Canada has played a historic role in driving conflict and instability in Guatemala as part of its long-term coveting of the Central American country’s natural resources.
‘Canada’s bilateral programming in Guatemala is aligned with Canada’s feminist international assistance policy and focuses on supporting the most vulnerable, including women and girls, Indigenous peoples, and rural populations through gender equality, human rights, inclusive governance, and economic growth.’
Jacobo Árbenz knew his administration was in danger. Although he won the Guatemalan presidency handily in 1950, a vote which gave him a massive popular mandate to pursue nationalist agrarian reforms targeting the holdings of foreign companies (in particular the US-based United Fruit Company), by early 1954 he had come to realise that he was unlikely to serve out his term. The CIA, in collaboration with US business and elements of the Guatemalan military, was plotting against his administration, and if the fate of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 was any indication, then President Árbenz had little time left.
Around one year before the US coup forced him from power, Árbenz’s foreign minister, Guillermo Toriello Garrido, contacted the government of Canada. Officials within the Canadian government had already voiced their disdain for Árbenz’s nationalist program. Before his election in 1950, the Ottawa trade commissioner in Guatemala described Árbenz as ‘unscrupulous, daring and ruthless, and not one to be allayed in his aims by bloodshed or killing.’ The trade commissioner’s opinion was clearly shared at the highest levels of power. When Toriello contacted the Canadians and asked to open embassies in the two countries – a clear sign of normalising relations which could have helped the image of the increasingly embattled Árbenz administration – the Department of External Affairs refused. Reporter Peter Macfarlane later revealed that ‘at external affairs and in Canadian board rooms…the coup [against Árbenz] was chalked up as another victory of the Free World against the [Red] Menace.’
Árbenz was no communist. He was a moderately leftwing nationalist who viewed his administration’s agrarian agenda not as an ideological project, but as a common-sense initiative for restoring resource sovereignty to his people. But this agenda was too much for US interests, and Canada stood idly by as Washington enacted its regime change policy. During Operation PBSuccess, the CIA initiative which toppled Árbenz, the Canadian government authorised only one military action in Guatemala: a plan to evacuate Canadian citizens should the CIA-orchestrated coup fail and plunge the country into chaos.
Throughout subsequent decades, the Canadian government quietly profited from the imposition of far-right authoritarianism in Guatemala. While the state massacred leftwing activists and Árbenz supporters, displaced Indigenous people from their lands for the benefit of North American capital and committed genocide against the Mayan people, Canada sold large amounts of weapons and technology to the perpetrators of the violence. CIA operations conducted against anti-government forces during the Guatemalan Civil War often used P-47 and F-47N fighter planes and C-47 and C-54 cargo planes, whose engines were built by Montreal-based manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC).
During the early 1980s, at the height of the military’s ‘scorched earth’ campaign, the Guatemalan Air Force conducted frequent assaults on poor and predominantly Mayan villages using US Bell 212 and 412 helicopters, whose engines were also made by PWC. The Canadian aerospace industry was not the only complicit party, however – as , ‘between 1982 and 2006 [PWC] was Canada’s top corporate welfare recipient, raking in about $1.5 billion’ in taxpayer funding. The Canadian embassy also negotiated to sell military planes to Guatemalan forces in 1983, despite Canada’s official condemnation of 192 massacres committed by state forces the previous year. In 1999, three years after the cessation of open warfare, a UN Commission investigation found that Canada’s allies in the Guatemalan state were responsible for 93 per cent of all human rights violations during the civil war.
Even though the Canadian government subsidised arms sales to the genocidal Guatemalan regime, the country is often included in Canada’s hagiographic list of ‘peacekeeping missions’ around the globe, nestled somewhere between the intervention in Somalia and the Balkan conflict. This adulatory inclusion is justified on the basis of Canada’s prominent role in the Guatemalan peace process of the 1980s and 1990s, which brought an end to formal conflict within the country. Marc-André Anzueto writes that ‘Canada became gradually involved in the region through advising the Contadora Group (1983-1985), providing support for the Esquipulas peace process (1987), and participating in the UN Observer Group in Central America (1988–1989).’ These initiatives may be viewed as precursors to Canada’s involvement in the Guatemalan peace process of 1994-1996, which was driven by the same material factors that drove the sale of military equipment and technology to the Guatemalan regime as it massacred civilians.
