Born in 1913 in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala as a son of a Swiss immigrant that married a Guatemalan woman, Arbenz grew up as a member of the small Guatemalan middle class. His father committed suicide when Jacobo was still very young, likely because he was addicted to drugs. Arbenz, therefore, was raised only by his mother. The rigid structure the Guatemalan society offered few options for the local bourgeoise to climb the social ladder. So like many men of his generation, Arbenz chose his career in the military. He graduated as sub-lieutenant in 1935, and returned to the academy in 1937 as teacher of science and history.
By the time Arbenz was working in the Military Academy, Guatemala was under the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico, one of the most ruthless, dictators of Central America. Ubico was an admirer of Napoleon and he considered himself as some kind of re-creation of the Emperor in Central America. He ruled his country as a fiefdom with the tacit support of the traditional landowning classes. When he took power in 1931, he was not setting a precedent in his style of rule; Manuel Estrada, his predecessor, had not been less autocratic. Politics did not take center stage for Arbenz since he focused most of his attention on developing his military career, teaching in the Academy, and competing athletically in international competitions.
Ubico began to lose power in his country in the early 1940s. The US government, his main supporter until then, began to distrust him because of his lax attitude towards the German immigrant population in Guatemala. Nazi Germany was expanding in Europe and the US Government wanted a close surveillance of all Germans in the hemisphere. In addition, he paid little attention to the rising middle class that could not find a space in a country controlled by a land-owning oligarchy. The turning point for his regime came in the Teachers' Day Parade scheduled for June 30,1944. In this occasion, the teachers refused to march in the parade and demanded better wages for their work. They found a quick and strong solidarity from students and other groups who supported them in street demonstrations. This was the first time large scale protests against the government had occured in Guatemala's history. On June 29, the largest demonstration was organized in Guatemala City and it was composed of a large number of teachers and a wide range of middle class people of other professions. Ubico's responded by sending the Army and quelling the demonstration violently. Of the two hundred people who were killed and wounded, was a leader of the teachers' union movement, Maria Chinchilla, who immediately became into a national martyr for the anti-Ubico movement.
The massacre, however, did not stop a formidable opposition. A few days later, a group of 311 teachers, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen handed a petition to Ubico in which demanded that the demonstrators' actions were legitimate. Under these circumstances, and with the end of political support from the US, Ubico was forced to resign. Power was handed over to General Francisco Ponce. Ponce tried to give a more democratic facade to his government by calling Presidential elections. He choose himself as candidate, while the opposition picked Juan Jose Arevalo.Arevalo was a former school-teacher exiled in Argentina who returned to Guatemala to run against Ponce. Ponce soon felt threatened by Arevalo's popularity and ordered his arrest just a few days after Arevalo arrived. At this point, Captain Jacobo Arbenz and Major Francisco Arana decided to revolt against Ponce. The two young officers killed their superior officers in Fort Matamoros and distributed arms to some anti-Ponce students. They were quickly joined by other officers and attacked the pro-Ponce military and police forces. Their efforts were successful when Ponce and Ubico were forced to abandon the country and Arbenz and Arana created a provisional junta with businessman Jorge Toriello, and promised free and democratic elections.
Under the junta rule the Guatemalan Bar Association wrote a new liberal constitution. It contained many new provisions: Censorship ended, the presidents could not be elected for two periods in a row, men and women were declared equal before the law, racial discrimination was declared a crime, higher education was free of governmental control, private monopolies were banned, workers were assured a forty-hour labor week, payment in coupons was forbidden, and labor unions were legalized. Arevalo won the first elections and attempted to begin an age of reforms in Guatemala.
Breaking with the past was not an easy task for Arevalo. In 1949 Major Arana, one of the men who rebelled against Ponce, was killed in what many people considered a product of a rivalry between Arevalo and Arana, or Arbenz and Arana. The assassination, however, did not stop Arbenz from running in the 1950 presidential elections. His rival was Manuel Ygidoras, a friend of Ubico's, who accused him throughout the campaign of orchestrating Arana's death. These accusations did not impede the triumph of Arbenz with 65% of the votes for him. Arbenz took power in March 15, 1951.
Arbenz began his government with several innovative projects. First, he pushed for the construction of a government run port to compete with United Fruit's Puerto Barrios. Second, he attempted to break the International Railways of Central America's (IRCA) transportation monopoly by building a highway to the Atlantic. Third, he planned to build a national hydroelectric plant to offer a cheaper energy alternative different from the American controlled electricity monopoly. Finally, Arbenz was the first Guatemalan President to consider an income tax, something that faced a strong opposition at the Congress.
