Guatemalan Revolution

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Guatemalan Revolution
A mural celebrating Jacobo Árbenz and the ten year revolution
Date 1944–1954
Location Guatemala
Also known as The Ten Years of Spring

The Guatemalan Revolution was the period in Guatemalan history between the popular uprising that overthrew dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944 and the United States orchestrated coup d'état in 1954 that removed President Jacobo Árbenz from power. Also known as the Ten Years of Spring, that decade represented the only years of representative democracy in Guatemala from 1930 until the end of the Guatemalan civil war in 1996, and included a program of agrarian reform that was enormously influential across Latin America.[1]

From the late 19th century until 1944 Guatemala was governed by a series of authoritarian rulers who sought to strengthen the Guatemalan economy by supporting the export of coffee. Between 1898 and 1920 Manuel Estrada Cabrera granted significant concessions to the United Fruit Company, as well as dispossessing many indigenous peoples of their communal land. Under Jorge Ubico, who ruled as a dictator between 1931 and 1944, this process was intensified, with the institution of brutal labor regulations and the establishment of a police state.[2]

In June 1944, a popular pro-democracy movement led by university students and labor organizations forced Ubico to resign. He appointed a three-person military junta to take his place, led by Federico Ponce Vaides. This junta continued Ubico's oppressive policies, until it was toppled in a military coup led by Jacobo Árbenz in October 1944, an event also known as the "October Revolution." The coup leaders formed a junta which swiftly called for open elections. These elections were won in a landslide by Juan José Arévalo, a progressive professor of philosophy who had become the face of the popular movement. He implemented a moderate program of social reform, including a widely successful literacy campaign and mostly free elections, although illiterate women were not given the vote, and communist parties were banned.

Following the end of Arévalo's presidency in 1951, Jacobo Árbenz, the progressive military leader of the 1944 revolution, was elected to the presidency in a landslide. He continued the reforms of Arévalo, and also began an ambitious land reform program, known as Decree 900. Under it, the uncultivated portions of large land-holdings were expropriated in return for compensation, and redistributed to poverty-stricken agricultural laborers. Approximately 500,000 people benefited from the decree, the majority of them indigenous people who had been dispossessed after the Spanish invasion.

Árbenz' policies ran afoul of the United Fruit Company, which lost some of its uncultivated land. The UFC lobbied the United States government for Árbenz' overthrow, and the state department responded by engineering a coup under the pretext that Árbenz was a communist. Carlos Castillo Armas took power at the head of a military junta, provoking the Guatemalan Civil War. The war lasted from 1960 to 1996, and saw the United States backed military commit genocide against the indigenous Mayan people, and widespread human rights violations against civilians.


Early 20th Century[edit]

Manuel Estrada Cabrera, President of Guatemala from 1898 to 1920. Cabrera granted large concessions to the American United Fruit Company

Prior to the Spanish invasion of Guatemala in 1524, the population of Guatemala was almost exclusively Mayan.[3] The Spanish conquest created a system of wealthy European landowners overseeing a labor force composed of slaves and bonded laborers. However, the community lands of the indigenous population remained in their control until the late 19th century.[3] At this point, rising global demand for coffee led to coffee export becoming a significant source of income for the Guatemalan government. As a result, the state supported the coffee growers by passing legislation that took land away from the Indian population, as well as relaxing labor laws so that bonded labor could be used on the plantations.[3][4] The United States based United Fruit Company (UFC) was one of many foreign companies that acquired large tracts of both state land and indigenous land.[4] Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who was president of Guatemala from 1898 to 1920, permitted limited unionization in rural Guatemala, but also made further concessions to the UFC.[3][5] In 1922, the Communist Party of Guatemala was created, and became a significant influence among urban laborers; however, it had little reach among the rural and Indian populations. [4] In 1929, the Great Depression led to the collapse of the Guatemalan economy and a rise in unemployment, leading to unrest among workers and laborers. Fearing the possibility of a revolution, the Guatemalan landed elite lent their support to Jorge Ubico, who had built a reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency as a provincial governor. Ubico won the election that followed in 1931, in which he was the only candidate.[3][4]

