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Jacobo Arbenz

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Jacobo Arbenz

Jacobo Árbenz
President of the Republic of Guatemala
In office
March 15, 1951 – June 27, 1954
Preceded by Juan José Arévalo
Succeeded by Carlos Enrique Díaz de León
Personal details
Born (1913-09-14)September 14, 1913
Died January 27, 1971(1971-01-27) (aged 57)
Political party Revolutionary Action Party
Spouse(s) Maria Cristina Villanova

Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (Spanish pronunciation: [xaˈkoβo ˈarβenz ɣuzˈman]; 14 September 1913 – 27 January 1971) was a Guatemalan military officer and politician who served as Defense Minister of Guatemala from 1944 to 1951, and as President of Guatemala from 1951 to 1954.

He was ousted in a coup d'état engineered by the United States government and CIA and was replaced by a military junta headed by Colonel Carlos Castillo.

He went into exile after the coup and died in Mexico in 1971.

Early life

Árbenz was born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, the second largest city in the country, in 1913. He was the son of a Swiss German pharmacist who immigrated to Guatemala in 1901. His family was relatively wealthy and upper-class; his childhood has been described as "comfortable".[1]

His father became addicted to morphine and began to neglect the family business. He eventually went bankrupt, forcing the family to move to a rural estate that a wealthy friend had set aside for them "out of charity". Jacobo had originally desired to be an economist or an engineer, but since the family now had no money, he could not afford to go to a university. He did not want to join the military, but there was a scholarship available through the Escuela Politécnica for military cadets. He applied, passed all of the entrance exams, and entered as a cadet in 1932. Two years later, his father committed suicide.[1]

Military career

Árbenz excelled in the academy and was deemed "an exceptional student". He became "first sergeant", the highest honor bestowed upon cadets, that only 6 people received from 1924 to 1944. His abilities earned him an unusual level of respect amongst the officers at the school, including Major John Considine, the U.S. director of the school, and of other U.S. officers who served at the school. Árbenz graduated in 1935.[1]

After graduating, he served a stint as a junior officer at Fort San José in the capital Guatemala City and later under "an illiterate Colonel" in a small garrison in the village of San Juan Sacatepéquez. While in San José, Árbenz had to lead squads of soldiers which were escorting chain gangs of prisoners (including political prisoners) to perform forced labor. The experience traumatized Árbenz, who said he felt like a capataz (i.e. a "foreman").[1]

In 1937, Árbenz was asked to fill a vacant teaching position at the academy. Árbenz taught a wide range of subjects, including military matters, history, and physics. In 1943, he was promoted to captain and placed in charge of the entire corps of cadets. His position was the third highest in the academy and was considered one of the most prestigious positions a young officer could hold.[1]

In 1938 he met his future wife María Vilanova, the daughter of a wealthy Salvadoran landowner. They were married a few months later. Árbenz stated that his wife had a great influence on him.[1] It was through María that Árbenz was exposed to Marxism. María had received a copy of The Communist Manifesto at a women's congress and left a copy of it on Jacobo's bedside table when she left for a vacation. Jacobo was "moved" by the Manifesto, and he and María discussed it with each other. Both felt that it explained many things they had been feeling. Afterwards, Jacobo began reading more works by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin; and by the late 1940s was regularly interacting with a group of Guatemalan communists.[2]


Historical background

In the 1890s, the United States began to implement the Monroe Doctrine, pushing out European colonial powers and establishing U.S. hegemony over resources and labor in Latin American nations. The dictators that ruled Guatemala during the late 19th and early 20th century were generally very accommodating to U.S. business and political interests; thus, unlike other Latin American nations such as Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba the U.S. did not have to use overt military force to maintain dominance in Guatemala. The Guatemalan military/police worked 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 huge swaths of public land.[3]

