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June 17: The President and the Propagandist

June 17, 2013

ChiquitaGuatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was overthrown in a CIA-supervised coup on this date in 1954. The Eisenhower administration portrayed the coup as an uprising against a Communist government, but the Arbenz’s real crime had been to redistribute fallow land owned by the United Fruit Company, which owned 42 percent of Guatemala, and to demand that the company pay a fair corporate tax. The three-year propaganda campaign against Guzman was led by Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud who had become the doyen of public relations in the U.S. “Never mind that Arbenz claimed no allegiance to the Communist Party,” writes Rich Cohen in The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King. “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... Bernays set various goals: convince the American people of the Communist presence in Guatemala; convince members of Congress the issue is a winner; convince the CIA, which can actually do something on the ground, it’s time to act.” The coup (Operation PBSUCCESS) resulted in two military governments and then a thirty-six year repression of the left in Guatemala, 1960-1996, during which time some 200,000 civilians were killed or made to disappear. In October 2011, the government of Guatemala formally apologized to Juan Jacobo Árbenz, the son of the deposed president. To see a brief video about coup, and Bernays’ role in it, look below.

“It’s the biggest threat in the world, Arthur, and for God’s sake, it’s not being covered!” —Edward Bernays to Arthur Sulzberger, New York Times publisher, 1951