Dictatorship of Jorge Ubico[edit]

Main article: Jorge Ubico
Jorge Ubico, the dictator of Guatemala from 1931 to 1944. He passed laws allowing landowners to use lethal force to defend their property

Ubico, also known as Jorge Ubico y Castañeda, had made statements supporting the labor movement when campaigning for the presidency, but after his election his policy quickly became authoritarian. He abolished the system of debt peonage, and replaced it with a vagrancy law, which required all men of working age who did not own land to a minimum of 100 days of hard labor.[6] In addition, the state made use of unpaid Indian labor to work on public infrastructure like roads and railroads. Ubico also froze wages at very low levels, and passed a law allowing land-owners complete immunity from prosecution due to any action they took to defend their property.[6][7] He greatly strengthened the police force, turning it into one of the more efficient and ruthless in Latin America.[8] The police were given greater authority to shoot and imprison people suspected of breaking the labor laws. The result of these laws was to create tremendous resentment against him among the labor class.[2]

Ubico had great admiration for the fascist leaders of Europe, such as Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini.[9] However, he saw the United States as an ally against the supposed communist threat of Mexico. He made a concerted effort to gain American support; when the US declared war on Germany and Japan in 1941, Ubico followed suit, and acting on American instructions arrested all people in Guatemala of German descent.[10] He permitted the US to establish an air base in Guatemala, with the stated aim of protecting the Panama Canal.[11] Like his predecessors, he also made large concessions to the United Fruit Company, including granting them 200,000 hectares of public land in exchange for a promise to build a port. He later released the UFC from this obligation as well, citing the economic crisis.[12] Since its entry into Guatemala, the UFC had expanded its land-holdings by displacing the peasantry and converting their farmland to banana plantations. This process accelerated under Ubico's presidency, with the government not doing anything to stop it.[13]

October revolution[edit]

June 1944 general strike[edit]

The onset of World War II resulted in increasing economic unrest in Guatemala. Ubico responded by cracking down more fiercely on any form of protest or dissent.[14] In 1944, popular revolt broke out in neighboring El Salvador, which briefly toppled dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez; however, he quickly returned to power, leading to a flood of exiled revolutionaries moving to Guatemala.[15] This coincided with a series of protests at the university in Guatemala city. Ubico responded by suspending the constitution on 22 June 1944.[14][15][16] The protesters, who by this point included many middle-class members in addition to students and workers, called for a general strike, and presented an ultimatum to Ubico the next day, demanding reinstatement of the constitution. They also presented him a petition signed by 311 of the most prominent Guatemalan citizens. Ubico sent the police to disrupt the protests by firing on them, and declared martial law.[17][18][16] Clashes between protesters and the military continued for a week, during which the revolt gained momentum. At the end of June Ubico submitted his resignation to the National Assembly, leading to huge celebrations in the streets.[19]

The resignation of Ubico did not result in the restoration of democracy. Ubico appointed three generals, Federico Ponce Vaides, Eduardo Villagran Ariza, and Buenaventura Pineda, to a junta which would lead the provisional government. A few days later, Ponce Vaides persuaded the congress to appoint him interim president.[20][21] Ponce pledged to hold free elections soon, while at the same time suppressing the protests.[22] Press freedom was suspended,[22] arbitrary detentions continued, and memorial services for slain revolutionaries were prohibited.[21] However, the protests had grown to the point where the government could not stamp them out, and rural areas too began organizing against the dictatorship.[21] The government also began using the police to intimidate the indigenous population to keep the junta in power through the forthcoming election. This resulted in growing support for an armed revolution among some sections of the populace.[21] The army itself had also begun to be disillusioned by the junta, and progressives within it had begun to plot a coup.[23]

Interim Presidency of Ponce Vaides[edit]

On 1 October 1944, Alejandro Cordova, the editor of El Imparcial, the main opposition newspaper, was assassinated. This led to the military coup plotters reaching out to the leaders of the protests, in an attempt to turn the coup into a popular uprising.[23] Ponce Vaides announced elections, but the pro-democracy forces denounced them as a fraud, citing Ponce Vaides' attempts to rig them in his favor.[23]

