Juan José Arévalo

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Juan José Arévalo

The administration of the Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo (1904-1990) was marked by significant social welfare legislation, Communist infiltration of labor unions, and friction with the United States.

Juan José Arévalo was born Sept. 10, 1904, in Taxisco to Mariano Arévalo, a farmer and cattle rancher, and Elena Bermejo, a schoolteacher. His early schooling was in Guatemala City; later he won an Argentine government scholarship to study at the University of La Plata, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1934. While in Argentina he married Elisa Martinez, a teacher. After obtaining his degree he became a minor official in the Guatemalan ministry of education, traveled in Europe, and eventually returned to Argentina, where he taught in several universities and wrote books on pedagogy.

When a revolution in 1944 toppled President Jorge Ubico, Arévalo returned to Guatemala and became a presidential candidate for the revolutionary parties. Although Arévalo had gained an international reputation through his writings, he was relatively unknown in Guatemala; thus there were few personal objections. This, together with his civilian, middle-class rural background, professional reputation, youthfulness, and imposing appearance, made his candidacy more acceptable. He overwhelmingly won the election of December 1944.

Beginnings of Reform

A new constitution went into effect on March 13, 1945, and Arévalo's six-year term began two days later. The new president's policy was what he called "spiritual socialism," an ill-defined doctrine of psychological and moral liberation. He was not a "materialistic socialist"; he did not think that man was "primarily stomach." His socialism did not involve redistribution of material goods to equalize men who were economically different. He wanted to give every citizen not only the superficial right to vote but "the fundamental right of living in peace with his own conscience, with his family, with his goods, with his destiny."

During the first years of Arévalo's administration, legislation included a social security law, a labor code, and the Institute for the Development of Production as well as statutes regulating banking and monetary practices and the national airlines. During the latter half of the term, political difficulties caused by disunity within ranks of Arévalo supporters and the presidential ambitions of Col. Francisco Javier Arana, chief of the armed forces, plagued the government. Throughout his presidency Arévalo's attitude toward communism was ambiguous. Some leading Guatemalan Communists were kept out of the country and the party was not allowed to register as an official political organization, but Communist infiltration of labor unions and of other political parties was significant. Arévalo's relations with the United States were strained, both because he refused to persecute Communist sympathizers and because his attempts at labor reform interfered with huge American fruit-growing interests in Guatemala. His support for exiled leaders from Caribbean dictatorships was also viewed with suspicion by the State Department.

Diplomat and Author

Leaving office in 1951, Arévalo became an ambassador at large, traveling in Latin America and Europe. After the revolution of 1954, which ousted President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, Arévalo went into exile and wrote books extremely critical of United States policy in Latin America. Prior to the scheduled 1963 presidential election, Arévalo announced his intention to run and clandestinely returned to Guatemala, but after the army revolution removing President Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes, he quietly left the country; the election was postponed. While still in exile Arévalo was appointed ambassador to Chile in January 1969. From 1970 to 1972 he served as ambassador to France.

Arévalo died in Guatemala City on October 6, 1990.

Further Reading

Two of Arévalo's books criticizing United States policy in Latin America have been translated into English: Antikommunism (sic) in Latin America (1959; trans. 1963) and The Shark and the Sardines (1961; trans. 1961). Brief accounts of Arévalo's background and presidency appear in K.H. Silvert, A Study in Government: Guatemala (1954); Robert J. Alexander, Communism in Latin America (1957); and Ronald M. Schneider, Communism in Guatemala: 1944-1954 (1958). See also Gleijeses, Piero, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-54 (Princeton University Press, 1991); Handy, Jim, Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-54 (North Carolina, 1994); Journal of Latin American Studies: Juan Jose Arévalo and the Caribbean Legion by Piero Gleijeses (February 1989); and Nyrop, Richard F., ed., Guatemala: A Country Study (Federal Research Division, 1983). □

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