With the pattern of U.S. intervention established in 1898, later episodes in the 20th century continue this pattern. In addition to the United Fruit Company’s invasion of Central America, the United States government intervened and overthrew the Nicaraguan president José Santos Zelaya in 1909.32 This period was the “imperial phase” when “Americans deposed regimes more or less openly.” Following this imperial phase was a post WWII “political situation infinitely more complex than it had been at the dawn of the century.” Kinzer references the Soviet Union, “a force in the world that limited [U.S.] freedom of action.” With the pattern continued, yet shifted in a new Cold War reality, “the United States began using a more subtle technique, the clandestine coup d’état, to depose foreign governments.” One of the most significant actions took place in the 1950s in Guatemala where “diplomats and intelligence agents replaced generals as the instruments of American interventions.”33 This intervention was another example of the United States’ violent response to those who talked back to empire as they sought self-determination, land reform and economic justice for their country.
In the spring of 1944, teacher-led protests erupted in Guatemala. They resisted the fourteen-year dictatorship of General Ubico, who held power after over a century of aristocratic rule following Guatemala’s liberation from Spain in 1821. In their book, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer describe the players in this revolution: “A growing body of schoolteachers, shopkeepers, skilled workers and students staged public demonstrations demanding freedom to organize.”34 Teachers held tremendous power in this movement; initially striking for higher pay and refusing to march in the annual Teachers’ Day Parade. They led multiple non-violent protests culminating in the largest protest in the country’s modern history on June 29, 1944. General Ubico’s militaristic response led to the death or injury of approximately 200 people; one of whom as Maria Chinchilla, a teacher who became a national martyr for the push to oust the dictator and improve social and economic conditions for Guatemalans.35 This teacher led protest and resistance movement is a prime example of “digging out lost alternatives.” Teachers can put this history in conversation with recent teacher protests throughout the United States. For decades, the power and voices of teachers, a profession made up of mostly women, has been undermined and silenced. What are the conditions that lead teachers to shift from compliance to resistance? What is the significance of teachers rising up against consolidated power and advocating not only for themselves but for another kind of world for the children and families they encounter in their day-to-day experiences of teaching?
One of the ironies connected to later U.S. involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected President Arbenz is that the protests in the 1940s in Guatemala can be traced back to the “promises of democracy” protesters heard on the radio during World War II. Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech calling for universal freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear resonated with Guatemalans as they resisted their own country’s reality. FDR’s New Deal and his public support for trade unions also sparked interest in labor organizing and a belief that government should devote itself to the public good. Not only that but events in Mexico, to the north of Guatemala, inspired protests. The nationalization of Mexico’s oil resources disrupted the inevitability of the Monroe Doctrine that U.S. corporations had to control the resources and markets of the Western Hemisphere.36
The complicated story of U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Arbenz needs more time and space then this unit allows. Nevertheless, a few key points related to the dominant and counter narratives of the unit are important. For decades, colonialism and capitalism shaped Guatemala’s economic system. So much so that “the need to reform the system of ownership was universally recognized.”37 The problem relates to plans to increase production without corresponding plans to reform the distribution of land and wealth. For example, when increased production benefited the United Fruit Company, “the major portion of those profits went abroad to foreign stockholders.”38 When Arbenz took power, he changed the dominant narrative:
I do not exaggerate when I say that the most important pragmatic point of my government and of the revolutionary movement of October is that one related to a profound change in the backward agricultural production of Guatemala, by way of an agrarian reform which puts an end to the latifundios and the semi-feudal practices, giving the land to thousands of peasants, raising their purchasing power and creating a great internal market favorable to the development of domestic industry.39
The election of Arbenz alarmed the United Fruit Company as ideas of land reform spread among the poor majority. As a result, President Eisenhower, who used the CIA for regime change throughout the world, worked with Secretary of State John Foster Fulles, and his brother Alan Dulles, CIA director and board member of United Fruit, to organize the “Operation Success” coup to oust Arbenz in 1953. And while the dominant narrative uses safety to justify U.S. involvement in international affairs, Kinzer and Schlesinger provide the counter narrative: “American national security considerations were never compelling in the case of Guatemala.”40 This coup in Guatemala led to the installation of a series of U.S. supported conservative military dictators and eventually decades of civil war, suffering, and instability. This example is one of many teachers can use to illustrate the connection between U.S. intervention in Central America and the trauma, racism, and violence presently affecting migrants throughout America.