Ponce Vaides sought to stabilize his regime by playing on inter-racial tension within the Guatemalan population. The most vocal support for the revolution had come from the Ladino people, or people of mixed racial descent.[24] Ponce Vaides sought to exploit their fear of the Indians by paying thousands of indigenous peasants to march in Guatemala city in his support, and promising them land of their own if they supported the Liberal party that Ubico had begun as a front for the dictatorship.[24]

By mid-October, several different plans to overthrow the junta had been set in motion by the various factions of the pro-democracy movement, including the teachers, the students, and the progressive factions of the army.[23] On 19 October, the government learned of one of these conspiracies.[23] The same day, a small group of army officers launched a coup from within the army, led by the coup-plotters Francisco Javier Arana and Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán.[25] They were joined the next day by other factions of the army and the civilian population. Initially, the battle went against the revolutionaries, but after an appeal for support their ranks were swelled by unionists and students, and they eventually subdued the police and the army factions loyal to Ponce Vaides.[23] On October 20, Ponce Vaides surrendered unconditionally.[23]

Ponce Vaides was allowed to leave the country safely, as was Ubico himself. The military junta was replaced by another three-person junta consisting of Árbenz, Arana, and an upper-class youth named Jorge Toriello, who had played a significant role in the protests. Although Arana had come to the military conspiracy relatively late, his defection had brought the powerful Guardia de Honor (Honor Guard) over to the revolutionaries, and for this crucial role he was rewarded with a place on the junta.[26] The junta promised free and open elections to the presidency and the congress, as well as for a constituent assembly.[26]

The resignation of Ponce Vaides and the creation of the junta has been considered by scholars to be the beginning of the Guatemalan Revolution.[26] However, the revolutionary junta did not immediately threaten the interests of the landed elite. Two days after Ponce Vaides' resignation, a violent protest erupted at Patzicia, a small Indian hamlet. The junta responded with swift brutality, silencing the protest. The dead civilians included women and children.[27]

Election of Arévalo[edit]

Further information: Juan José Arévalo

Juan José Arévalo Bermejo was born into a middle-class family in 1904. He became a primary school teacher for a brief while, and then earned a scholarship to a university in Argentina, where he earned a doctorate in the philosophy of education. He returned to Guatemala in 1934, and sought a position in the Ministry of Education.[28][29] However, he was denied the position he wished for, and also felt uncomfortable under the dictatorship of Ubico. He returned to Argentina and held a faculty position until 1944, when he returned to Guatemala.[28] In July 1944 the Renovación Nacional, the teachers' party, had been formed, and Arévalo was named its candidate. In an unexpected surge of support, his candidacy was endorsed by many of the leading organizations among the protesters, including the student federation. His lack of connection to the dictatorship and his academic background both worked in his favor among the students and teachers. At the same time, the fact that he had chosen to go into exile in conservative Argentina rather than revolutionary Mexico reassured landowners worried about socialist or communist reform.[30]

The subsequent elections took place in December 1944, and were broadly considered free and fair,[31] although only literate men were given the vote.[32] Unlike in similar historical situations, none of the junta members stood for election.[31] Arévalo's closest challenger was Adrián Recinos, whose campaign included a number of individuals identified with the Ubico regime.[31] The ballots were tallied on 19th December 1944, and Arévalo won in a landslide, receiving more than four times as many ballots as the other candidates combined.[31]

Presidency of Arévalo[edit]

Arévalo took office on 15 March 1945, inheriting a country with numerous social and economic issues. Despite Ubico's policy of using unpaid labor to build public roads, internal transport was severely inadequate. 70% of the population was illiterate, and malnutrition and poor health were widespread. The wealthiest 2% of landowners owned nearly three quarters of agricultural land, and as a result less than 1% of land was cultivated. The indigenous peasants either had no land, or had far too little to sustain themselves. Three quarters of the labor force were in agriculture, and industry was essentially nonexistent.[33]


