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Sample Research Assignment #2

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Title (revised in title field): The Assassination of Jacobo Arbenz and the Roots of the Guatemalan Genocide

In April 1913, former Guatemalan dictator General Efrian Rios Montt stood trial for the crime of genocide committed against indigenous Mayans during the early 1980s. Survivor Tiburcio Utuy recalled his captivity by Guatemalan military forces in the town of Sacapulas where he and others were tortured: “The shoes, the belts were piled two meters high and wide, you could see the traces of people who had been killed there.” [1] Forensic anthropologists testified that exhumed bodies revealed evidence of violent deaths of children, systematic rape of women, and mass beheadings. In other words, the evidence of genocide was overwhelming. But after testimony that lasted four weeks, a judge granted the defense’s request to annul the trial on technical grounds. The prosecution was expected to appeal the annulment. The genocide occurred amidst 36 years of conflict in Guatemala during which over 200,000 people died. Despite horrific levels of violence, the US administration of Ronald Reagan openly backed Rios Montt’s regime, claiming that his anticommunist stance was essential to US foreign policy in Central America. [2] The trial’s annulment raises questions about pressure from current US officials eager to prop up current Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, who was an army commander during the genocide. The trial also raises historical questions about the deeper legacy of violence against indigenous people in Central America and the role of imperial powers, including the United States, in condoning that violence.

Some US observers of the 1954 coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz felt that the overthrow only partially addressed the “problem of communism” in Central America. Writing in the New York Times Magazine on July 11, 1954, staff reporter Milton Bracker argued that American liberals critical of the recent military overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz fail to fully understand the “tangible” and “deadly” communist threat “gripping a volcanic republic in the heart of the Americas.” [3] Bracker identified three key lessons of the 1954 coup. First, he argued that not all Latin American anticommunists are motivated by the same principles that motivate American anticommunists. Here, Bracker seems to suggest that while US anticommunism proceeds more or less democratically, Latin American anticommunism has tendencies toward repression. US officials, he warned, must be careful with which governments they associate.

Second, Bracker claimed that Latin Americans are even more wary of US intervention than of communism and thus, US anticommunist policy in Latin America must proceed cautiously. He recalled past abuses of Guatemalan workers by the US-based United Fruit Company as one of the primary reasons Latin Americans deplore the “embarrassing legacy” of US intervention. But Bracker denied any direct US involvement in the overthrow of Arbenz. Still, Bracker offered a third lesson: from the perspective of Latin Americans, their own internal national political struggles always superseded concerns about grand ideological battles between the United States and the Soviet Union. He recommended that the US engage in a propaganda campaign to “convince the Latins, who already outnumber us and are growing much faster, that our [capitalist] way of life is better than the Communists’ way of life.” [4]

[1] Mary Jo McConahay, “Who Says There Was No Genocide?: Guatemalan Dictator on Trial,” La Prensa San Diego, April 26, 2013, (accessed December 23, 2015).

[2] La Prensa San Diego, April 26, 2013.

[3] Milton Bracker, “The Lessons of the Guatemalan Struggle,” New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954, (accessed December 23, 2015).

[4] New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954.


Geographic focus: Guatemala, Central America (including Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador), Latin America.

Search terms: (race OR racism), Guatemala*, genocid*, indigenous, Maya*, histor*, Efrain Rios Montt, counterinsurgency, United Fruit Company, anticommunism, Jacobo Arbenz.

Primary Source Database: Historical New York Times.

Primary Source Search Date Limiter: before 1979. 1954 seems to be a crucial year. Potential date range for project might be 1954 to 1982.

Historical Research Questions: What role did the US government or US corporations play in the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954? How did that overthrow impact the course of Guatemalan politics during the Cold War? Did the 1954 US-approved coup ultimately set the stage for the 1982 genocide against indigenous Mayans and 2013 trial of Efrian Rios Montt? If so, how?