.. to his presidency and thus revolution. In 1950, the people of Guatemala elected Arbenz to be the next President of Guatemala. The following year on March 15, 1951 Arvalo left office. Unfortunately, Arvalo did not leave optimistically. Indeed, Arvalo was worried and quite pessimistic about the future of the revolution.
“Prophetically, Arvalos greatest concern was not for the forces of conservatism from within, but for how perishable, frail and slippery the brilliant international doctrines of democracy and freedom were.” He realized that much of the fuel for the revolution had met powerful resistance from conservative forces, and while he made possible future reforms, the revolution was far from being a success. When Arbenz took office in 1951, he, like Arvalo, announced what types of reforms he would work towards. However, while Arvalo had had a more broad focus, Arbenz focused in on the economy. In his inaugural speech, he set forth the three objectives of his administration. First, “to convert our country from a dependent nation with a semi-colonial economy to an economically independent county.” Secondly, he announced plans to “convert Guatemala from a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state.” Finally, Arbenz declared that he planned to “make this transformation in a way that will raise the standard of living of the great mass of our people to the highest level.” Arbenzs desire to reform the Guatemalan economy found its foundation in the reports done by the Agrarian Studies Commission and the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). The reports indicated the need for an increased yield in agriculture.
The IBRD report not only stressed the need for increased output of crops, but crop diversification as well. The report also focused in on the need for agrarian reform in the highlands of Guatemala. “The basic poverty of Indian highland agriculture permanently hampers not only any agricultural progress but the whole economic growth of Guatemala; for the Indian population constitutes the bulk of the potential internal market, without which industry cannot develop adequately.” Thus, Arbenz encouraged both agricultural diversity and increase in output. Arbenz also continued and expanded Arvalos reform measures. For example, Arbenz increased the education budget to $11 million by 1953. However even here Arbenz focused in on agrarian reform. Under Arbenz the village schools narrowed in on agricultural education, teaching how to harvest crops for the greatest yields for example.
Unfortunately, Arbenz immediately faced problems. The United Fruit Company (UFCO) monopolized Guatemalas economy carrying exclusive rights to the railroad and telegraph system, as well as monopolizing Guatemalas ports. However Arbenz did not give up, instead he attacked the UFCO by funding “the construction of the Atlantic highway and a new port at Santo Tmas.” His most significant reform came in 1952, his agrarian reform law. It “called for expropriation of all idle lands exceeding 223 acres in size.” While this reform would ultimately cost him his presidency, Arbenzs agrarian reform law benefited five hundred thousand Guatemalans. In 1954, the ten years of spring came to an end. The United Fruit Company, Arbenzs greatest enemy, called upon its political friends in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States for assistance in countering Arbenzs reforms. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA director Allen Dulles began to campaign against Arbenz using communist propaganda to promote the belief that Arbenz was a Soviet sympathizer.
While neither Arbenz nor Arvalo before him were communists some of their reforms did unfortunately aid the propaganda. For example, under the Labour Code the workers of Guatemala were able to organize unions. Some of the unions organized were communist in nature. The Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) was, for example, a communist-based union. Unions like the PGT only aided the propaganda as evidence for its message. In June of 1954, the CIA led a coup on the Arbenz administration.
On June 27th Arbenz resigned announcing that the UFCO and United States were responsible for the destruction of Guatemalas democracy. The United States appointed Guatemalas next president, Col. Carlos Castillo Armas. “Castillo Armas was flown into Guatemala in the U.S. Ambassadors plane and the coup marked the beginning of systematic repression in Guatemala.” However the killings did not begin, and would not until the early to mid 1960s. Instead, the Guatemalan government, with the help of the CIA and the Committee Against Communism, began to “[draw] up a black list of 70,000 political suspects taken from rosters of Arbenz sympathizers, political parties, and urban and rural organizations.” Consequently, an exodus of Guatemalans occurred.
Thousands fled to neighboring countries such as Mexico. A mere three years after the Arbenz coup in 1957, Armas was assassinated; his successor was Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes. During his presidency Fuentes allowed anti-Castro Cubans to secretly perform military training in Guatemala which led to a Guatemalan military revolt on November 13, 1960. The officers rebellion of 1960 gave way to the Guatemalan guerrilla movement. And “while the Guatemalan guerrillas never numbered more than 500 in the 1960s, they provided [the military with] the rational for killing thousands of unarmed civilians.
Thus began the first phase of the Guatemalan Civil War, which would last into the late 1970s. In 1962, the first Guatemalan guerrilla group, known as Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), was created. As well during 1962, the United States began its counterinsurgency by helping the Guatemalan military training. During the elections of 1966, over 50% of registered voters voted. Julio C.
Mndez Montenegro won the elections with 44.4% of the votes. During the Mendez Montenegro presidency the peak of the counter insurgency occurred, in which FAR was wiped out. “The elections of 1966 marked the beginning of the end for the guerrilla forces of that era. Taking advantage of the guerrillas unofficial truce, the army unleashed a brutal counter-insurgency under the command of Colonel Carlos Arana Osoro.” As well, 1966 and the Mendez presidency saw the formation of “death squads.” The first death squad to appear was Mano Blanca, or white hand. The government and Mario Sandoval Alarcn, a right-wing political leader of the National Liberation Movement (MLN) organized Mano Blanca.