Arévalo identified his ideology by the name "spiritual socialism." He held the belief that the only way to alleviate the backwardness of most Guatemalans was through a paternalistic government. He was strongly opposed to classical Marxism, and believed in a capitalist society that was regulated to ensure that its benefits went to the entire population.[34] Arévalo's ideology was reflected in the new constitution that the Guatemalan assembly ratified soon after his inauguration, which was one of the most progressive in Latin America. It mandated suffrage for all but illiterate women, a decentralization of power, and provisions for a multiparty system. Communist parties were, however, forbidden.[34] The constitution, and Arévalo's socialist ideology, became the basis for much of the reform enacted under Arévalo and later under Jacobo Árbenz. Although the United States government would later portray the ideology of the revolution as radical communist, it did not in fact represent a major leftward shift, and was staunchly anti-communist.[34] Arévalo's economic vision for the country was centered around private enterprise.[35]

Labor movement[edit]

The revolution in 1944 left many of the biggest opponents of organized labor unaffected, such as the landowner elite and the United Fruit Company. The revolution, and election of Arévalo, nonetheless marked a significant shift in the fortunes of labor unions.[36] The protests of 1944 strengthened the labor movement to the point where Ponce Vaides stopped enforcing the repressive vagrancy law, and this law was abolished in the 1945 constitution. On 1 May 1945, Arévalo made a speech celebrating organized labor, to tremendously positive reception. The freedom of press guaranteed in the new constitution also resulted in much greater attention being drawn to the brutal working conditions for workers in Guatemala city.[36] From the beginning, the new unions that were formed fell into two camps, those which were communist and those that were not. The repressive policies of the Ubico government had driven both factions underground, but they re-emerged after the revolution.[37]

The communist movement was also strengthened by the release of those of its leaders that had been imprisoned by Ubico. Among its prominent leaders were Miguel Mármol, Víctor Manuel Gutiérrez, and Graciela García, the latter unusual for being a woman in a movement that women were discouraged from participating in.[38] The communists began to organize in the capital, and established a school for workers, known as the Escuela Claridad, or the Clarity school, which taught reading, writing, and also helped organize unions.[38] Six months after the school was established, President Arévalo closed the school down, and deported all the leaders of the movement who were not Guatemalan. However, the communist movement survived, mostly by its dominance within the teacher's union.[38]

Arévalo's response toward the non-communist labor unions was mixed. In 1945, he criminalized all rural labor unions in workplaces with fewer than 500 workers, which included most plantations.[38] One of the few unions big enough to survive this law was that of the banana workers employed by the UFC. In 1946 this union organized a strike, which provoked Arévalo into outlawing all strikes until a new Labor code was passed. This led to efforts on the part of employers to stall the labor code, as well as to exploit workers as far as possible before it was passed.[38] The unions were also damaged when the United States government persuaded the American Federation of Labor to found the Organización Regional Internacional Trabajo (ORIT), a union that took a virulently anti-communist stance.[38]

Despite the powerful opposition, by 1947 the labor unions had managed to organize enough support to force the congress to pass a new Labor code. This law was revolutionary in many ways; it forbade discrimination in salary levels on the basis of "age, race, sex, nationality, religious beliefs, or political affiliation."[39] It created a set of health and safety standards in the workplace, and standardized an eight hour working day and a 45 hour working week, although the congress succumbed to pressure from the plantation lobby and exempted plantations from this provision. The code also required plantation owners to construct primary schools for the children of their workers, and expressed a general commitment to "dignifying" the position of workers.[39] Although many of these provisions were never enforced, the creation of administrative mechanisms for this law in 1948 allowed several of its provisions to be systematically enforced.[39] The law as a whole had a huge positive impact on worker rights in the country, including raising the average wages by a factor of three or more.[40][39]

Foreign relations[edit]

The Arévalo government attempted to support democratic ideals abroad as well as at home. One of Arévalo's first actions was to break diplomatic relations with the government of Spain under dictator Francisco Franco. At two inter-American conferences in the year after his election, Arévalo recommended that the republics in Latin America not recognize and support authoritarian regimes. This initiative was defeated by the dictatorships supported by the United States, such as the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. In response, Arévalo broke of diplomatic ties with the Nicaraguan government and with the government of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.[41] Frustrated by the lack of results from working with the other Latin American governments, Arévalo began to support the Caribbean Legion, which sought to replace dictatorships with democracies across Latin America, by force if necessary. This led to the administration being labelled as communist by the dictatorial governments in the region.[42]

