The Ten Year Guatemala Spring (Part 2)
By Diana Pastor
The day that Jacob Arbenz took power, the speech he gave was energetic and full of hope. Arbenz, who was the son of a German Swiss immigrant, was educated at the Polytechnic of Guatemala and was highlighted as an outstanding student. After graduating, he began working as a teacher at the Polytechnic and at the Fort of San Jose Buenavista, where he came face-to-face with the harsh working conditions of the indigenous population. Arbenz was part of the revolutionary army during the revolution of 1944 and afterwards was named defense minister during the government of Juan Jose Arevalo. During the subsequent election he was voted as President of the country. Arbenz had many plans for his government, but his central focus was land reform. By then, an American company known as the United Fruit Company owned 50% of the arable land in the country, while only using about 3% of it, and also monopolized many other services such as transport and control of sea ports.
Arbenz’s actions were marked by decree 900, which expropriated unused lands of the United Fruit Company. The construction of the Atlantic Highway and the port of Santo Tomas de Castilla, a project to compete with the services monopolized by United Fruit, was also initiated. All this, and other reforms, gave rise to a new social and political climate. What also was clear was that the interests of United Fruit were under threat, so the company decided to take action against Arbenz. UFCO, supported by right-wing conservatives and the Catholic Church, sought help from the US government to initiate and finance an operation to overthrow Arbenz, using a puppet in the form of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. Arbenz was accused of being a communist, and of being in league with the Russians. Gradually Arbenz’s allies fled the country or were eliminated. Castillo’s army also threatened to bomb Guatemala if Arbenz did not leave office. At first Arbenz remained staunchly reluctant to leave office, but later withdrew after increasing pressure and was exiled from the country, thus giving way to a long series of corrupt and tyrannical leaders in Guatemala.
It has been over 60 years since that tumultuous event. Arbenz did in fact try to return to return to Guatemala, though he could never find the support that he needed to regain power. Since then, the country has seen a series of big changes, such as the ones we are experiencing right now. We just need to wait and see if Guatemala will rise to build a new country or remain alienated in the current social and political landscape.