guevara explained his reasons for the trip: I had the opportunity to pass through the landholdings of United Fruit, convincing me once again of just how terrible these capitalist octopuses are. I have sworn… that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated. In Guatemala I will perfect myself and achieve what I need to be an authentic revolutionary.
In early 1954, the CIA had hundreds of spies in Guatemala City. One of those spies was assigned to watch Che Guevara. The CIA agent typed a short profile with basic information about Guevara. He noted that Guevara was a charming 25-year-old Argentinean physician who often met with Cuban revolutionaries and was an outspoken supporter of Socialist president Arbenz.
On June 16, 1954, U.S.-backed forces began bombing raids on Guatemala. Guevara put his medical skills to work, helping the wounded. On June 27, fearful that the U.S. military would soon invade Guatemala, Arbenz resigned rather than risk widespread bloodshed. He fled to Mexico City, Mexico. Guatemala’s new president, Carlos Castillo Armas–handpicked by the CIA–entered Guatemala City a few days later. Castillo Armas announced that he would round up and arrest everyone who supported Arbenz.
On October 15, 1967, Fidel Castro acknowledged publicly that Che Guevara had been assassinated (in Bolivia by CIA agent Felix Rodriguez and Bolivian sergeant Mario Teran) and called for three days of public mourning in Cuba.
In the months that followed, millions of young people throughout the world took these words (Castro’s speech on Guevara) to heart. In 1968 protests erupted at college campuses and in big cities in Europe and North America. The demonstrators demanded peace in Vietnam, an end to capitalist greed, and equality for all races. Some of them waved posters emblazoned with the famous 1960 photo of Che Guevara taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda. Many protestors expressed support for Communists in Cuba, North Vietnam, and the Congo. The demonstrators often clashed with police.
The best biographies of Ernesto Guevara are Che Guevara: You Win or You Die by Stuart A. Kallen and Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson. The best textbook on the very broad subject of socialism is Socialism by Dr. Thomas Fleming. THE END