The Arévalo government also floated the idea of a Central American Federation, as being the only way that a democratic government could survive in the region. He approached several leaders of democratic Central American countries, but was rejected by all except Castañeda Castro, the president of El Salvador. The two leaders began talks to set up a union, and set up several commissions to look into the issue. In late 1945 they announced the formation of the union, but the formalization of the process got delayed by internal troubles in both countries, and in 1948 the Castro government was toppled in a military coup led by Óscar Osorio.[43]

Presidency of Árbenz[edit]

Further information: Jacobo Árbenz


Árbenz's role as defense minister had already made him a strong candidate for the presidency, and his firm support of the government during the 1949 uprising further increased his prestige. In 1950, the economically moderate Partido de Integridad Nacional (PIN) announced that Árbenz would be its presidential candidate in the upcoming election. This announcement was quickly followed by endorsements from most parties on the left, including the influential PAR, as well as from labor unions.[44] Árbenz had only a couple of significant challengers in the election, in a field of ten candidates.[44] One of these was Jorge García Granados, who was supported by some members of the upper-middle class who felt the revolution had gone too far. Another was Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, who had been a general under Ubico, and who had the support of the hardline opponents of the revolution. During his campaign, Árbenz promised to continue and expand the reforms begun under Arévalo.[45] The election was held on 15 November 1950, and Árbenz won more than 60% of the vote, in elections that were free and fair with the exception of the disenfranchisement of illiterate female voters. Árbenz was inaugurated as president on 15 March 1951.[44]

Personal life and political beliefs[edit]

Main article: Jacobo Árbenz

Árbenz was born in 1913 into a middle-class family of Swiss heritage.[46] In 1935 Árbenz graduated from the Escuela Politécnica, Guatemala's national military academy, with excellent grades, and he subsequently became an officer in the Guatemalan army under Ubico.[47] As an officer, Árbenz himself was required to escort chain-gangs of prisoners. This process radicalized him, and he began to form links to the labor movement. In 1938 he met and married his wife María Vilanova, who was also interested in social reform, and who became a significant influence on him, and a national figure in her own right. Another strong influence on him was José Manuel Fortuny, a well-known Guatemalan communist, who was one of his main advisers during his government.[46][47] In 1944, disgusted with Ubico's authoritarian regime, he began plotting against the government along with his fellow officers. When Ubico resigned in 1944, Árbenz witnessed Ponce Vaides intimidate the congress into naming him president. Highly offended by this, Árbenz began plotting against Ponce Vaides, and was one of the military leaders of the coup that toppled him, in addition to being one of the few officers in the revolution who formed and maintained connections to the popular civilian movement.[46]

Agrarian reform[edit]

Main article: Decree 900

The biggest component of Árbenz's project of modernization was his agrarian reform bill.[48] Árbenz drafted the bill himself with the help of advisers that included some leaders of the communist party as well as non-communist economists.[49] He also sought advice from numerous economists from across Latin America.[48] The bill was passed by the National Assembly on 17 June 1952, and the program went into effect immediately. The focus of the program was on transferring uncultivated land from large landowners to their poverty stricken laborers, who would then be able to begin a viable farm of their own.[48] Árbenz was also motivated to pass the bill because he needed to generate capital for his public infrastructure projects within the country. At the behest of the United States, the World Bank had refused to grant Guatemala a loan in 1951, which made the shortage of capital more acute.[50]

The official title of the agrarian reform bill was Decree 900. It expropriated all uncultivated land from landholdings that were larger than 673 acres. If the estates were between 672 and 224 acres in size, uncultivated land was expropriated only if less than two-thirds of the land was in use.[50] The owners were compensated with government bonds, the value of which was equal to that of the land expropriated. The value of the land itself was the value that the owners had declared in their tax returns in 1952.[50] The redistribution was organized by local committees that included representatives from the landowners, the laborers, and the government.[51] Of the nearly 350,000 private land-holdings, only 1710 were affected by expropriation. The law itself was cast in a moderate capitalist framework; however, it was implemented with great speed, which resulted in occasional arbitrary land seizures. There was also some violence, directed both at land-owners as well as at peasants that had minor landholdings of their own.[50]

