The United States and Guatemala

The election campaign took Jacobo Arbenz to virtually every corner of the country. Photo courtesy of Oscar Pelaez Almengor an dthe Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala

The Force of a Myth

By Oscar Guillermo Peláez Almengor

The figure of Guatemala's overthrown President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán powerfully illustrates lost hopes and dashed dreams, what could have been and wasn’t. It portrays, in essence, the life of men and women in Guatemala with its marvels and miseries. And in the same manner, it illustrates, for better or for worse, the force of a myth that has grown in the past fifty years.

Today, it is no secret that the United States financed and directed “Operación Éxito” that led to the overthrow of the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954. Neither is it a secret that many Guatemalans participated as mercenaries in Arbenz’ defeat. There is, on this point, a shared responsibility that Guatemalans have not fully assumed.

On June 27, 1954, more than 50 years ago, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, the constitutionally elected president of Guatemala, resigned his post. In his farewell speech, he declared that his decision was based on the fact that he did not want a bloodbath among Guatemalans. How wrong Arbenz was…the bloodbath lasted for almost half a century and political instability a fact of everyday life since then. The political life of Arbenz Guzmán illustrates the lights and shadows of Guatemala’s contemporary history.

OCTOBER 20, 1944

At dawn on October 20, 1944, Lt. Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, dressed in civilian clothing in the midst of a group of students, burst into the Honor Guard, already under the control of Francisco Javier Arana. The insurgents captured the Guatemalan Army’s most modern arsenal of weapons, including several armored cars. The skirmish between the rebellious troops and those loyal to dictator Jorge Ubico’s chosen henchman Federico Ponce Vaidez lasted the entire day. The insurgents finally won, with Arbenz Guzmán playing a leading role in the uprising. However, Arana’s command of the armored vehicles was decisive in the victory. Together with the civilian Jorge Toriello Garrido, Arbenz and Arana became the heads of the first government of the October Revolution. Both rose to the position because of their participation in the military uprising, Arbenz as one of the officials of the “School” (educated in the military academy) and Arana as one of the “line” (officials who rose through the ranks by their bootstraps).

Later, during the government of Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951), Arana served as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Arbenz as Defense Minister. Both were the most influential Army officials of the October Revolution.

THE DEATH OF FRANCISCO JAVIER ARANA

Major Francisco Javier Arana, enticed by sectors wanting to overthrow the Arévalo government, became a conspirator. Emboldened by the president’s lack of firmness, Arana went to Morlón in Amatitlán on July 18, 1949 to recuperate a cache of arms intended for Arevalo’s use by the Caribbean Legion, the so-called “Legión del Caribe.” This was the awaited moment. Arévalo contacted Arbenz, who left the capital with his men in two vehicles. His companions included Colonel Felipe Antonio Girón, Commander of the Presidential Guard, his chaffeur Francisco Palacios and his assistant Major Absalón Peralta. The force that attempted to detain Arana was led by Lt. Colonel Enrique Blanco and Alfonso Martínez, the head of the Congressional Armed Forces Committee. At the bridge known as the Puente de la Gloria, Arana’s vehicle was intercepted, immediately producing crossfire. Arana, Peralta, and Blanco were killed, and others were injured, including Martínez. The news of Arana’s death spread like wildfire, and within a few hours, the most important military barracks in Guatemala City rose up against Arévalo.

The armed insurrection lasted for several days. However, Arbenz – leading the sector of the Army loyal to Arévalo – won the battle. The defeated military men remained thirsty for revenge. Arévalo never sufficiently explained the circumstances that had led to Arana’s death, leading to rampant rumor.

THE ELECTION OF JACOBO ARBENZ GUZMÁN

Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán won the presidency with a clear victory over his opponents. Arbenz’ role in July 1949 during the uprising following Arana’s death and his firm support of Arévalo’s government had earned him the respect of political leaders and the Army. Political party leaders believed that Arbenz was somebody who could unify the different political currents stemming from the October Revolution. Towards the end of 1949, political parties, the Partido de Acción Revolucionaria (PAR) and the Renovación Nacional (RN), both in the government, were preparing to give their support to Arbenz. However, the electoral strategy was distinct; a group of large landholders and industrialists Quetzaltenango, having known Arbenz for many years, formed the Partido de Integridad Nacional (PIN) at the end of 1949 to back him. On February 5, the PIN declared Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán to be its presidential candidate. The PAR and the RN followed shortly afterwards.

After an election campaign that took Arbenz to virtually every corner of the country—the images from which illustrate this article— between November 10 and 12, 1950, Arbenz was declared victor at the polls. Of the 404,739 votes cast, Arbenz won 258,987, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes obtained second place with 72,796 votes. This indisputable victory carried Arbenz to the nation’s presidency March 15, 1951, with a government program that sought to modernize the nation or, in Arbenz’ own words, “to convert Guatemala into a modern capitalist country.”

THE AGRARIAN REFORM

Arbenz signed the Agrarian Reform Law, Decree 900, on June 17, 1952. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), its objectives were to “develop the capitalist economy in Guatemalan agriculture through the abolition of the semi-feudal relations between landowners and workers, moreover, it sought the improvement of cultivation methods through adequate assistance.”

The rapid and complete application of the Law of Agrarian Reform, apart from its benefits, triggered a series of problems. On the domestic front, the agrarian situation with its latent conflicts was pushed into political and legal action. The long conflicts over the land among different communities were daily, weakening the government’s support among strong sectors of the population because of this. The conflict between merchants and industrialists against large landowners, produced by the agrarian reform, undermined the government’s alliance with key economic and political sectors. Finally, the open conflict against multinational interests, especially those of the United Fruit Company, complemented by the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the government, added one more hostile element to an already existing problem. As the Canadian historian Jim Handy has suggested, perhaps the agrarian reform was the “revolution’s most beautiful fruit,” but also the nails of its coffin.

THE RETALIATION

Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán confronted increasing discontentment about his policies on the part of the Guatemalan elite. The industrialists and merchants abandoned him because of his association with radicalized groups, especially the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT, the Communitst party founded in 1949). The Catholic Church declared war on his government because of the confessed atheism of some of the leaders of the revolutionary left. In those years, there was a war to the death between religious and socialist ideas. The venerated Christ of Esquipulas was used as a symbol to spear the campaign against revolutionary ideas in the name of faith and religion. The army was divided even more after the death of Francisco Javier Arana, and the counterrevolutionaries offered their services to the U.S. State Department to head up whatever rebellion that would promise to overthrow the government. The large landowners were the most affected group because of the application of the agrarian reform, and they had a better reason than anyone to hate Arbenz and his government. Finally, the anti-imperialist language and legal actions by the government against the United Fruit Company, stimulated the intervention of the United States on behalf of the interests of the multinational corporations. The States Department financed approximately $3 million for a campaign of psychological warfare, airplanes and a mercenary army to overthrow the government.

Nevertheless, the principal achievements of the October Revolution outlived its promoters; the domestic market has been expanded; trade and industry have grown, and Guatemala is now a modern capitalist country with an emerging democracy in the process of consolidation. The patch laid out by the October Revolution has finally become a road and Guatemala today is surely what Arévalo and Arbenz desired fifty years ago.

Oscar Guillermo Peláez Almengor is the Central American Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2004-2005. He is a professor at the Center for Urban Studies at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala.