The Ten Year Guatemalan Spring

By Diana Pastor

In these days of mass protests one is reminded of a time in Guatemalan history when the country went through an unsurpassed period of civic and political blossoming. It all started after the revolution on the 20th October 1944, when a movement of students, workers and labourers organised huge protests to demand the resignation of President Jorge Ubico, a despotic dictator who had curtailed freedom of expression and acted as a puppet controlled by the powerful international interests that essentially ruled Guatemala at the time. Following immense pressure from all sectors of society that yearned for a change for the country, General Ubico resigned and in so doing paved the way for the first democratic elections that would be held in the country after a period of tyranny and injustice that lasted over 14 years.

That moment will forever remain in the history books of the country: the moment when ordinary Guatemalans won the battle against the powers-that-be. Better times were fast approaching for the country.

The masses elected Dr. Juan Jose Arevalo for the presidency, an education specialist who had been residing in Argentina up until that point as his radical ideas had caused him to flee Guatemala in exile in order to protect his life. When he returned to the country and ran for president, he won a considerable number of votes that earned him an outright majority.

And so it was. Arevalo’s government was characterized by educational reforms and series of progressive policies aimed at benefitting the poorest sectors of the population, the middle class and intellectuals concerned about the situation in the country. However, the old oligarchy and the powerful interests, supported by the conservative wing of the army, were not too happy with his actions and so they soon began to plot coups against his government. There were more than 30 coup attempts during his presidency, and so Arevalo found himself stuck in between a hostile environment and his duties as president of the country. When his 4 years came to an end, the outgoing speech of Dr. Arevalo was not as enthusiastic as the one he made when he took office.

However Dr. Arevalo achieved some important changes for Guatemala during his time as president. He passed the labor code that established a number of important rights and institutions for workers, such as the Institute of Social Security and the bank of Guatemala. He also gave autonomy to the three powers of the state and to the municipalities. Moreover, he gave suffrage to women and to illiterate people for the first time. Arevalo knew that the outlook for the next president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, would be challenging. Arbenz took office in 1951 with a world of challenges and hopes placed in his hands. But even he could not have foreseen what would happen in the years of his presidency.

But more on that next month!


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