By 1967, a year after its formation, Mano Blanca was accompanied by over 20 other death squads that targeted over 500 individuals whose names appeared on “the lists.” The death squads that came into being during this time consisted mainly of off duty police officers and soldiers who acted as a sort of vigilante. During this time, the United States became even more involved with Guatemalan politics. The counterinsurgency was “a campaign that included the use of U.S. advisers and American pilots flying napalm attacks on suspected guerrilla strongholds from the U.S. base in Panama.” In the four years of the Mendez presidency, over 30,000 Guatemalans lost their lives. The indigenous peoples, during this time, were murdered, disappeared, tortured, raped, and beaten. A decade earlier the people of Guatemala lived in relative peace, now they lived in state of terror.
“Between 1966 and 1970, on the pretext of eliminating communism, some 10,000 non-combatants were killed in order to assassinate an estimated 300 to 500 guerrillas who retreated to the northern Petn jungle to recover and regroup.” While the guerrilla movement had virtually stopped by 1970 when Carlos Arana Osorio took office “disappearances,” which most often led to death not only continued but also according to Amnesty International peaked during the 1970s. “Between 1970 and 1974, 15,325 Guatemalans disappeared.” Nevertheless, peasant organizations began to form during the mid-1970s. Much of the organization of peasant groups and unions was due to the Christian Democrat arty and the Catholic Church. Two prominent unions emerged at this time, the National Workers Confederation (CNT) and the Autonomous Trade Union Federation of Guatemala (FASGUA). As well by 1974 when Laugerud Garca was inaugurated the guerrilla movement had regrouped and grown. In addition to the previous guerrilla groups a new one emerged, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP).
The Guatemalan government and military responded forcefully to the growing guerrilla groups. “Under the Laugerud Garca government, army penetration of the rural countryside began, establishing in many areas the groundwork for later occupation.” In 1976, Guatemala received another blow; this one however came from Mother Nature. On February 4, 1976 an earthquake, that registered 7.5 on the Richter Scale, hit Guatemala. It “killed 22,000 people, injured 77,000, and left one million peasants homeless.” Nevertheless opposition groups and recouped continued to grow, and on May 1, 1978 the Committee for Peasant Unity, or CUC, publicly announced its existence. Rigoberta Mench, an indigenous peasant woman from Guatemala turned human rights activist, explains how her father, a “political prisoner” and other peasants started the CUC.
“So my father came back very proudly and said, We must fight the rich because they have become rich with our land, our crops. That was when my father started to join up with other peasants [in 1977] and discussed the creation of the CUC with them. A lot of peasants had been discussing the Committee but nothing concrete had been done, so my father joined the CUC and helped them understand things more clearly. .. Thats how the CUC began to form as such.
It organized the peasants both in the Altiplano and on the coast. It wasnt a formal organization with a name and all that [at first]: more like groups of communities, at the grass roots, that sort of thing,” (emphasis added). Nevertheless, while peasant and student organizations grew along with guerrilla groups the repression continued. “Massive violence began during the last year of the Laugerud Garca government, with mounting selective assassinations in Guatemala City and large-scale army repression in the countryside.” Such violence continued into the Lucas Garca government. An example of this repression and violence is apparent in the Panzs massacre of 1978. The governments “scorched earth” campaign against isolated peasant villages believed to support the opposition carried a deadly toll, with a massacre at Panzs in May 1978 being perhaps the best known military operation of this type.
On May 29, 1978, 500 to 700 Kekch, an indigenous Mayan group from Guatemalas highlands, gathered in Panzs to protest their expulsions from their land to the Mayor and an official of INTA. Once in the central square the military ringed the square and opened fire killing over 100 protestors. The dead were put into mass graves, supposedly dug beforehand. The government later asserted that the Indians had started the violence, and only admitted to killing 38 people. The violence and repression did not end unfortunately with the Lucas Garca government either. While Rios Montt declared in 1982 after a coup that he led, “that there would be no more assassinations” and fair trials from those who violated the law, “rural repression soared immediately after the coup,” and continues, though in lesser amounts, today. “Since 1982 Guatemala has lived through two presidential elections, two military coups, two states of alert, two Constitutions, an eleven-month state of siege, a three month state of emergency, at least four amnesty periods, and four heads of state three of them army generals.” Could all of this and the genocide of Guatemala been prevented during the ten years of spring? Possibly if Arbenz and Arvalo had restricted union organization to non-communist unions, which would have, in theory prevented U.S. involvement.
However it remains unlikely that this would have been enough. The UFCO and United State could have found, or created other reasons for the coup, which ultimately destroyed the democracy and peace in Guatemala. Now Guatemala is left with the remnants of genocide, oppression, and political instability. Terror remains a driving force in Guatemalan society, and to think it all could have been avoided if the United States had not led the coup on the Arbenz administration. Bibliography Andrew Miller: http://www.west.net/~tmiller/gh/ Simon, Jean-Marie.
Guatemala: Eternal Spring Eternal Tyranny. Pgs. 16-17. Handy, Jim. Gift of the Devil.
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