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History, The Ten Years of Spring, 1944-1954

Ubico’s ouster began a decade of dramatic social, economic, and political change in Guatemala, referred to as the Guatemalan revolution or “Ten Years of Spring.” Juan Jose Arevalo, a philosophy professor and critic of Ubico, returned from exile in Argentina and was elected president in December 1944. A new constitution was adopted in March 1945, which proclaimed a social-democratic revolution. Under this constitution, the government would give more attention to the grievances of middle- and lower-class Guatemalans and would begin to restrict the privileges and power of the elite class and foreign capitalists. The constitution gave more Guatemalans a voice in the political system, granting women the right to vote. It also provided for freedom of speech and the press and allowed previously banned labor unions and political parties to organize.

Arevalo was anti-Communist but favored what he called “spiritual socialism,” a sense of cooperation and concern for the common welfare. During his five-year term, an advanced system of social security was established, and a labor code was passed to protect workers’ rights and benefits. He encouraged the growth of urban labor unions and popular participation in politics, and began reforms in health care and education. He also promoted new industry and agriculture. Guatemala became a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 and the Organization of American States in 1948.

Although Arevalo enjoyed wide popularity among the Guatemalan people, the traditional elite classes opposed him. There were more than 20 military attempts to overthrow him during his term. Planter and business interests feared the social and economic reforms he advocated. United Fruit and other foreign companies opposed his pro-labor policies and encouraged the U.S. government to believe that Guatemala was moving too far left. At this time, the United States was involved in its Cold War struggles with the Soviet Union, and anti-Communist sentiment in the United States was intense. The conservative Roman Catholic hierarchy also opposed Arevalo, after the 1945 constitution renewed traditional liberal measures restricting political and economic activities by the clergy.

In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who had helped lead the 1944 revolt, succeeded Arevalo as president and turned the revolution more sharply to the left. Arbenz’s most revolutionary act was the land reform law of June 1952, which attempted to take unused agricultural land from large property owners and give it to landless rural workers. The law was carefully written to avoid angering the powerful coffee planters, but it was aimed directly at the United Fruit Company’s huge banana plantations. In 1953 the program approved the taking of 91,000 hectares (225,000 acres) of United Fruit lands, offering compensation that the company considered inadequate. More than 162,000 hectares (400,000 acres) of government-owned land was also distributed to rural residents. Meanwhile, Arbenz allowed the Communist Party to organize and included leftist labor leaders among his advisers.

United Fruit’s propaganda campaign against the Guatemalan revolution influenced the U.S. government, which was fighting Communist forces in Korea and trying to contain Communist influence in eastern Europe and Asia. When arms from eastern Europe began to arrive in Guatemala in May 1954, the United States launched a plan to overthrow Arbenz, with the help of the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras. A group of Guatemalan exiles, commanded by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, were armed and trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and U.S. Marine Corps officers. The group invaded Guatemala on June 18, supported by the CIA, which used radio broadcasts and leaflets dropped on the capital to create an illusion of a much stronger invasion force. The Guatemalan army refused to resist the invaders, and Arbenz was forced to resign on June 27. A military government replaced him and disbanded the legislature. The new government arrested prominent Communist leaders, and released some 600 political prisoners arrested under Arbenz. Castillo Armas became president.

 

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