Thursday, July 26, 2007

July 26

Fifty years ago today, Carlos Castillo Armas was gunned down by a palace guardsman in Guatemala City, where he had ruled for three years as military dictator of a nation inching its way toward civil war. Castillo Armas, a former US-trained Guatemalan military officer who had already plotted -- unsuccessfully -- against his own government 1950, had fled to Honduras to escape arrest. There, he sold furniture and dreamed of returning home to crush the leftists he believed were ruining the land of his birth.

Backed by the United States, which objected among other things to the land reforms being carried out by president Jacobo Arbenz, Castillo Armas organized an army that eventually took control of Guatemala, deposing Arbenz in June 1954. By September, Castillo had been formally installed as president and immediately began a process of disenfranchising the population; before long, half of Guatemala had surrendered it right to vote. By revoking Decree 900, Castillo also forcefully removed tens of thousands of peasants from the lands they had acquired under the Arbenz government, and he established -- at the behest of the American CIA -- an organization that later became one of the first death squads in central America, the National Committee of Defense Against Communism. The Committee developed a list of 72,000 supposed “Communists” and began detaining suspects immediately under the Preventive Penal Law, which denied the accused of any rights to counsel or appeal.

Ironically, Carlos Castillo Armas came to be viewed by military rivals as being “soft” on communism. Although the Eisenhower administration pumped $80 million into Guatemala over the next three years, Castillo was unable to manage a failing economy and unable to quell widespread social discontent. Noting that Castillo was unlikely to remain in power for long, Keith Morgan observed in Harper’s magazine in July 1955 that “Guatemala may be caught in a revolving door.”

By the end of the decade, Morgan’s understated prediction turned out to be accurate. Castillo Armas was shot through the heart on his way to dinner on July 26, 1957. Over the next few months, four different successors held the office of president, some for as little as two days. From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala endured dozens of coups and counter-coups, as civil war took as many as 250,000 lives and displaced more than a million people.

Last year's entry:Nikephoros I and Ed Gein

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