In Our National Interest?

Good Evening from Guatemala,

We have been going around Guatemala for the past five days, and we have been learning more about its history as we travel.  A topic that keeps coming to my mind is the foreign policy of the United States.  The main justification for action in another country is that such action is “in our national interest.”  It is in our national interest to keep the price of oil low.  It is in our national interest to keep the price of other foods low.  It is in our national interest to keep the corporations that are based in the United States happy so that those companies will stay in the United States and keep our jobs here.

I bring all of this up because something that was “in the national interest” of the United States caused one part of Guatemala’s history to  turn a dramatic corner.

Between the years of 1944 and 1954, Guatemala had a peaceful, democratically elected government led by President Arbenz.  President Arbenz saw that people in Guatemala were struggling from the dictatorship that had gripped the country for the previous hundred years.  Since 1901, United Fruit Company, a U.S.-based company, held huge tracts of land in the most fertile areas of Guatemala.  These areas had historically been held by the local Maya population, but after they were forced out in the process of European colonization, United Fruit Company stepped in.

During Arbenz’s presidency, there were acres of land owned by United Fruit Company that were not being used for growing crops.  President Arbenz wanted to pay the company for the land and give it back to the Maya people.  He offered to pay the value of the land as reported on their taxes.  However, United Fruit Company had been undervaluing their land in order to pay fewer taxes, and they were upset at the prospect of not being paid what their land was actually worth.  They demanded President Arbenz pay a much higher price per acre than what they had reported.

President Arbenz was labeled a communist because he wanted to help people that were in extreme poverty by fairly purchasing and redistributing land so that people could grow their own crops and not need to fight for nonexistent jobs.  Once the United States government saw that Arbenz was acting like a “socialist,” the CIA stepped in to help overthrow the Guatemalan president.  Guatemalan Army officers, who were trained by U.S. soldiers at the School of the Americas in Georgia, launched a successful coup; Arbenz fled the country in fear of his life.  A number of years later, he was found dead under mysterious circumstances.

Guatemala has moved between military rule and a very weak democracy a number of times between 1954 and today.  During that time over 200,000 people are known to have died as a direct result of the conflict and 50,000 people have been “disappeared,” meaning that they disappeared one night and their families have not seen or heard from them since.  It is a public “secret” that the Guatemalan government and army are responsible for the disappeared people.

At what point do we need to rethink the idea that something is “in our national interest” when it comes to consumer goods?  Was allowing United Fruit Company the chance to make a few more dollars in profit worth the CIA overthrowing a democratically elected government?  Are our cheap bananas and coffee worth the death of over 250,000 Guatemalans and countless El Salvadorians and Hondurans and Nicaraguans?  The Guatemalan coup is not the only coup supported by the United States government.  We live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, shouting out that democracy should be spread around the world…except when the people elect someone with whom we disagree.

My friends, I will say this bluntly, the history of United States foreign policy makes me sick.  All of what you read here in this blog is a result of our government’s inability to stand up to corporations and say, “No!  Your profit margin is not more important than any person on this Earth.  People should and will come before your profits.”

I, for one, am willing to pay a little more for my bananas when I know that they come from companies that do not take advantage of their workers, and possibly even come from the workers themselves.  Our “national interest” needs to change from only looking after ourselves to making sure that there are no policies that are hurting other people, directly or indirectly.  We then need to create policies that do everything they can to empower people and show people otro mundo es posible—another world is possible.

Have a good Memorial Day weekend!!

-Justin Dwelis

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