In 1930, the dictator General Jorge Ubico came to power, backed by the United States, and initiated one of the most brutally repressive military juntas in Central American history. He created a widespread network of spies and informants and had large numbers of political opponents tortured and put to death. A wealthy aristocrat (with an estimated income of $215,000 per year in 1930s dollars) and a staunch anti-communist, he consistently sided with landowners and urban elites in disputes with peasants. He implemented a system of debt slavery and forced labor and passed laws allowing landowners to execute workers as a "disciplinary" measure.[4][5][6][7][8] He also openly identified as a fascist; he admired Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler, saying at one point: "I am like Hitler. I execute first and ask questions later."[9][10][11][12][13] Ubico was disdainful of the indigenous population, calling them "animal-like", and stated that to become "civilized" they needed mandatory military training, comparing it to "domesticating donkeys". He gave away hundreds of thousands of hectares to the United Fruit Company (UFCO), exempted them from taxes, and allowed the U.S. military to establish bases in Guatemala.[4][5][6][7][8] Ubico considered himself to be "another Napoleon". He dressed ostentatiously and surrounded himself with statues and paintings of the emperor, regularly commenting on the similarities between their appearances. He militarized numerous political and social institutions—including the post office, schools, and symphony orchestras—and placed military officers in charge of many government posts. He frequently travelled around the country performing "inspections" in dress uniform, followed by a military escort, a mobile radio station, an official biographer, and cabinet members.[4][14][15][16][17]

Ubico's repressive policies and arrogant demeanor eventually led to a widespread popular insurrection led by middle-class intellectuals, professionals, and junior army officers. On 1 July 1944 Ubico resigned from office amidst a general strike and nationwide protests. Initially, he had planned to hand over power to the former director of police, General Roderico Anzueto, whom he felt he could control. But his advisors noted that Anzueto's pro-Nazi sympathies had made him very unpopular, and that he would not be able to control the military. So Ubico instead chose to select a triumvirate of Major General Bueneventura Piñeda, Major General Eduardo Villagrán Ariza, and General Federico Ponce Vaides. The three generals promised to convene the national assembly to hold an election for a provisional president, but when the congress met on 3 July, soldiers held everyone at gunpoint and forced them to vote for General Ponce rather than the popular civilian candidate, Dr. Ramón Calderón. Ponce, who had previously retired from military service due to alcoholism, took orders from Ubico and kept many of the officials who had worked in the Ubico administration. The repressive policies of the Ubico administration were continued.[4][18][19]

Opposition groups began organizing again, this time joined by many prominent political and military leaders, who deemed the Ponce regime unconstitutional. Among the military officers in the opposition were Jacobo Árbenz and Major Francisco Javier Arana. Ubico had fired Árbenz from his teaching post at the Escuela Politécnica, and since then Árbenz had been living in El Salvador, organizing a band of revolutionary exiles. On 19 October 1944 a small group of soldiers and students led by Árbenz and Arana attacked the National Palace in what later became known as the "October Revolution".[20] Ponce was defeated and driven into exile; and Árbenz, Arana, and a lawyer name Jorge Toriello established a junta. They declared that democratic elections would be held before the end of the year.[21]

The winner of the 1944 elections was a philosophy professor named Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo ran under a coalition of leftist parties known as the Partido Acción Revolucionaria ("Revolutionary Action Party", PAR), and won 85% of the vote in elections that are widely considered to have been fair and open.[22] Arévalo implemented social reforms, including minimum wage laws, increased educational funding, near-universal suffrage (excluding illiterate women), and labor reforms. But many of these changes only benefited the upper-middle classes and did little for the peasant agricultural laborers who made up the majority of the population. Although his reforms were relatively moderate, he was widely disliked by the United States government, the Catholic Church, large landowners, employers such as the United Fruit Company, and Guatemalan military officers, who viewed his government as inefficient, corrupt, and heavily influenced by Communists. At least 25 coup attempts took place during his presidency, mostly led by wealthy conservative military officers.[23][24] During the 1944 revolution, Arana had demanded that he be appointed as Chief of Staff in exchange for loyalty to the Arévalo government. However, Arévalo did not trust Arana and installed Árbenz as the minister of defense to act as a check on Arana. Over time, tensions rose between Arana and Arévalo, peaking when Arana was mysteriously killed in a Guatemala City gun battle on 18 July 1949, ultimately leading to a failed revolt that was put down by troops led by Árbenz.[25]

