On Christmas eve Guatemala, a tiny Central American country, announced that it would be shifting its embassy to Jerusalem. It became the second nation to do so after President Trump’s dramatic announcement of a similar shift for US embassy. Later, Guatemala joined a bunch of just 11 countries that voted against a UN general assembly resolution condemning the US move. Recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is virtually declaring an end to Palestinian rights to their homeland and the US decision has triggered outrage and angry protests across the world.
So, what makes Guatemala so close to Israel? The answer lies in a history that is well documented but now increasingly faint in public memory. It begins back in 1948 when Dr. Jorge García-Granados, Guatemalan ambassador to UN was part of the UN Special Committee on Palestine, tasked to supervise the formation of Israel. He ensured that Guatemala was the first country to vote for Israel. But the real foundation for Israeli friendship with Guatemala began a few years later.
In order to defend the interests of United Fruit Company (a US behemoth) the US actively planned and executed the 1954 military coup to overthrow a liberal elected government in Guatemala. After that, a series of juntas and dictators ruled the country. And, Israel stepped in to provide overt and covert support to all the brutal dictators that ruled Guatemala from 1954 to 1996, waging one of the bloodiest wars against indigenous people of the country that left an estimated 200,000 dead. Whenever the US was under pressure for supporting regimes in Latin America that were involved in repression and killings, Israel would step in with its arms and advisors. The Guatemalan state was not the only one that benefitted from Israeli help. Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela have all received arms and training at some point from Israel since its very formation in 1948.
More specifically, Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Colombia not only received weapons but also specialized training by Israeli advisers on counter-insurgency operations, including training of the infamous “death squads” that exterminated Guatemalan villages believed to be strongholds of resistance to military dictatorships adopting a declared ‘scorched earth” policy. Israel had seized West Bank and Gaza in 1967 and its own experience in crushing Palestinian resistance was deployed in distant Central America with full effect, especially so in Guatemala.
In Guatemala, between 1954 and 1984, more than 100,000 civilians were killed in an attempt to “pacify” the rural population consisting mainly of Mayan indigenous people that make up about 41% of the country’s population. The program called “Beans and Bullets” destroyed traditional Indian society and culture, resettled the displaced population in “model villages,” and secured the oligarchic patterns of land ownership. Israeli experts wanted to transplant their ideas of the kibbutz style farming by force. The military squads forcibly recruited peasants into an army of armed informers, giving food and weapons to them. Those who refused to join up were declared subversives and killed, often brutally, as mass graves discovered later have shown.
That Israel had been deputed to do US dirty work in third world countries becomes clear from the 1981 MoU signed between the two countries which explicitly says that US would allow third world countries to spend part of their arms purchase credit in buying weapons from Israel.
After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps, Israeli prowess in mass killings was admired by Guatemalan elite which called for “Palestinianisation” of the country’s Mayan Indians. Then President Rios Montt’s Plan Victoria left 100,000 Guatemalan refugees in Mexico and a million internally displaced. Israeli made short take-off and landing Arava aircraft, Galil assault rifles and Uzi submachine guns were the weapons of choice thenceforth as Israel openly promised to supply weapons captured from dead Palestinians to Central American govts.
So, the roots of Israeli-Guatemalan intimacy go deep and are part of their similar and shared history of brutal suppression of ‘natives’. Small wonder that both call each other ‘true friends’.