Guatemala and the Limitations of Democratic Peace Theory

Guatemala and the Limitations of Democratic Peace Theory

In 1954, the United States covertly intervened in Guatemala, orchestrating a paramilitary coup d’état that deposed the democratically elected, Liberal government and installed a brutally repressive right-wing military junta. The story is well-known among Latin Americanists and foreign policy skeptics, but its theoretical significance for international relations (IR) has thus far been understated. More than just a foreign policy blunder, the case of Guatemala in 1954 represents the limitations of one of IR’s dominant frameworks: Democratic Peace Theory (DPT). DPT fails because it improperly conceives of its two key concepts—democracy and peace—ultimately narrowing them beyond any practically useful definition (e.g., one whose premises accurately reflect the world’s state of affairs). Western-style democracies—founded on Liberal values and free market capitalism—have no theoretical monopoly on legitimate democratic governance. To suggest otherwise ignores the realities and possibilities of equally legitimate democratic governance that may differ in form. Furthermore, and in spite of DPT, the absence of war does not sufficiently imply peace. To suggest otherwise insults the realities of torture, police brutality, disappearances, and other human rights abuses that happen off the battlefield, but which violate peace nonetheless.


DPT and Its Discontents

DPT is the closest thing we have to a natural law of international relations—we are often reminded—and its mainstream proponents claim three principal reasons that, when combined, create a special peace among democracies. First, citizens of democracies wield power over their governments, and their natural reluctance to go to war limits democratic countries’ proclivity for war-making. Second, the leaders of democratic countries face institutional constraints on their powers; unlike kings and emperors, presidents and prime ministers must answer to legislatures and voters, causing decisions to go to war to be based on multiple actors and timelines. Third, democracies are founded on values that naturally prioritize and respect individuals’ right to life, ensuring their philosophical predisposition to peace. Beyond these three mainstream explanations, some scholars argue that democracies enjoy peaceful relations due to their related economic development—war disrupts trade, and hence, democracies desirous of economic prosperity stop fighting and start signing trade agreements. Others argue that democracies are better at trusting one another because of their “unique contracting advantages” that make them more able and willing to negotiate peacefully amongst themselves. Whatever the reasons, proponents of DPT all ultimately maintain the same principle: democracies “don’t attack each other.”

Though several scholars support DPT, several others do not. DPT’s discontents consist of both quantitatively and qualitatively oriented critiques. Quantitative critiques suggest that theorists manipulate their variables and selectively limit the scope of their dataset in order to produce more favorable results. Qualitative critiques argue that democracy is a subjectively understood construction and, therefore, unreliable as a variable upon which to base peace claims. However, such critiques are not without flaws of their own. Quantitative opponents of DPT suffer from the same hindrance as the theory’s proponents, for the danger of quantitative methodologies is that of over-simplification, which excludes alternative, but nonetheless democratic forms of political participation. If we can rank countries on a scale of “objective” criteria required for democracy, then we risk excluding phenomena like protest, union membership, and so on that less traditionally characterize democracies and which are generally more observable through qualitative methods. DPT measures any given country’s democratic-ness with the Polity index, scoring countries out of ten on—for instance—open and fair elections, constitutionalism, and political participation. But, the Polity index does not account for alternative forms of democratic political action such as non-violent demonstrations and human rights activism. In Guatemala, the former led to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictator Jorge Ubico and the latter led the world to recognize the government’s genocide of indigenous Maya people. Defining which countries count as democracies and which do not is a political project and, if we remain skeptical of DPT proponents’ supposed objectivity, then we must also remain so for DPT’s opponents that adopt the same methodology. In addition, I remain skeptical of mainstream qualitative critiques’ subtle Eurocentrism. It is quite easy to claim that democracies are constructed by “America-like” discourses when the cases studied consist primarily of central and eastern European countries—countries with which a large portion of the U.S.’s population shares its heritage. It is a bit harder to identify cases that contradict DPT from the global South, as Guatemala does. Though DPT’s proponents may not get it right, to a certain extent, neither do its critics.


Usurpation and Inter-Democracy Violence in Guatemala

The U.S. intervened in Guatemala in 1954 to overthrow the legitimately elected government that sought to promote Liberal, capitalist reform. In 1901, the Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera granted the United Fruit Company, an American multinational agricultural corporation, the exclusive right to transport post between the U.S. and Guatemala, which became the company’s first entry into the country. United Fruit primarily produced bananas, eventually dominating the market, and creating disparate inequalities in Guatemalan landholdings. By 1944, 2% of Guatemala’s population held over 72% of the land. Moreover, according to Insatiable Appetite by the University of California, Davis’ Richard Tucker, U.S. agro-industrial capitalists—who needed ports, roads, and other vital infrastructure to export their products from Guatemala—controlled nearly every aspect in the chain of production through centralized, vertical integration of Guatemalan production and infrastructure. By 1902, Tucker finds that agro-industries like United Fruit “controlled most banana shipping to Europe, as well as to the United States,” and by 1912, it controlled the International Railways of Central America. Furthermore, Tucker notes that United Fruit ran the Guatemalan postal service and Latin America’s first wireless telegraph company, the Tropical Radio and Telegraph Company. Meanwhile, policymakers in the U.S. Departments of State and Defense lined their pockets with shares in United Fruit (now known as Chiquita Brands International).