In addition to teaching students about these historical connections between actions by the U.S. government and the experiences of non-white American migrants, this unit highlights additional voices of resistance. As many crises triggered by white supremacist, imperialist, and capitalist interventions exploded across the globe, Black Americans found solidarity with people impacted by violence disguised as the safeguarding of democracy.
In their book, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. describe the life and work of Polly Graham in North Carolina to illustrate issues that motivated the Black Panthers to advocate for racial and economic justice in the United States. For this unit, Polly Graham is an interesting example whose work can be put into conversation with the contemporaneous revolution in Guatemala in the 1940s. The dominant narratives of U.S. history and international issues focus primarily on valorizing the Allied Powers during the World War II era. By instead focusing on Polly Graham’s story and the push for land reforms in Central America during the 1940s, we can dig out lost alternatives and create new narratives. The parallels between Graham and the Guatemalan protests are worth exploring. “Polly Graham knew about hardship and struggle. In the 1940s, she had been part of a failed attempt to organize low-wage black workers in the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Factory in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.”41 Not only are there commonalities in the Graham’s efforts and the efforts of those who fought for land reform; there are also commonalities in the responses to these efforts driven by familiar dominant narratives. The authors continue: “But the virulent anti-unionism, magnified by racism and anti-Communist hysteria, had beaten that noble and long-forgotten effort.”42 Ultimately, the Black Panthers became involved when they organized the Black community in Winston-Salem in 1970 as Graham faced eviction. Using the Black Panthers’ involvement can be a powerful pivot point in the classroom. Of course, the Black Panthers were involved in this hyper-local issue of housing rights for working women; they were also involved internationally as they situated the struggles of the Black community within a larger struggle of the fight for self-determination around the world.
In 1968, the Black Panthers sent a delegation to the Hemispheric Conference to End the War in Vietnam in Quebec. “Throughout the conference, various Black Panther speakers drew an analogy between their struggle and that of...Vietnam. They compared the rapid expansion of police departments and the brutalization of blacks in American [cities] with the occupation of Vietnam by the U.S. military.” Their analogy continued when discussing “the wars of repression being waged against those seeking self-determination throughout Latin America and the Third World and among communities in the United States, even against the white hippies and the leftists and those who are looking for much individual freedom.’”43 In addition to these analogies, the Black Panthers countered the dominant narrative that holds laws up as colorblind, race neutral, and impartial. They shared a counter narrative that breaks the oppressor’s hold on what is good, legal, and right. At the conference they said, “We say that the oppressor has no laws and no rights that the oppressed are bound to respect.”44 By making this statement, the speakers disrupt the inevitability of the rule of law when it is a tool of white supremacy and colonialism.
One year later, the Black Panthers continued their organizing and activism at the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers, Algeria where their anti-imperialism “found fertile international ground.”45 Bloom and Martin compared the Black Panthers’ contributions to the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois from twenty-five years earlier “that blacks in America were subjugated and oppressed and denied self-determination much like those in the colonies in Africa.”46 While dominant narratives in the United States portrayed and reported on the Black Panthers as threats to (white people’s) security and liberty, anti-imperialists around the world valued the synthesis of race and class politics that they represented. According to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, the organizers of the festival in Algiers saw the Party as “the nucleus of a future, American government.”47 Visualizing an alternative future is another example of the disruption of inevitability that has been the focus of this unit.