Cornell Capa Photographs Guatemala's Revolution

By Dot Tuer Posted August 6, 2013

Cornell Capa, Billboard in Guatemala, 1953. Translation of billboard text: President Arbenz delivers on his promise - Campesino: here is your land. Defend it, care for it, cultivate it.

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In 1953, the American-Hungarian photographer Cornell Capa travelled to Guatemala on assignment with Life magazine to document the socialist government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. As a young army colonel, Árbenz had participated in a rebellion of junior officers in 1944 that helped overthrow the dictatorship of General Jorge Ubico, whose repressive regime had consolidated the United Fruit Company’s stranglehold over the country’s banana production and exportation. Árbenz went on to serve as Minister of Defence under Juan José Arévalo, whose government was the first to be elected democratically in twenty years, and ran for President in 1950. Upon assuming office in March 1951, Árbenz expanded on Arévalo’s vision of a “spiritual socialism,” which had granted universal suffrage to the majority Mayan population and initiated modest land reforms. In 1952, Árbenz launched an ambitious program of agrarian reform in collaboration with the Communist Labour Party that had been legalized the same year. He also issued the Decree 900, which curtailed the monopoly privileges of the United Fruit Company. Árbenz’s alliance with Guatemala’s Communists and his resolve to challenge United Fruit’s corporative powers were viewed with alarm by the United States. A year after Capa took his photographs of Guatemala, Árbenz was deposed by a CIA-engineered coup in a covert operation code-named PBSUCCESS, which precipitated an era of unprecedented violence in Guatemala. Over the next forty years, 100,000 people, the vast majority Mayan civilians, would die in a civil war waged between guerilla rebel groups and the military, which deployed scorched earth tactics of retaliation and genocidal repression. 

In light of what is known today of the CIA’s involvement in toppling Árbenz’s government, and the institutionalization of military terror that followed, Capa’s 1953 billboard photograph resonates with historical pathos. Framed by barren untilled land, the billboard’s message points to the future dream of land rights for campesinos vanquished by the Cold War politics of US intervention. This photograph, which along with others Capa took in Guatemala is posted online in Google’s archiving of Life photographs, can be seen to encapsulate Capa’s humanitarian approach to photojournalism, in which he advocated for the role of the “concerned photographer” to “educate and change the world, not just record it.” The original context in which Capa’s Guatemala photographs were published tells a different story. In the photo essay from the October 12, 1953 issue of Life magazine entitled “The Red Outpost in Central America” they are held hostage to an anti-Communist sentiment.

While Capa’s billboard image was not used by Life, the first page of the photo essay features a photograph he took of a leader of the Labour Party, who is the figure in the billboard standing with finger pointed beside the campesino. The photograph shows him surrounded by children in a rural setting, with the caption reading “beside a shack in which 28 peasants live, sore-eyed children look up to Communist Pellecer who tells parents, ‘I will see they get medical attention.’” The opening lines of the text inform the reader that:

In Guatemala, only two hours bombing time from the Panama Canal, this man in the checked shirt goes daily among the people, openly and diligently toiling to create a Communist state in Central America. He says boldly “I am a Communist.” His name is Carlos Manuel Pellecer (pronounced pay-yay-sayre).

On the two-page photo spread that follows, titled “A Comrade to Peasant and President,” the left side features a large portrait of Pellecer and a snapshot size image of him shaking hands with Árbenz. On the right side are five photographs that document Pellecer organizing campesinos in his quest to spread the gospel of Communism.

In comparison to Pellecer’s ubiquitous presence, Árbenz only appears in two photographs: in the first one shaking hands with Pellecer; in the second comfortably ensconced in his modern living room with his wealthy wife at his side. The reader learns that Árbenz is “an intense, humourless reformer,” who has “two pet programs: land reform and the elimination of foreign (i.e. US) monopolies,” and that “in each aim the Reds are his strongest backers.” And while the reader is told that Árbenz is “no Communist himself,” the text warns that “he looks upon the Reds as Guatemalans first and Reds second. He says he is using them; the evidence is at least as ample that they are using him.”

What is presented by way of evidence is a litany of the “dismal failures of revolutionary boondoggles,” with Capa’s photographs recording unfinished highways, empty hospitals lacking doctors, a half-built National Library, and a model town without inhabitants. A double-page spread titled “United Fruit as a Whipping Boy” contrasts the folly of entrusting social reform to Communist sympathizers with the company’s modernizing benevolence. In one photograph, neatly arrayed rows of workers’ housing provided by United Fruit are juxtaposed with grass-roofed “native shacks” on its expropriated lands. In another, a child stares pensively at the viewer from a crib, above which hangs a poster of Minnie Mouse. The caption reads: “worker’s sick, underfed baby gets well in the United Fruit Hospital.” The inference is inescapable.  The United Fruit Company delivers on its promise of a better future for workers, while Communists pledge empty words to impoverished peasants, as witnessed by Pellecer surrounded by sore-eyed children.

The ideological slant of the photo essay’s text, which portrays Árbenz as a Communist pawn and informs the reader that United Fruit “talks about being forced out all together” because of his “obsessively nationalistic” policies, comes as no surprise. The photo essay, after all, was published in the same year that the Korean War ended and at the height of McCarthyism. What is more disturbing is how dramatically its ideological slant alters the humanitarian tenor of Capa’s photographs. By the time the reader reaches the end of the photo essay and encounters one of the most iconic photographs from his Guatemala series—of two barefooted men sipping from champagne glasses during the inauguration of a school—concerned photography had become the handmaiden of propaganda. Accompanied by a concluding text titled “Champagne for the Peons,” Capa’s image of humble campesinos has come to embody the sinister threat that Guatemala’s Communists pose to the natural (American) order of progress. In light of Capa’s advocacy for a photographic practice that “educates and changes the world,” there is more than a little irony, and historical pathos, in how a Cold War context has recast the subject matter of his photographs.


Dot Tuer is a writer, cultural historian, and Professor of Visual Culture at OCAD University. Her research areas includeCanadian and Latin American art, with a specialty in photography and new media, and colonial Latin American history with a focus on mestizaje as a site of intercultural exchange between European and indigenous cultures. In 2013 she received OCAD University’s Award for Distinguished Research, Scholarship and Creative Practice. (

The photograph of two men sipping champagne is archived by Magnum with the following caption: Cornell Capa, Guatemala 1953. Barefoot peasants drink champagne at the dedication of a school built by the reformist government, which was supported by the Communists. Copyright: International Centre of Photography.

The Life Magazine photo essay, “The Red Outpost in Central America” (October 12, 1953, pp. 169-177), can be viewed online.