Canada has long coveted Guatemala’s substantial mineral wealth. One of the most significant Canada-based mining companies, particularly in terms of the negative impact it has had on rural communities, is the International Nickel Company (INCO). As Canada’s interest in transnational industry grew in the aftermath of the Second World War, INCO took note of Guatemala’s sizeable nickel reserves.
By 1980, former foreign minister Guillermo Toriello Garrido writes that INCO owned 50 per cent of operational mines in Guatemala through a domestic subsidiary (EXMIBAL), through which it claimed control of several mines including the El Estor nickel mine in the eastern Izabal Department. In order to create the mine, the Guatemalan state needed to clear the land for exploitation. The military forcibly evicted all those living on the territory, killing between 3,000 and 6,000 Indigenous individuals in the process. In 1975, a group of farmers protested an INCO deal in the nearby town of Panzós. They were met with military force. Soldiers killed at least 53 protestors and seriously injured dozens more.
The 1960s were the first decade in what became an almost 40-year civil war in Guatemala between US-backed state forces and a diverse indigenous movements, leftist activists and other groups, some of whom had grown out of the pro-Árbenz resistance. By the mid-1990s, the collapse of numerous military dictatorships in Latin America produced a shift from overtly authoritarian neoliberalism to a similarly-structured economic model which was legitimised behind a façade of bourgeois democracy. In this context, Canada involved itself in the Guatemalan peace process, which led to the war’s formal conclusion in 1996.
One year after the declaration of peace in 1996, Guatemala passed a landmark mining bill. As Leah Shipton explains, ‘in 1997, Guatemala passed the Mining Law, drafted with the assistance of INCO executives, which opened Guatemala to TNMCs [transnational mining companies] without substantial protections for indigenous peoples. More broadly, TNMCs turned to Latin America for low-cost operations and less strict environmental laws.’ As a result of the new mining law, ‘Canadian TNMCs are involved in 50-70 per cent of mining activities in the region.’
Presently, Canadian mining companies operate with an egregious level of impunity across Guatemala. The government of Canada has shown almost no interest in reining in their excesses, leaving it to local resistance movements to struggle for humane treatment on their own, a situation which subjects them to constant threats, violence and sometimes murder. Although many Canadian-owned mines had been operational in Guatemala since the military coup of 1954, the era of ‘peace’ has been characterised by more forced evictions of Mayan communities and the murders of social activists like Adolfo Ich Chamán, who was hacked with machetes and shot in the head by security personnel at the Canadian-owned Fenix nickel mine in 2009.
Stories of worker abuse, intimidation, sexual violence and the murder of activists are widespread in the communities surrounding Canadian-owned mining developments. Yuri Melini, founder of the Legal-Environmental and Social Action Center of Guatemala (CALAS), describes Canada’s current role in his country as ‘an interventionist and imperialist state that places the interests of its investors ahead of observing human rights and the rule of law.’
The level of impunity in which Canadian mining companies operate in Guatemala has led some Guatemalans to argue that the Canadian government only involved itself in the peace process to stabilise the country for more efficient resource exploitation. As Anzueto explains, ‘many of those [I] interviewed have pointed to the Canadian government’s interest in strengthening the rule of law in Guatemala in order to foster investment in the country and protect the neoliberal state.’
While Canada’s involvement in Guatemala contributed to a peace process which formally ended the three-decade civil war, its actions before, during and after the conflict’s official end reveal a cynical and self-motivated agenda to consolidate control over Guatemala’s resource wealth. Prior to the peace agreement, the Canadian government tacitly approved of the 1954 CIA-orchestrated coup against Árbenz and subsidised arms sales to the US-aligned perpetrators of genocide.
When Canada shifted its tactics in the late 1980s by advocating a peace process, its motives remained the same: the country’s leaders wanted to find a way to secure Guatemalan resources for the profit of Canada-based companies. This is the reality at the core of Canada’s peacekeeping image: its engagements around the world are often driven by material self-interest. Guatemala provides an example of how those imperialist ends are furthered through extreme violence in some circumstances and through ostensible peacekeeping efforts in others.