Over ten days in June 1954, a decade after the D-Day landings, the CIA sent twelve planes to drop bombs and propaganda on towns in Guatemala in support of a coup against the elected government of Jácobo Arbenz. They did only minor damage at first: one plane bombed the wrong radio station, another ran out of fuel and was forced to crash land in Mexico. A plane was dispatched to make a ‘hostile’ attack on Honduras with the aim of provoking a military response, but the Hondurans could not even agree on which airfield it had hit. In the last raid on 27 June, the SS Springfjord, a British merchant ship that had survived capture by the Nazis in 1940, was attacked in the port of San Jose. It was alleged to be unloading arms. After a warning pass – the ship's captain gave the pilot a friendly wave – a 500lb bomb was dropped down its chimney. It turned out to be loading coffee and cotton.
In 1954, the elected, mildly progressive president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, was deposed in a coup orchestrated by the CIA. Arbenz planned modest land reforms that threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company. His successor reversed the reforms and put to the firing squad an estimated 8000 opponents. The coup launched 42 years of dictatorship and violent repression. By the time peace accords were signed between the government and leftist guerillas in 1996, at least 200,000 people had died violently, more than 90 per cent at the hands of government agents; 100,000 women and girls had been raped and one million people displaced. Even after the peace accords, political assassinations continued. One president in the 1970s said that to eliminate the guerrillas he would ‘turn the country into a cemetery’. His prescription came closest to fulfilment during the short but bloody dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who on Friday was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison.
The US has issued an apology to Guatemala after the discovery by an American historian, Susan Reverby, that John Cutler, one of the doctors involved in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the 1960s, conducted similar experiments on unconsenting Guatemalan subjects twenty years earlier. The Guatemalan experiments, in which the local authorities appear to have been complicit, were carried out on prisoners and mental patients. In some cases prostitutes with syphilis were brought in to infect the men; others had the bacteria poured over abrasions on their penises or injected into their spines. It happened between 1946 and 1948, during the Ten Years of Spring (1944-54), a period with a cherished place in the national imagination.