By June 1954, 1.4 million acres of land had been expropriated and distributed. Approximately 500,000 individuals, or one-sixth of the population, had received land by this point.[50] The decree also included provision of financial credit to the people who received the land. The National Agrarian Bank (Banco Nacional Agrario, or BNA) was created on 7 July 1953, and by June 1951 it had disbursed more than $ 9 million in small loans. 53,829 applicants received an average of 225 dollars, which was twice as much as the Guatemalan per capita income.[50] The BNA developed a reputation for being a highly efficient government bureaucracy, and the United States government, Árbenz's biggest detractor, did not have anything negative to say about it.[50] The loans had a high repayment rate, and of the $3,371,185 handed out between March and November 1953, $3,049,092 had been repaid by June 1954.[50] The law also included provisions for nationalization of roads that passed through redistributed land, which greatly increased the connectivity of rural communities.[50]

Contrary to the predictions made by the detractors of the government, the law resulted in a slight increase in Guatemalan agricultural productivity, and also led to an increase in cultivated area. Purchases of farm machinery also increased.[50] Overall, the law resulted in a significant improvement in living standards for many thousands of peasant families, the majority of whom were indigenous people. [50] Piero Gleijeses stated that the injustices corrected by the law were far greater than the injustice of the relatively few arbitrary land seizures.[51]

CIA instigated coup d'état[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 3.
  2. ^ a b Forster 2001, pp. 29–32.
  3. ^ a b c d e Forster 2001, pp. 12–15.
  4. ^ a b c d Gleijeses 1991, pp. 10–11.
  5. ^ Chapman 2007, p. 83.
  6. ^ a b Forster 2001, p. 29.
  7. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 13.
  8. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 17.
  9. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 19.
  10. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 20.
  11. ^ Immerman 1982, p. 37.
  12. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 22.
  13. ^ Forster 2001, p. 19.
  14. ^ a b Immerman 1982, pp. 36–37.
  15. ^ a b Forster 2001, p. 84.
  16. ^ a b Gleijeses 1991, pp. 24–25.
  17. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 38–39.
  18. ^ Forster 2001, pp. 84–85.
  19. ^ Forster 2001, p. 86.
  20. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 27.
  21. ^ a b c d Forster 2001, pp. 86–89.
  22. ^ a b Immerman 1982, p. 40.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g Forster 2001, pp. 89–91.
  24. ^ a b Gleijeses 1991, pp. 27–28.
  25. ^ Immerman 1982, p. 42.
  26. ^ a b c Gleijeses 1991, pp. 28–29.
  27. ^ Gleijeses 1991, pp. 30–31.
  28. ^ a b Gleijeses 1991, pp. 32–33.
  29. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 44–45.
  30. ^ Gleijeses 1991, pp. 33–35.
  31. ^ a b c d Immerman 1982, pp. 45–45.
  32. ^ Gleijeses 1991, p. 36.
  33. ^ Gleijeses 1991, pp. 36–37.
  34. ^ a b c Immerman 1982, pp. 46–49.
  35. ^ Immerman 1982, p. 52.
  36. ^ a b Forster 2001, p. 97.
  37. ^ Forster 2001, p. 98.
  38. ^ a b c d e f Forster 2001, pp. 98–99.
  39. ^ a b c d Forster 2001, pp. 99–101.
  40. ^ Immerman 1982, p. 54.
  41. ^ Immerman 1982, p. 49.
  42. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 49–50.
  43. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 50–51.
  44. ^ a b c Gleijeses 1991, pp. 73–84.
  45. ^ Immerman 1982, pp. 60–61.
  46. ^ a b c Gleijeses 1991, pp. 134–148.
  47. ^ a b Immerman 1982, pp. 61–67.
  48. ^ a b c Immerman 1982, pp. 64–67.
  49. ^ Gleijeses 1991, pp. 144–146.
  50. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Gleijeses 1991, pp. 149–164.
  51. ^ a b Gleijeses 1991, pp. 149-164.


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