By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
Although pivotal to the Cuban Revolution, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara resigned from Fidel Castro’s government in 1965 to join a guerilla struggle in the African Congo. Finding little success there, he returned to Latin America. Watching the American intervention unfold in the region, he tried to bring about another Latin American revolution in Guatemala and joined a Guatemalan communist youth group’s armed militia.
Che Guevara’s Experiences
Ernesto (Che) Guevara was born in 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, to a middle-class family. Athletic and charismatic, he studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. Months before completing his degree, he and a friend embarked on a motorcycle trip across thousands of miles of Latin America. In diaries that describe the trip, Guevara wrote, “All this wandering around ‘Our America with a capital A’ has changed me more than I thought.”
Guevara glimpsed what he believed to be a commonality in the experiences of Latin Americans and their countries. He became convinced that injustice and inequality transcended national borders and, at the same time, that poverty and helplessness united Latin Americans. His travels also confirmed for Guevara that United States’s neocolonialism was largely to blame for all of it.
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A Banana Republic
After completing his medical degree, Guevara returned to the road again. In Guatemala, he happened to arrive just as Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who’d been elected president in 1950, was attempting to implement a policy of radical land reform. Guatemala, like many Latin American countries, had seen many of its economic resources controlled by—or serving— American interests. The most obvious example was that of the agricultural commodities concern, the United Fruit Company, whose principal business was bananas.
A conglomeration of plantations, railways, steamships and telegraph lines throughout Central America and the Caribbean, the United Fruit Company owned and controlled large swaths of Guatemalan territory. In fact, the term ‘banana republic’ stems from the way United Fruit Company intervened in politics, and cozied up with repressive regimes, to maximize its influence in Guatemala.
Like many Latin American societies, Guatemala suffered from massive inequality. Just 2% of its population owned nearly three-quarters of the land, and United Fruit used only 15% of its holdings. It kept the rest in reserve for a time when the soil it farmed might become depleted.
CIA Plot to Overthrow the Arbenz Government
Around the time that Che Guevara arrived in the country, Arbenz’s government was in the process of expropriating and redistributing some 200,000 acres of United Fruit Company land. This raised alarm bells in the United States. In the throes of the Cold War, and at the height of the McCarthy era, the expropriation of private property seemed to smack of communism. And the seizure of an American company’s property demanded a response.
President Dwight Eisenhower authorized a CIA plot to overthrow the Arbenz government via military coup. He did so under the influence of a public relations campaign that convinced Washington lawmakers that Arbenz was instituting a communist regime. Guatemalans with large landholdings who’d felt threatened by Arbenz’s reforms welcomed the intervention.
But Che Guevara didn’t. Observing the American-sponsored operation unfold, Guevara joined a Guatemalan communist youth group’s armed militia. Arbenz, however, thwarted a plan to distribute weapons to militias because he was hoping to avert mass bloodshed in the country. The coup against Arbenz succeeded and the deposed president took refuge in the Mexican embassy.
Civil War in Guatemala
Guevara holed up in the Argentinian Embassy. But his experience in Guatemala reinforced his leftist beliefs and confirmed his antipathy towards the United States. Indeed, the CIA role in overthrowing Arbenz’s democratically elected government convinced many Latin Americans that the United States couldn’t be trusted.
For the next four decades, military rule and civil war gripped Guatemala. The country remained overwhelmingly poor, with its wealth concentrated in the hands of a few.
Guevara and Marxism
Guevara finally made his way to Mexico, where he became immersed in the study of Marxism, and made the acquaintance of a band of Cuban revolutionaries, among them Fidel and Raul Castro.
The Castros were among a new breed of Latin Americans who resented CIA machinations and viewed US interventions as continuing manifestations of neocolonialism. The Guatemalan coup demonstrated to Guevara and the Castros alike that for transformation to succeed in Latin America, the old system needed to be dismantled.
Common Questions about Che Guevara and the Guatemalan Coup
The term ‘banana republic’ stems from the way United Fruit Company intervened in politics, and cozied up with repressive regimes, to maximize its influence in Guatemala.
President Dwight Eisenhower authorized a CIA plot to overthrow the Arbenz government via military coup.
Observing the American-sponsored operation unfold, Che Guevara joined a Guatemalan communist youth group’s armed militia.