Rich Cohen’s biography of Sam Zemurray, the legendary businessman who built the United Fruit Company into a regional king-making empire, is, to be blunt, phenomenal. To learn the story of how one man who sold bananas played a decisive role in such a world-changing event as the founding of Israel is well worth the cheap price of this paperback – and that is only one of the fascinating stories presented.
There is, however, one major flaw. It is his treatment of Jacobo Arbenz, the Guatemalan ruler overthrown in 1954 by rebels supported by the CIA. Here, for example, is what Cohen says of the idea of Arbenz as a Communist menace:
Never mind that Arbenz claimed no allegiance to the Communist Party; never mind that Arbenz cited Franklin Roosevelt as among his heroes; never mind that many of the Arbenz policies that United Fruit found so offensive were patterned on the New Deal – the signs were evident for those who knew where to look.
That last line, by the way, is meant as ridicule for those Americans who looked on Arbenz as a threat. But, ironically, it’s true – and the signs become more and more evident as time goes on.
A few years ago, the release of files from the FBI’s most successful counterintelligence operation of the Cold War confirmed what has been known for a long time, but has been taboo in academic and intellectual circles ever since the rise of the so-called anti-anti-Communist “New Historians.” The files from the operation code-named “Operation SOLO” confirm that the regime of Jacobo Arbenz was indeed Communist-aligned and that it was dependent on and heavily influenced by the Stalinist Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT, which is what the Guatemalan Communist Party called itself).
Operation SOLO, as described by the great Cold War historian Ronald Radosh,
“referred to the secret recruitment of two bitter ex-Communists, Morris and Jack Childs. The Bureau urged them to rejoin the Party, and work within its ranks to feed information to them. Before long, Morris Childs became what in effect was the CP’s Secretary of State, traveling around the world to meet top Communist leaders, including those of both the Soviet Union and China. From his perch, he passed on to the U.S. Government all he learned first hand from Moscow’s top leaders.”
On March 17, 1959, a report (see here, starting on page 124) was sent to FBI Director J. Edger Hoover recounting “a meeting” – attended by Morris Childs – “between Communist Party-USA delegates to the 21st Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and delegates from the Guatemalan Party of Labor, which is the Communist Party of Guatemala”, which “occurred on February 15, 1959, in Moscow, Russia.”
Childs reports that Peter Alvarez, described as the Secretary of the Central Committee of PGT, “said that first of all the bourgeoisie of Guatemala betrayed the cause of democracy. This was illustrated by the betrayal of the army and by the hesitancy and vacillations of the petty bourgeosie around former President ARBANZ (ph), who resigned as President. He said that the Communist Party did not agree with the resignation of ARBANZ. For a long time, ARBANZ was friendly to the Communist Party and its allies. ARBANZ is presently in Uruguay and is still friendly to the Communist Party.” (Spelling and emphasis in the original document)
The Orwellian, Stalinist language in Alvarez’s arguments is impeccable. The PGT’s definition of and dedication to “democracy” can be determined later on in the document when Alvarez proudly states that Communist Party supported the Soviet Union’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956. A lot has been made of assertion that Jocobo Arbenz was “democratically elected” in 1951 – often overlooking the fact that his opponent was assassinated shortly before the election by a man driving a car belonging to Arbenz’s wife (the late E. Howard Hunt, the CIA spymaster who oversaw the Agency’s operation in Guatemala, said of the relation between Arbenz and his wife that “his wife was by far the smarter of the two and sort of told him what to do. She was a convinced communist.”). The assassin himself latter became Arbenz’s private secretary and then head of agrarian reform until the 1954 uprising.
The nature of the Arbenz regime was later exposed by some of the reds themselves. Historian Piero Gleijeses interviewed Arbenz’s widow and high-ranking members of the Guatemalan Communist Party who admitted that Communists influence reached the Guatemalan government at all levels. Carlos Manuel Pellecer, a former top official of the Arbenz government and a former leader of the Guatemalan Communist Party, detailed this relationship further in his memoir Arbenz y Yo. And in 2010,Granma, the official newspaper of Communist Cuba, published an interview with Rodolfo Romero, a Nicaraguan and founding member of the Stalinist Sandinista National Liberation Front who were among the many Communists who “came knocking on the door of this Central American country [Guatemala]“.
When asked “How did a young Nicaraguan come to lead a communist brigade in Guatemala?” He responded [decoded in brackets]:
“The objective of the Nicaraguan exiles [communists] was to train ourselves for overthrowing Somoza, while at the same time contributing to the just democracies [Stalinist dictatorships] of other peoples. … Immediately I made contact with the communist forces in this country [Guatemala]; I even took part in the founding Congress of its party.”
Romero told another fascinating story:
“It was June 24, 1954 and Guatemala City had just been terribly bombed. Che [Guaverra] arrived at the house of the Augusto César Sandino youth brigade, of which I was the leader, with a letter from a Chilean communist. He asked for Edelberto Torres, another Nicaraguan exile and the son of an eminent anti-Somoza fighter. As Edelberto was in a meeting of the Party, I asked him to come in and wait. … Without much ceremony, because in wartime everything is pressured, I gave him a Czech carbine from the guard going off duty who, incidentally, was not Guatemalan, but the Cuban Jorge Risquet Valdés. ‘And how does one handle this?’ he exclaimed…”.
So, in the middle of Guatemala City, an Argentine Communist shows up at a safe house guarded by a Cuban Communist to give a letter from a Chilean Communist to a Nicaraguan Communist and is handed a weapon from Communist Czechoslovakia and is instructed by another Nicaraguan Communist on how to use it – and we are supposed to believe the United States was lying when they said:
“From their European base the Communist leaders moved rapidly to build up the military power of their agents in Guatemala. In May a large shipment of arms moved from behind the Iron Curtain into Guatemala. The shipment was sought to be secreted by false manifests and false clearances. Its ostensible destination was changed three times while en route. At the same time, the agents of international communism in Guatemala intensified efforts to penetrate and subvert the neighboring Central American States. They attempted political assassinations and political strikes. They used consular agents for political warfare.” (Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Radio and Television Address of June 30, 1954)
If I had to guess, I’d say the United States was more concerned with what was just described than it was with fruit companies (in fact, the United Fruit Company’s monopoly was broken up with new anti-trust laws shortly after the 1954 uprising). It’s sad that the academic well was so poisoned that we could be brought to believe the opposite.
Despite this flaw, however, I recommend Mr. Cohen’s book to anyone interested in great history and great storytelling. And be ready to explain the odd book cover if you start getting funny looks.
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