C.I.A. Operation PBSUCCESS in Guatemala informed Cuban strategies and tactics to resist U.S. Intervention

Paper by David Flash for HIS 306N: Latin America and the U.S. at The University of Texas at Austin, Fall 2018, Grade: A 12/12, Mean: 8.4/12

Fidel Castro, speaking of the multiple U.S. attempts to covertly topple his government as had been done to Guatemala’s, would often proclaim, “Cuba is not Guatemala!”[1] Fidel was very familiar with what happened in Guatemala. PBSUCCESS, the C.I.A. operation that supplanted Jacobo Arbenz’s reform-focused Guatemalan government with one more amenable to U.S. business interests, according to Stephen Rabe, a leading expert on U.S. interventions in Latin America, “taught the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, unforgettable lessons.”[2] Before Che became involved with Castro’s revolution, he was in Guatemala where he witnessed Operation PBSUCCESS firsthand, sparking his passion to aid oppressed peoples through anti-imperialist revolutions. In addition to impacting Che’s ideology, the “unforgettable lessons” that he shared with the Castros had a large impact in crafting the political, military, and diplomatic policies that hardened Cuba’s resistance to U.S. intervention tactics.

Politics Lesson: Factions and parties can be exploited by the C.I.A. to foment coups.

A Guatemalan radio announcer known as Pepe, who was involved in the C.I.A. “disinformation campaign” that was part of the covert plot to overthrow the Arbenz government, estimated his nation’s radio audience to consist of 2 percent Marxists, 2 percent anti-Communists, 13 percent Arbenz supporters, 23 percent opposed to “Communist drift,” and 60 percent neutrals.[3] Guatemala’s government did not suppress free expression, on constitutional principle. President Arbenz could have quite possibly appeased the U.S. interests that covertly ousted him, had he agreed to eject so-called “communists” from his government. It could be argued that, by allowing dissent and not more effectively fostering political unity, Guatemala helped Operation PBSUCCESS to succeed. The “disinformation campaign’s” mission, according to Pepe, was to “intimidate listeners” in the Arbenz camp and influence the “mass of neutral types.”[4]

Castro’s regime did not allow factions to develop. There is only one party in Cuba, the Communist Party of Cuba. Bourgeoisie Cubans that were loyal to Batista or part of his government, as well as any other dissidents were mostly allowed and encouraged to leave the island.[5] This created a political climate where the types of dissenting factions necessary to cook up a “C.I.A. Special” coup were simply non-existent. In 1963, U.S. covert operations to terrorize Cuba effectively ended after President Lyndon Johnson was informed by the C.I.A., in answer to his interrogatory on insurgents that could be incited to overthrow the Castros, that “there is no national movement [in Cuba] on which we can build.”[6] Because Che watched the U.S. cook up the Guatemalan regime change, Fidel’s government took care to keep another essential ingredient of a successful U.S. intervention out of the C.I.A.’s coup kitchen: dissenting factions to incite into uprisings.

Military Lesson: The U.S. will intervene, be prepared with weapons and loyal troops.

Guatemala’s failure to stop PBSUCCESS, in large part due to lack of armaments and loyal troops, informed the Cuban Revolution’s military strategy. As unmarked “rebel planes” launched repeated bombing attacks on their capital city, Guatemala’s Foreign Minister Guillermo Toriello sent a cable imploring U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to intervene since his nation lacked “modern aircraft to repel them owing to [the U.S.] boycott on sale of planes to [Guatemala] for several years.”[7] In addition to being cripplingly under-equipped on the eve of PBSUCCESS, the armed forces of Guatemala were led by many holdovers from the U.S. backed, dictatorial Ubico regime that Toriello’s party had replaced a decade prior. Guatemala’s lack of preparedness, evidenced in their dearth of reliable weapons and lack of soldiers loyal to President Arbenz, was a major factor allowing their government to be toppled with relative ease.

Che, having witnessed Guatemala, would advise the Castro government and revolutionaries fighting U.S. imperialism worldwide: “We must not underrate our adversary […] backed by weapons and resources of such magnitude as to render him formidable.”[8] From the Revolution’s outset, after first purging its ranks of troops and officers loyal to the deposed former President Fulgencio Batista, Fidel sought and attained the help of the Soviets in restructuring Cuban forces and training his troops.[9] The Cuban Revolutionaries prepared for a U.S. invasion, amassing a loyal, battle ready army of over 25,000 troops along with a self-defense militia of 200,000, all armed with Soviet supplied weapons.[10] Guatemala demonstrated that a revolutionary government could not buck U.S. imperatives in their self-proclaimed Monroe Doctrine sphere of influence unless it was prepared to defend itself. The Bay of Pigs invasion and over 600 documented U.S. attempts on to assassinate Fidel proved Cuba was indeed wise to apply lessons learned from Guatemala and focus on military readiness.

Diplomatic Lesson: Make friends who won’t be bullied by the U.S.

Guatemala, because they would not bow to pressures to change their government to please U.S. interests, often could not attain imported supplies for industry or defense from the U.S. and its allies. Furthermore, Guatemala’s largest employer and largest exporter was U.S. based United Fruit. These situations combined to give the U.S. enormous economic leverage over the Guatemalan government. The U.S. applied this leverage liberally to weaken the Arbenz regime by rendering Guatemala unable to provide for its people and protect its borders and skies from invasion.

An alliance with the Soviet Union paved a different path for what would become Communist Cuba. In late 1959 the Soviets sent an envoy to Cuba for unofficial discussions about establishing diplomatic relations with the Castro government. Talks went well enough that, at Cuba’s invitation in February 1960, a Soviet trade delegation came to Cuba and signed an agreement to purchase Cuban sugar.[11] This deal seismically altered the bargaining position of the U.S., which had used its position as the largest importer of Cuban sugar to extract what the Castro regime considered inequitable economic and geopolitical concessions from their nation. The Soviet sugar deal was the first of many definitive steps Cuba took to, in Fidel’s words, “break the chains that tied it to its imperial oppressor.”[12] In fact, when the U.S. next played the role of imperial oppressor, refusing to let U.S. refineries in Cuba process crude oil that the Soviets sent in payment for sugar, Fidel nationalized the refineries. A powerful ally and the ability to monetize his nation’s cash crop were gained by painting Cuba communist red and cozying up to the Soviet Union, putting it in an entirely different position than the cash and weapons-starved Guatemalan government.


The U.S. intervention tactics that worked in Guatemala and continued to work in supplanting regimes around the globe failed to gain any traction in Cuba. The repeated U.S. failures in Cuba can be attributed to political, military, and diplomatic policy decisions made by the Castro brothers and Che to harden their government against covert and overt foreign intervention, as they reflected on lessons learned from Guatemala in 1954.


Holden, Robert and Eric Zolov, Latin American and the United States, (New York: Oxford

University Press, 2016)

Rabe, Stephen G., The Killing Zone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)

Schlesinger, Stephen and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2016)


[1] Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2016)

[2] Stephen Rabe, The Killing Zone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[3] Schlesinger, 168

[4] Schlesinger, 168

[5] Joshua Frens-String, Latin America and The U.S., University of Texas at Austin, Lecture 10.1

[6] Rabe, 79

[7] Bitter Fruit 183

[8] Che Guevara, “Two, Three, Many Vietnams,” in Latin American and the United States, ed. by Robert Holden and Eric Zolov (New York: Oxford University Press), 252

[9] Frens-String, 10.1

[10] Rabe

[11] Ibid., 64

[12] Fidel Castro, “Second declaration of Havana” in Latin American and the United States, ed. by Robert Holden and Eric Zolov (New York: Oxford University Press), 234


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