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This week’s country is Guatemala and the theme will focus on the 1954 coup and its haunting effects. For those of you that haven’t studied Guatemala, particularly this coup, it is a very tragic but interesting partner to Cuban history since Castro was radicalized by this event. Considering all this, it is unfairly overlooked in history classes so I hope this week is as interesting for you as it is for me!
El Silencio de Neto (1994) tells the story of a young boy in an upper-middle-class family whose relationship with his leftist uncle often puts him at odds with his authoritarian father. Before the coup, his family lives a quiet life but soon after, the realities of US intervention hit close to home and his uncle succumbs to illness.
The United Fruit Company & the 1954 Coup
In the 20th century, the United Fruit Company controlled Guatemala. Unfortunately, United Fruit workers were subject to racist rules and regulations and the company did not allow organized labor unions. Still, the US viewed United Fruit as a benevolent force with Eisenhower’s private secretary making a film called Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas about United Fruit’s fight against communism. But after years of dictatorships working hand in hand with United Fruit, Guatemala saw its first free elections in 1944 when former educator and exile, Juan Jose Arevalo won the presidency. Arevalo was neither a capitalist nor a communist. He preached ‘spiritual socialism’ toeing the line between US support and left-wing ideals. Though his reforms were small enough to stop United Fruit from cutting his presidency short, he helped the country a lot.
Under him, urban wages increased by 80%, the illiteracy rate decreased, and the Mayan community was aided. Arevalo’s minister of defense, Jacobo Arbenz, on the other hand, believed that more radical reforms were necessary when was elected president in 1949 with 65% of the vote. He made it clear his goal was to end the United Fruit’s stranglehold on the country. Being more sympathetic to the communist movement, Arbenz created the Agrarian Reform Act of 1952 which authorized the redistribution of unused lands to peasants from large estates. d, owners would be compensated at the recorded assessed value. Large landowners like United Fruit had long undervalued the land for tax purposes but were unhappy when that same value applied to the sale of the land.
United Fruit had to call upon their State Department allies to get them the money they wanted. Though there was no serious evidence that could tie Guatemala to the Soviet Union, the US couldn’t take any chances.
Through false news reports, the US was able to convince many Guatemalans that Arbenz was a threat and a group of Guatemalan exiles in Honduras were trained for Operation El Diablo by the US Marines and the CIA. In 1954, the military deserted Arbenz, and the US military invasion resulted in his resignation. From that point on, The US Congress prohibited the use of funds for agrarian reform, but militarization was just fine. With CIA assistance, President Castillo Armas came to power as an anti-communist dictator willing to purge Guatemala of its undesirables. Nevertheless, US officials would go on to uphold Guatemala as a beacon of democracy.
The Tragedy of Denying Reality
The first part of the film has very little focus on the violence of the coup and instead shifts the focus to the everyday, mundane activities of Neto’s family. They seem to exist in a separate world from the rest of the population. All political changes are just interesting stories, nothing more. Throughout the first half of the film, the family is constantly seen listening to radio plays whether they be romances or adventure stories. The only time the reality of deep political divisions enters into their lives is when there are emergency announcements interrupting their shows. For them, the stories of Arbenz or the underground radio are just stories.
They aren’t real so they don’t prepare for the reality that awaits them with the coup. They can’t comprehend that the political turmoil could affect them. The events of the coup leave them even more shocked with more extreme downfalls precisely because they didn’t prepare. Neto’s father supported Arbenz’s coup wholeheartedly but was then fired when the incoming president wiped out most government staff. Neto is also blindsided by the changes in his school. One day his teacher praised the Arevalo reforms and the next day he had a new teacher teaching them English and US geography. The director shows that shielding yourself from reality only makes your fall more devastating.
A Spiritual Return
Luis Argueta, the director of the film, had previously lived and studied in the US and this film was his first in Guatemala (and the first feature film to be made in Guatemala). He has stated that he views this film as a spiritual return to the country and it shows in the structure of the film. The film starts at the end when Neto finds out that his uncle has died. He goes to the funeral and sees a vision of his dead uncle who says he has unfinished business: he needs to launch the paper balloon he gave Neto. Then the film goes back to flashback and ends with Neto fulfilling his promise to his uncle. Through this structure, we view the end as less tragic since there is a sense of fulfillment and closure.
By the end, Neto has carried out the wishes that his uncle told him to fulfill at the beginning. Even with all the chaos and violence surrounding him, Neto has hope for the future. He will pass on the lessons of his uncle who always wanted him to speak his mind. When his pregnant family friend leaves the city to have her child, Neto makes sure to tell her to always let her child speak. Argueta made this film when peace talks in Guatemala were coming to an end and it shows. Argueta knows that the 1954 coup is a tragedy but it does not have to mark the country for life. The next generation can fulfill their promises to the leftists of the past and create a better future.