Beyond these ambitious development and economic programs, his biggest dream was to push agrarian reform in Guatemala. In his opinion, he saw Guatemala's unequal land distribution in a predominantly rural society as the main obstacle to economic development. He saw this latifundio system as a backward legacy of colonial times and justified his project by arguing that it was the only way to create a real capitalistic society. He said that the country needed "an agrarian reform which puts an end to the latifundios and the semi-feudal practices, giving the land to thousands of peasants, raising their purchasing power and creating a great internal market favorable to the development of domestic industry."
Arbenz's agrarian reform was approved in 1952 with the Decree 900 which empowered the government to expropriate uncultivated portions of large plantations. Farms smaller than 223 acres were not subject to this law. Nor were those of 223-670 acres which at least two thirds cultivated. Farms of any size that were fully worked could not be expropriated either. If the government decided to expropriate it would reinburse the landowner with twenty-five-year government bonds with a 3% interest rate. The valuation of the land was to be determined from its declared taxable worth as of May 1952. The expropriated lands would be distributed only to landless peasants in plots not bigger of 42.5 acres each, and the new owners were not allowed to sell them or gain profits through speculation. The new owners would pay to the government a rental fee of 5% the value of the food produced, when living in an expropriated private land, and 3% if they were farms confiscated from the German immigrants during WWII.
The Agrarian Reform managed to give 1.5 million acres to around 100,000 families for which the government paid $8,345,545 in bonds. Among the expropriated landowners was Arbenz himself, -who had become into a land-owner with the dowry of his wealthy wife- and his later Foreign Minister, Guillermo Toriello. Around 46 farms were given to groups of peasants who organized themselves in cooperatives. The project did not go as smoothly as Arbenz wished. Some radical members of the Communist Party encouraged some peasants to invade lands before they were legally distributed to them and these squatters clashed with the police. The biggest obstacle to Arbenz' agrarian reform, however, was the opposition of the United Fruit Company.
United Fruit Company had been present in Guatemala since its was incorporated. Minor Keith, one of the founders of the company, bought lands and built railways in the country beginning in the late nineteenth century. The company had received generous land and communication concessions from the rulers prior to Arbenz, and this allowed it to control banana exports. Bananas were one of the two main exports of Guatemala, together with coffee, and United Fruit became one of the largest landowners of the country. Although the company made investments and improvements in transportation, communications, housing, and export infrastructure, some Guatemalans saw it with great suspicion. In fact, during Arevalo's government he took advantage of this unpopularity to support the banana workers who were striking for the benefits of the newly-created labor code. The company owned 550,000 acres in the Atlantic coast, from which a 85% was not cultivated, so it became into Arbenz's agrarian reform main target.
The expropriations of United Fruit lands began in March 1953 when 209,842 acres of uncultivated land were taken by the government which offered a compensation of $627,572 in bonds. One month later the US Department of State complained to Arbenz demanding a $15,854,849 compensation for one of the two sized lands. While the Guatemalan government valued $2.99 per acre, the American government valued $ 75 per acre. The Guatemalan government did its valuation by using the information provided by the tax forms filled by United Fruit itself and, according to this information, this was the actual value of the land. United Fruit contered this argument by claiming that it had tried to raise the tax value before, but was prevented to do so. The US government believed this version and endorsed the company's claim. The Guatemalan government refused to pay that amount and continued to expropriate United Fruit's lands in October 1953 and February 1954 offering the company a total of $500,000. This standoff led to worsening diplomatic relations between his country and the United States which saw his initiatives as too radical. United Fruit main shareholder, Samuel Zemurray endorsed an anti-Arbenz campaign in the American media and the U.S. Congress in order to show President Arbenz as a Communist threat in the Western Hemisphere.
Arbenz also faced strong internal opposition by conservative landowners and some members of the Army. Among the latter was Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a man who never stopped suspecting of Arbenz' participation in Arana's murder and who had gone into exile after Arbenz took power. Castillo prepared a rebel army in Nicaragua with the total support of that country's President Anastasio Somoza. In the meantime the Eisenhower's administration increasingly criticized Arbenz policies while the American media continued showing Guatemala as the foothold of Soviet expansion in the Americas. Additionally, after the strong pressure by US Secretary of State, Dulles, the Organization of American States resolves to condemn "Communist infiltration in the Americas."
