Guatemala: The Ideas of Jacobo Arbenz

September 16, 2020

The Guatemalan revolution had in its favor an important figure, the military and political strategist Juan Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (September 1913 – January 1971).

He was born on September 14, 1913, in the city of Quezaltenango, the son of the Swiss Jacobo Arbenz and Octavia Guzmán, a Guatemalan.

Arbenz was characterized by his simplicity, commitment to the humble, and firmness in fighting for a more just and united society. He was a true patriot, a soldier of the people as his Guatemalan compatriots called him.

During his term of office, his administration focused on seeking economic independence. He emphasized that he would need foreign capital only to the extent that it would adjust to local conditions, always remain subordinated to Guatemalan laws, cooperate with the development of the country and abstain from intervening in its social and political life.

Political career

Arbenz was part of a group of young officers that in 1944 forced the resignation of Federico Ponce, successor of President Jorge Ubico (1931-1944) as part of a revolution movement at the time, and in December of that same year Juan José Arévalo was elected and began a process of economic and social reforms.

Among his most radical measures was primarily in agrarian reform, which was qualified by the US as a threat to its interests. The reforms initiated by Arevalo were continued by Arbenz who succeeded him after winning the following elections in 1951.

Government of Jacobo Arbenz

A major anti-communist campaign had already been unleashed against Arevalo and continued during Arbenz’s administration which culminated in an invasion from Honduras in June 1954 and the overthrow of his constitutional government.

A coup d’état orchestrated and financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the U.S. State Department then overthrew the government of Jacobo Arbenz, who was democratically elected by the people of Guatemala in the 1951 election.

During Arbenz’s short 3 years in office he promoted and succeeded in passing the Agrarian Reform Law, known as Decree 900, which had become the fundamental purpose of his government motivated by his awareness of the profound inequality and misery that prevailed in the Guatemalan countryside. His commitment was to liquidate the feudal property and lay the foundations for industrialization.

In 1954, he expropriated the land of the U.S. company United Fruit and instituted a modest tax on banana exports to finance social programs. This redistribution of any of the profits of the lucrative banana trade was the tipping point for the CIA, which had built an anti-communist base in Guatemala, to have an excuse to have Arbenz’s government overthrown.  It marked the first direct intervention by the CIA in Latin America.

Right up until his forced resignation as a result of the 1954 coup Arbenz signed expropriations of half a million idle hectares, which meant that 500 thousand peasants benefited, by granting them, for the promotion of the internal market, credits for 18 million dollars. The increase in the gross product, personal consumption and the importation of machinery, all demonstrated the effectiveness of the plan.

Political thought of Jacobo Arbenz

An Anti-imperialist and left-nationalist Arbenz sought the economic independence of Guatemala. He stressed that he would need foreign capital only to the extent that it adjusted to local conditions and that in any case it should always remain subordinate to Guatemalan laws, cooperate with the development of the country and refrained from intervening in its social and political life.

He was a committed defender of the indigenous who constituted 70 percent of the Guatemalan population and who had been completely excluded from society. He advocated the abolition of all forms of servitude, and free social benefits.

Jacobo Arbenz synthesized his government’s management into three main progressive postulates: economic independence of the nation; transformation of the country into an autonomous nation; and raising the people’s standard of living. No wonder the Us considered him such a threat.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano, translation, North America bureau