Election and inauguration

Before his death, Arana had planned to run in the upcoming 1950 presidential elections. His death left Árbenz without any serious contenders in the elections (leading some, including the CIA and U.S. military intelligence, to speculate that Árbenz personally had him eliminated for this reason). Árbenz got more than 3 times as many votes as the runner-up, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. Fuentes claimed that electoral fraud benefited Árbenz; however scholars have pointed out that while fraud may possibly have given Árbenz some of his votes, it was not the reason that he won the election.[26] In 1950s Guatemala, only literate men were able to vote by secret ballot; illiterate men and literate women voted by open ballot. Illiterate women were not enfranchised at all.[27]

The election of Árbenz alarmed U.S. State Department officials, who stated that Arana "has always represented [the] only positive conservative element in [the] Arévalo administration", that his death would "strengthen Leftist[sic] materially", and that "developments forecast sharp leftist trend within [the] government."[28]

In his inaugural address, Árbenz promised to convert Guatemala from "a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state."[29] He declared that he intended to reduce dependency on foreign markets and dampen the influence of foreign corporations over Guatemalan politics.[30] He also stated that he would modernize Guatemala's infrastructure and do so without the aid of foreign capital.[31]

Land reform

By 1950, a handful of U.S. corporations controlled Guatemala's primary electrical utilities, the nation's only railroad, and the banana industry, which was Guatemala's chief agricultural export industry.[3] By the mid-1940s, Guatemalan banana plantations accounted for more than one quarter of all of United Fruit Company's production in Latin America.[32]

Land reform was the centerpiece of Árbenz's election campaign.[31][33] The revolutionary organizations that had helped put Árbenz in power put constant pressure on him to live up to his campaign promises regarding land reform.[34] Árbenz continued Arévalo's reform agenda and in June 1952, his government enacted an agrarian reform program. Árbenz set land reform as his central goal, as only 2% of the population owned 70% of the land.[35]

On 17 June 1952 Árbenz's administration enacted an agrarian reform law known as Decree 900. The law empowered the government to create a network of agrarian councils which would be in charge of expropriating uncultivated land on estates that were larger than 672 acres (2.7 km2).[29] The land was then allocated to individual families. Owners of expropriated land were compensated according to the worth of the land claimed in May 1952 tax assessments (which they had often dramatically understated to avoid paying taxes). Land was paid for in twenty-five year bonds with a 3 percent interest rate.[36]

The program was in effect for 18 months, during which it distributed 1,500,000 acres (6,100 km2) to about 100,000 families. Árbenz himself, a landowner through his wife, gave up 1,700 acres (7 km2) of his own land in the land reform program.[37]

The land reform was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which he then purged.[38] Arbenz had hundreds of political opponents killed.[39]

Coup d'état

The CIA, using the threat of communism and the Cold War, prepared a case in which accusations against Jacobo Arbenz's regime were made, indicating that he had alliances with communist emerging parties and even with Russian communists. According to these claims the security of the Western Hemisphere was threatened.

In 1952, the Guatemalan Party of Labour was legalized, and Communist politicians subsequently gained considerable minority influence over peasant organizations and labor unions, but not over the governing political party; in an election, the Guatemalan Labour Party (PGT) won only 4 seats in the 58-member senate of Guatemala, the governing body of the country. The CIA, having drafted Operation PBFORTUNE, was concerned about the potential Communist puppet-state ties to the Soviet Union, of President Árbenz Guzmán. The United Fruit Company had been lobbying the CIA to oust reformist governments in the Republic of Guatemala since the time of the Government (1945–51) of President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo; but it was not until the Eisenhower Administration (1953–61) that the CIA received attention from the White House. In 1954, the Eisenhower Administration was flushed with victory, from the 1953 Iranian coup d'état that deposed the Government of PM Mossadegh. On 19 February 1954, the CIA began Operation WASHTUB, the planting of a false Soviet arms-cache in Nicaragua, to publicly demonstrate Guatemalan Government ties to the Soviet Union.[40]

