Operation WASHTUB: CIA covert operation to plant a phony Soviet arms cache in Nicaragua to demonstrate Guatemalan ties to Moscow.
On February 19, 1954, the CIA planted a cache of Soviet-made arms on the Nicaraguan coast to be “discovered” weeks later by fishermen in the pay of Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza García.
It was part of the effort to overthrow the President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954.
On May 7, 1954, President Somoza told reporters at a press conference that a Soviet submarine had been photographed, but that no prints or negatives were available.
The story also involved Guatemalan assassination squads.
The press and the public were skeptical and the story did not get much press.
The CIA to drew up a contingency plan entitled Operation PBFORTUNE in 1951. It outlined a method of ousting Árbenz if he were deemed a Communist threat in the hemisphere.
The United Fruit Company – now renamed Chiquita – a U.S.-based corporation, was also threatened by Árbenz’s land reform initiative. United Fruit was Guatemala’s largest landowner, with 85% of its holdings uncultivated, thus vulnerable to Árbenz’s reform plans. In calculating its tax obligations, United Fruit had consistently (and drastically) undervalued the worth of its holdings. In its 1952 tax returns, it claimed its land was only worth $3 per acre. When, in accordance with United Fruit’s tax claims, the Árbenz government offered to compensate the company at the $3 rate, the company claimed the land’s true value was $75/acre but refused to explain the precipitous jump in its own determination of the land’s value.
Árbenz assumed the presidency in 1951 as the first to undergo a peaceful democratically-elected transition to power in Guatemala.
In 1952, the Guatemalan Party of Labour was legalized; Communists subsequently gained considerable minority influence over important peasant organizations and labor unions, but not over the governing political party, and they won only four seats in the 58-seat governing body. The plan repossessed and distributed uncultivated land in attempts to create an independent economy and initiate agrarian reforms- not at all unlike the Homestead Act in the United States.
Arbenz set land reform as his central goal, as only 2% of the population owned 70% of the land.
The CIA, having drafted Operation PBFORTUNE, was already concerned about Árbenz’s potential Communist ties. United Fruit had been lobbying the CIA to oust reform governments in Guatemala since Arévalo’s time, but it was not until the Eisenhower administration that it found an ear in the White House.
In 1954, the Eisenhower administration was still flush with victory from its covert operation to topple the Mossadegh government in Iran the year before. On 19 February 1954, the CIA began Operation WASHTUB.
As it happened, WASHTUB was unnecessary. In May 1954, Czechoslovak weaponry arrived in secret into Guatemala aboard the Swedish ship Alfhem. The ship’s manifests had been falsified as to the nature of its cargo. The U.S. took this as final proof of Árbenz’s Soviet links. The Czechoslovaks supplied, for cash down, obsolete and barely functional German WWII weaponry.
The direct contacts between the Soviet Union and the Árbenz Government consisted of one Soviet diplomat working out an exchange of bananas for agricultural machinery. The deal fell through because neither side had refrigerated ships. The only other evidence of contact the CIA found after the operation were two bills to the Guatemalan Communist Party from a Moscow bookstore, totaling $22.95.
The Árbenz government was convinced a U.S.-sponsored invasion was imminent: it had previously released detailed accounts of the CIA’s Operation PBFORTUNE (called the White Papers) and perceived US actions at the OAS convention in Caracas that year as a lead-up to intervention.
The administration ordered the CIA to sponsor a coup d’état, code-named Operation PBSUCCESS, that toppled the government. Árbenz resigned on 27 June 1954 and was forced to flee, seeking refuge in the Mexican Embassy.
Rag-tags, Scum, Riff-raff and Commies: The U.S.Intervention in the Dominican Republic, 1965-1966 by Eric Thomas Chester (written after declassification) gives a full account.
In May 2011 the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with his surviving family to restore his legacy and publicly apologize for the government’s role in ousting him