Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz, presente!

The Guatemalan government officially apologized to the family of ex-president Jacobo Arbenz, who was ousted by the military 57 years ago in a CIA-backed coup.

“As head of state, as constitutional president of the republic and as the military’s commander in chief, I hereby wish to request the forgiveness of the Arbenz Vilanova family for this great crime,” said Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom during a ceremony this week.

“It was above all a crime against him, his wife, his family, but also a historic crime for Guatemala. This day changed Guatemala and we still haven’t recovered,” Colom said.

Jacobo Arbenz Guzman led a popularly elected government, which enacted radical and progressive land reforms.

During the late 19th and early 20th century the military dictators that ruled Guatemala were generally very accommodating to U.S. business and political interests. The Guatemalan military worked very closely with the U.S. military and State Department to secure U.S. interests. The Guatemalan government exempted several U.S. corporations from paying taxes, privatized and sold off publicly owned utilities and gave away swaths of public land.

One of the country’s most brutally repressive governments was under dictator General Jorge Ubico, backed by the U.S. Ubico was a staunch anti-communist and was responsible for torturing and executing his political dissidents. He consistently sided with the wealthy landowners and urban elites in disputes with the country’s peasant majority. Ubico identified himself as a fascist and admired Mussolini, Franco and Hitler and regarded Guatemala’s indigenous population as “animal-like.” He gave away hundreds of thousands of hectares to the U.S. owned United Fruit Company and exempted them from taxes, and allowed the U.S. military to establish bases in Guatemala.

In October 1944, a small group of soldiers and students led by Arbenz attacked the National Palace, in what later became known as the “October Revolution.” Democratic and open elections were eventually held and new government was elected under Juan Jose Arevalo. He won as part of a coalition of leftist parties known as the Partido Accion Revolutionaria (Revolutionary Action Party).

It wasn’t until 1950 that Arbenz, who worked for the Arevalo administration, won the presidency. In his inaugural address, Arbenz promised to reduce dependency on foreign markets, and reduce the influence of foreign corporations over Guatemalan politics. He aimed to modernize Guatemala’s infrastructure, and that he would do so without the aid of foreign powers.

At the centerpiece of Arbenz’ campaign was major land reform. In 1952 Arbenz enacted a radical agrarian reform program. At the time, only 2 percent of the population owned 70 percent of the land. Under the new law a network of agrarian councils were empowered, which helped distribute 1.5 million acres to about 100,000 families.

The United Fruit Company, now renamed Chiquita, was the country’s largest landowner, with 85 percent of its holdings uncultivated. The U.S. based corporation had been lobbying the CIA to oust the reform governments in Guatemala since Arevalo’s tenure.

Under the Eisenhower administration, the White House ordered the CIA to sponsor a coup d’état, which toppled the Arbenz government in 1954. The Eisenhower administration said the coup was necessary to rid the hemisphere of a communist government backed by Moscow. The U.S.-backed coup escalated the beginning of the Cold War.

Arbenz died in exile in Mexico in 1971.

However, the 1954 coup triggered a 36-year civil war, which caused decades of political violence, massacres, disappearances, military rule and a guerrilla movement. The conflict is considered one of Latin America’s bloodiest civil wars, which lasted from 1960-1996. As many as 200,000 people died, many of them peasants killed by military forces.

Today the son of Arbenz, Jacobo Arbenz Vilanova, is currently an elected official in Guatemala. He dismisses accusations that his father was a communist, saying they were based only on the popular land reforms he had approved, which threatened the interests of the United Fruit Company.

The official apology was given to the family of Arbenz at the National Palace of Culture, the former government headquarters, to commemorate the country’s 67th anniversary of its “October Revolution.”

The president’s apology was given to publicly restore Jacobo Arbenz’ name and his role in Guatemalan history. The announcement comes after five years of negotiations overseen by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington. The Arbenz family submitted a complaint with the group in 1999.

The Arbenz family is also seeking an official apology from the United States government for its dirty role in the coup.

Meanwhile Guatemala is revising its school curriculum and has renamed a main highway and museum wing after the late Arbenz.

Photo: Jacobo Arbenz Guzman addresses banner-carrying followers on June 18, 1954. (AP Photo)


Pepe Lozano
Pepe Lozano

Chicagoan Pepe Lozano was a staff writer with the People's World through 2014. He comes from an activist family and has lived on the city's southwest side in a predominantly Mexican-American community his whole life. Lozano now works as a union organizer.