Operation WASHTUB proved unnecessary; in May 1954, surplus Wehrmacht weapons, from Czechoslovakia, secretly arrived to Guatemala, delivered by the Swedish ship Alfhem. The cargo manifest of the ship's cargo were false, and misrepresented the nature of the cargo it transported to Guatemala. The CIA intelligence analysts interpreted that subterfuge as proof of the Árbenz Government's links to the Soviet Union. In the Guatemalan–Czechoslovak arms deal, for cash money, the Communists supplied obsolete, barely functional German World War II-model weapons to Guatemala.[41] The arms purchase was a response to the US arms embargo; the Árbenz Government resupplied the Guatemalan armed forces, because it was convinced that a U.S.–sponsored paramilitary invasion was imminent. Previously, Guatemala had published White Paper accounts of the CIA's Operation PBFORTUNE, and of perceived U.S. sabotage actions, at the 1954 Organization of American States convention, in Caracas, presented as the preparations for US intervention to the internal politics of Guatemala. The Eisenhower Administration ordered the CIA to effect Operation PBSUCCESS, the coup d'état to depose the Árbenz Government of Guatemala. Afterwards, President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán resigned on 27 June 1954, and the installed military government (1954–57) of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas allowed him, and others, to seek political asylum in the Mexican embassy, en route to leaving Guatemala.

After the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état, CIA case officer Frank Wisner organised Operation PBHistory, meant to find and secure Árbenz government documents that might prove that the Soviet Union controlled Guatemala; and, in so doing, PBHistory meant to provide usable intelligence regarding other Soviet connections and Communist personnel in Latin America. Wisner sent two teams of document analysts who gathered 150,000 documents with the help of the Guatemalan Army and the junta of Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, whom the U.S. installed as President of Guatemala. Ronald M. Schneider, an outside researcher who examined the PBHistory documents, reported that the documents did not indicate that the Republic of Guatemala was controlled by the USSR, and found substantial evidence that Guatemalan Communists acted independently, without orders or support from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in Moscow.[42] The contacts between the Soviet Union and the Árbenz government consisted of a Soviet diplomat negotiating an exchange of bananas for agricultural machinery; the business deal failed because neither party had refrigerated freight ships with which to transport the perishable fruit. The other evidence of Soviet–Guatemalan contact, found by the CIA after the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'etat were two invoices, for a total of $22.95, to the Guatemalan Party of Labour, from a book shop in Moscow.[41] However, Arbenz read and admired the works of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin; officials in his government euologized Stalin as a "great statesmen and leader....whose passing is mourned by all progressive men".[43]

Later life

Árbenz initially stayed in Mexico, then he and his family moved to Switzerland. The Swiss government would not allow him to stay unless he acquired Swiss citizenship (which he was entitled to through his father), but this would have forced him to give up his Guatemalan citizenship. Refusing to do so, Árbenz moved to Paris, and then to Prague. Czechoslovak officials were uncomfortable with his stay, unsure if he would demand the government to repay him for the poor quality of former arms from the Second World War that they had sold him in 1954. After only three months, he moved again, this time to Moscow. He tried several times to return to Latin America, and was finally allowed to move to Uruguay in 1957.[44] Arbenz joined the Communist Party in 1957.[45]

In 1960, after the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro asked Árbenz to come to Cuba, a suggestion that Árbenz readily agreed to. In 1965, his eldest and favorite daughter, a fashion model named Arabella, committed suicide, shooting herself in front of her boyfriend, the Matador Jaime Bravo, in Bogotá, Colombia. Árbenz was devastated by her death. He was allowed to return to Mexico to bury his daughter and eventually was allowed to stay.

On 27 January 1971, Árbenz died in his bathroom, either from drowning or scalding.


In May 2011 the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with his surviving family to restore his legacy and publicly apologize for the government's role in ousting him. This included a financial settlement to the family. The formal apology was made at the National Palace by Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom on 20 October 2011 to Jacobo Árbenz Villanova, his son, a Guatemalan politician.[46]

See also




  • Cullather, Nicholas (May 23, 1997); National Security Archive

Further reading


Government/NGO Reports

  • Template:Sister-inline
  • CIA file about Operations against Jacob Árbenz


  • From Árbenz to Zelaya: Chiquita in Latin America, Democracy Now!, July 21, 2009
  • , by Elisabeth Malkin, Published: May 23, 2011

External links

  • International Jose Guillermo Carrillo Foundation
  • United Fruit Company's "United Fruit Historical Society"
Preceded by
Juan José Arévalo
President of Guatemala
Succeeded by
Carlos Enrique Díaz de León

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