Castillo received a strong financial and logistic support from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to prepare his Army in Honduran territory to attack Guatemala. The CIA's involvement had been approved by Eisenhower as a way to stop what they considered a spread of Communism in the Americas. CIA's director was Allen Dulles, brother of the American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. In June, 1954 the troops of Carlos Castillo crossed theHonduran-Guatemalan border and began their attack against Arbenz government. By this time not only was Arbenz internationally isolated but he had also lost much support from his own army and peasant population. Young Argentinean doctor, Ernesto Guevara (later known as "El Ché), attempted to organize some civil militias along with several members of the Communist Party. However, most of the Guatemalans felt they were in a very weak position compared to the invading Army, after they heard from a clandestine radio that reported a larger invading army and the bomber that dropped some bombs around Guatemala City. The demolarized population simply resigned to be defeated by Castillo.
Arbenz himself was hard hit when the invasion began. When he realized that any kind of resistance would only bring more deaths and little success for his movement he decided to announce his resignation over the radio. In his dramatic speech he claimed that:
"They have used the pretext of anti-communism.The truth is very different. The truth is to be found in the financial interests of the fruit company and the other US monopolies which have invested great amounts of money in Latin America and fear that the example of Guatemala would be followed by other Latin countries.[...] I was elected by a majority of the people of Guatemala, but I have had to fight under difficult conditions. The truth is that the sovereignty of a people cannot be maintained without the material elements to defend it.[...] I took over the presidency with great faith in the democratic system, in liberty and the possibility of achieving economic independence for Guatemala. I continue to believe that this program is just. I have not violated my faith in democratic liberties, in the independence of Guatemala and in all the good which is the future of humanity..[...]" (quoted by Schlessinger & Kinzer, 1990: 200)
After Arbenz handed power over to his friend Colonel Carlos Diaz he asked for asylum in the Mexican Embassy. The President's attitude disappointed many of his followers who expected more dignity and courage of their leader. Diaz government ended when Castillo's forces controlled most of the Guatemalan territory. After his triumph, Castillo and his allies organized a new government in a meeting in San Salvador, and Castillo was named President. Eisenhower recognized this new government as the legitimate Guatemalan government immediately, and Castillo reversed the Arbenz reforms. His main targets were the Agrarian Reform Law and the legalization of union activities. In July 19, 1954, he created the National Committee of Defense Against Communism and decreed the Preventive Penal Law Against Communism to fight against those who supported Arbenz when he was in power.
After his defeat Arbenz began a difficult life as an exile. He and his family travelled to Mexico and then to Switzerland, where Arbenz hoped to get the residency as the child of a Swiss citizen. However, the Swiss government told him he could only stay in that country only if he renounced to his Guatemalan citizenship, something he refused to do. When they were forced to leave, they went to Paris, where he lived under a constant watchful eye of the French police. After one month living there he was offered asylum in every Soviet-bloc country, so he chose Czechoslovakia for considering it the most cosmopolitan country of Eastern Europe. However, the Czechs did not welcome him and he had to move to Moscow with his wife, while their children studied in a school for foreigners 400 miles from the city. The Arbenz family could not adapt to Russia and did everything to go back to Latin America. The only country that accepted to give him asylum was Uruguay, only if he promised not to take a job, not to become involved in politics, and to report to the police once a week. He accepted the conditions and lived in Montevideo from 1957 to 1960.That year, the new Cuban President Fidel Castro invited him to live in Cuba and he accepted immediately. He had turned to drinking to relieve his problems and life in Cuba did not improve his fate. He was having serious personal and family problems and disliked the way Castro was managing the revolution. In addition, he felt irritated when Castro warned the US against any kind of intervention by saying "Cuba is not Guatemala." But, by that time, his main problems were at home. His eldest daughter, Arabella, refused to follow him and decided to stay in Paris studying to be an actress. She always was a rebel in the family and was a critic of his father insistence on educating the children in exclusive private schools in spite of his socialist discourse. She also irritated her Soviet teachers by refusing to join the Communist youth organizations. Later, when traveling with her boyfriend around Latin America, Arabella had a strong argument with her boyfriend in a restaurant in Bogota, Colombia. During the fight she pulled a gun from her purse and killed herself in front of him. Arbenz was devastated by the death of his twenty-five year old daughter and lost the little interest that still remained in him in politics.
In 1970, Mexico gave him permanent asylum. One year later, he drowned in his bathtub. He was fifty-eight. After his death, his wife Maria Cristina Vilanova returned to El Salvador to make peace with her family and to settle in that country. Her enthusiasm for politics decreased as well as her political radicalism. When the civil war broke in El Salvador, she left the country and moved to Paris.
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