Eventually, popular uprisings ousted the authoritarian government and elected Guatemala’s first democratic president, Juan José Arévalo, who dreamed of Liberal, capitalist reforms and cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as his primary source of political inspiration. In 1950, Arévalo’s democratically elected successor, Jacobo Árbenz implemented the controversial land expropriation policy Decree 900, which sought to break up United Fruit’s monopoly and combat the inequalities in landholdings. Árbenz’s Decree 900 drew upon Arévalo’s vision. In 1954, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intervened in Guatemala, training Honduran and Nicaraguan proxy troops that stormed Guatemala City and forced Árbenz to abdicate power. As justification, the U.S. labelled Guatemala a communist state infringing upon free market capitalism and individuals’ land rights. According to the then-Ambassador to Guatemala, John Peurifoy, and despite significant evidence to the contrary, Árbenz “thought like a communist, he acted like a communist, and if he is not one […] he will do until one comes along.” In a nearly cartoonish exaggeration of the Guatemalan political situation, the CIA overthrew a legitimately elected democracy that deliberately incorporated elements of American policy in order to advance Liberal, capitalist development and promote market competition.


The Limitations of the Democratic Peace

U.S. intervention in Guatemala in 1954 demonstrates how DPT improperly conceptualizes democracy as a specific type of government that is Western-styled, Liberal, free market, and allied with the U.S. politically and ideologically. Polity IV counts Guatemala just before the U.S. intervention as an “open anocracy” characterized by “mixed, or incoherent, authority.” Arévalo’s and Árbenz’s reforms therefore do not sufficiently reach the threshold of democratic governance for DPT. But, Polity’s mistake lies in its lack of consideration for states’ democratic capacities. In its first ever legitimate, national elections, Guatemalans clearly showed their democratic volition, but were plagued by the lack of democratic institutions typical of other, established democracies. To the extent that it could reasonably be considered so, Guatemala was a democracy in 1954 in that it had open, fair elections, support for Liberal human rights, and reforms to establish free and fair market competition. However, factoring in democratic capacity did little to make Guatemala a democracy in the eyes of policymakers. Recall how, despite the Liberal, democratic, and capitalist reforms instituted and sought after, U.S. policymakers claimed that, if the Árbenz administration was not communist, it “would do until one came along.” U.S. policymakers imagined the threat of communism in Guatemala because it did not pursue conservative, free market ideologies as the U.S. did, and because it did not explicitly reject the same Cold War allies that the U.S. did; and Guatemala subsequently was not considered a democratic country in spite of evidence to suggest otherwise.

Moreover, DPT improperly conceptualizes peace, excluding violations of peace present in cases like Guatemala. Following the U.S. installation of the junta, Guatemala entered a decades-long period of authoritarian rule resulting in state-sponsored violence, disappearances, torture, and genocide against Guatemala’s indigenous population. According to mainstream DPT literature, “peace” is defined as the absence of war. War is defined as any formal, organized, inter-state conflict resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 belligerent soldiers. The Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission estimated in 1999 that over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the county’s civil war and as a direct result of authoritarian rule. Few, if any, troops on either the U.S. or Guatemalan side died during the 1954 coup, however. Therefore, according to DPT, Guatemala’s is a case for peace. From this intuitively false conclusion, we can derive two important implications, the first of which deals with how we conceptualize peace. If peace is restricted to DPT’s definition, then repression, civil disobedience and political cleavages, torture, ethnic cleansing, and so on, count for peace besides our natural beliefs to the contrary. Leaving these instances out of the dataset makes the theory useful only for explaining the absence of war, not peace, especially given that these concepts are not perfect opposites.

The second conclusion deals with the dangers of narrowly conceptualizing peace in this way. If we exclude one type of violence that breaches the peace in vor of including another, then we introduce structural elements to IR theory that privilege one type of violence over another. War, at least DPT’s version of it, may be on the wane for a number of factors, but that does not necessarily imply a more peaceful world. Excluding Guatemala renders DPT potentially dangerous and privileging of a narrow, antiquated view of peace and its conceptual opposite. If we privilege formal, organized, inter-state war as the only acceptable form of peace for IR theorizing, then other atrocities that violate peace between people (not to mention between states) fall off scholars’ radars. Essentially, genocide and the legacy of human rights abuses in Latin America from colonial mass killings and rapes to the state-sponsored slaughter of indigenous people as recently as the late twentieth century equally violate peace in IR.



The U.S. coup in Guatemala deposed of a democratically elected regime seeking to advance Liberal, capitalist reforms. DPT’s proponents rely on overly narrow and useless definitions of peace and democracy. To claim that DPT adequately explains inter-democratic relations ignores the fact that Guatemala’s open, fair elections constituted democratic governance to the extent that its limited democratic capacity allowed. To further suggest that, because fewer than 1,000 belligerent combatants died on either side of the intervention, Guatemala sufficiently constitutes peace obfuscates the U.S.’s use of proxy troops and the resulting brutality of the U.S.-backed authoritarian regime.

The 1954 U.S. intervention in Guatemala represents more than just a foreign policy blunder—it shows the vastly insufficient conceptualizations of peace and democracy that underpin one of the dominant contemporary IR theories. Of course, fully developed, accurate conceptualizations of both democracy and peace would be exceedingly useful for IR theorizing if defining these concepts were removed from countries’ and scholars’ political agendas. Such conceptualizations are, however, outside the scope of this essay and would require more in-depth research. But what is clear is that those employed by DPT are insufficient. To secure its place in IR scholarship, DPT would need to rectify its definitional shortcomings and adequately account for alternative forms of democracy and violations of international peace off the battlefield. However, to the extent that they represent subjectively understood elements of a Liberal political project, the inherently narrow representations of peace and democracy only indicate DPT scholars’ inability to objectively determine them. Democracy consists of innumerable philosophies of governance far beyond its narrow understanding in the DPT literature and peace consists of a state of human affairs, whose maintenance or violation inter-state wars’ have no theoretical or practical monopoly—neither concept can be so reductively defined as in the literature lest we ignore alternative, valid approaches to democracy and alternative, tragic violations of peace.

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