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Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán

Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán

Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (1913-1971) was president of Guatemala from 1951 to 1954, during which time Communists were alleged to have acquired decisive influence. His overthrow by an invasion sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency represents a watershed in that country's violent history.

Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was born in Quezaltenango on September 14, 1913, the son of a Swiss pharmacist and a Latina mother. His father had emigrated to Guatemala in 1901 but, following the failure of his business, committed suicide. A family friend arranged for Arbenz's appointment to the Escuela Politécnica, the national military academy. A brilliant student and superb athlete, he graduated in 1935. Two years later he returned to the academy to teach science and history.

Arbenz soon learned that Guatemala's military structure discriminated against officers from lowly backgrounds. His 1939 marriage to the beautiful María Cristina Vilanova Castro provided his frustration with political content. Born to one of El Salvador's wealthiest coffee-growing families, her sense of noblesse oblige and horror over her father's association with the 1932 "matanza" combined to produce within her an intense concern for social justice. Her influence on Arbenz's political consciousness was great.

With his wife by his side, Arbenz played a critical role in the overthrow of long-time Guatemalan caudillo Jorge Ubico Castañeda in July 1944 and of his successor Federico Ponce Vaides in October. Arbenz was selected to the three-man junta which governed Guatemala until Juan José Arévalo Bermej's election as president. When Arévalo took office in March 1945, he appointed Arbenz minister of defense.

The 1944 Revolution

Arévalo established the tone for the Guatemalan revolution. His idiosyncratic "spiritual socialism" led to strong government support for social and economic reform. His program held great appeal for Arbenz, who gave to it his wholehearted allegiance. However, it alienated the powerful Guatemalan elite who longed for its halycon days before 1944. Arévalo survived some 25 attempted coups.

With Arévalo statutorily prohibited from serving consecutive terms in office, the two revolutionary parties turned to Arbenz as their candidate. His major opponent was expected to be Francisco Javier Araña, Arévalo's chief of the armed forces. Araña considered the revolutionary program already too extreme. Encouraged by Guatemala's elite, he organized his own party and announced his candidacy for president. Credible rumors circulated, nonetheless, that Araña planned a pre-emptive coup. The National Assembly impeached him for treason. Then, on July 18, 1949, Araña was machine-gunned to death.

Although allegations of Arbenz's complicity in Araña's assassination were never proven, he undeniably benefitted. In November 1950 he garnered over 60 percent of the vote, but he was unable to reconcile the profoundly polarized nation. Counterrevolutionary movements organized beyond Guatemala's borders, sheltered by the neighboring dictators. Arbenz continued to pursue his revolutionary objectives. His most controversial measure was Decree 900, an agrarian reform bill enacted in June 1952. It stipulated that the government would expropriate and redistribute uncultivated acreage from Guatemala's largest landholders. The largest of the large, and therefore the concern that stood to lose the most, was the United Fruit Company, which was a U.S. company.

United Fruit launched a massive public relations and lobbying campaign to convince the U.S. government that Arbenz had fallen prey to Communists. Officials did not need much convincing. Historically wary of Central American instability, Washington's suspicion of the Guatemalan revolution grew apace with the escalating cold war. By the time of Arbenz's election, the Truman administration had instituted an arms boycott. Still, some early State Department assessments predicted Arbenz would guide the revolution toward a more centrist position. Such sanguine forecasts evaporated with the agrarian reform bill. A consensus was reached that Arbenz had allowed the Soviets to establish a beachhead in Guatemala.

In truth, Arbenz was not a Communist and had no intention of turning Guatemala into a Soviet satellite. He realized that Communists were active in Guatemala, that they had their own party, and that they exerted some influence within the government and important societal institutions, particularly labor unions. Yet he understood that their number was small and that so long as they operated out in the open, promoted his program, and were excluded from the army and the police, they posed no substantive danger.

The U.S. Aids Overthrow

The Cold War ethos of the United States precluded drawing such fine distinctions. Either one opposed Communism or one was a Communist. The Eisenhower administration began to plot Arbenz's overthrow within months of taking office. By spring 1954 the Central Intelligence Agency had completed its planning and selected Col. Carlos Enrique Castillo Armas to lead an "Army of Liberation." Desperate and isolated, Arbenz purchased arms from behind the Iron Curtain. Eisenhower initiated "Operation PBSUCCESS."

Castillo Armas' invasion on June 18, 1954, demonstrated that because Arbenz's power base never extended to Guatemala's Maya majority, he remained at the mercy of his armed forces, whose leadership was interested in preserving its own privileged status, not defending the revolution. Hence it was extremely vulnerable to a strategy of deception and psychological warfare. The Army of Liberation was never sufficiently strong to defeat the national army, but through an ingeniously orchestrated combination of clandestine radio broadcasts, bombing sorties, and minor skirmishes, it presented the appearance of such strength. Arbenz's officer corps panicked. So did Arbenz. Distrusting his army's loyalty, he ordered the distribution of arms to peasants and workers. His officers refused, demanding Arbenz's resignation instead. He no longer had the will to resist. Publicly denouncing the United States and United Fruit Company, on June 27 Arbenz, not yet 41, sought asylum in the Mexican embassy.

Guatemala experienced little other than bloodshed and oppression after its revolution ended so abruptly. Time was equally unkind to Arbenz. He and his family wandered from Mexico to Switzerland to Czechoslovakia and then to Uruguay. Increasingly depressed, Arbenz began to drink heavily. He found life no better in Cuba, where he migrated in 1960. He resented Castro's portrayal of him as an object lesson in how not to forge a revolution. He was also devastated by the suicide of his eldest daughter. In 1970 he moved to Mexico City. On January 27, 1971, he was found drowned in his bathtub from uncertain causes. Arbenz's death, like his life, remains an enigma.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Arbenz, but studies of the CIA operation in Guatemala contain valuable information concerning his life and presidency. These include Blanche Wiesen Cook, The Declassified Eisenhower: A Divided Legacy of Peace and Political Warfare (1981); Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (1982); Richard Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (1982); and Jose Aybar de Soto, Dependency and Intervention: The Case Study of Guatemala (1982).

Earlier works tend to be more critical of Arbenz, and they too should be consulted: Ronald Schneider, Communism in Guatemala, 1944-1954 (1958); Nathan Whetten, Guatemala: The Land and the People (1961); Mario Rosenthal, Guatemala (1962); Chester Lloyd Jones, Guatemala Past and Present (1966); and Richard Newbold Adams, Crucifixion by Power: Essays on Guatemalan Social Structure, 1944-1966 (1970). □

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