By Diana Pastor
Few political figures in my country are worth remembering long after their time has passed. But this is certainly not the case with a brilliant and exemplary man, whose life story could have been lifted straight from a literary novel. His name: Jacobo Árbenz Guzman. This year marks the 100 year anniversary since his birth and 59 years since the disastrous CIA operation PBSuccess that overthrew him under the guise that he was a communist threat to the United States.
Árbenz was the second president of Guatemala that came to power after the revolution of 1944. He was the son of a Swiss-German immigrant and a Quetzaltecan mother. Jacobo was an outstanding student during his time at the military academy of Guatemala and upon graduation he rose rapidly in his political career: from sergeant to instructor, from instructor to captain, and from captain to one of the leaders of the post-revolutionary government before being appointed Minister of Defense. In 1951, he was elected president with overwhelming support from the popular classes, including students, campesinos (farmers), teachers and workers.
But fate had a bitter blow up its sleeve for Árbenz. Guatemala was dominated at the time by the United Fruit Company (UFCO), which owned huge banana plantations as well as the majority of service companies across the country. When Arbenz came to power, he made out his political plans: building a highway to the Atlantic; a port in Santo Tomas de Castilla; and the installation of a hydroelectric power plant that was to compete with the U.S. company to provide electricity to Guatemala; and, what came to become the crown of his legacy: an agrarian reform based on the expropriation of the huge swathes of idle land owned by the country´s biggest and most powerful landowners (after paying them compensation) in order to distribute it amongst thousands of Guatemalan campesinos so that they could finally own their own land and be free of the forced agricultural labour that they had been subjected to by the UFCO and on other plantations. Upon becoming aware of all this, the UFCO feared that its world of bananas and the millions of dollars of profit that they made for them would abruptly come to an end, so they did not hesitate to appeal to the U.S. government for help so that the CIA could force Árbenz to resign under the threat that his refusal would start a war funded by the United States in order to preserve their “freedom”.
Unfortunately, the CIA and the UFCO got their way and on June 27, 1954, Árbenz gave his last speech with a broken voice but with his head held high saying “history will prove me right.” Árbenz left a legacy that has not been matched in Guatemalan politics to this day, a legacy of both glory and accusations that continues to regard him as the best President in Guatemalan history.