Arbenz Guzmán, Jacobo (1913–1971)

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Arbenz Guzmán, Jacobo (1913–1971)

Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (b. 14 September 1913; d. 27 January 1971), president of Guatemala (1951–1954). Born in Quezaltenango to a Swiss immigrant father and a Guatemalan mother, Arbenz completed his military education in 1935 at the Escuela Politécnica, where he excelled in athletics. In 1939 he married the daughter of a wealthy Salvadoran planter, María Cristina Vilanova, who was alleged to have Communist sympathies.

Arbenz participated in the movement to overthrow President Jorge Ubico in July 1944, going into exile when he became disillusioned with Ubico's successor, General Federico Ponce Vaides. He joined the October Revolution against Ponce and became a member of the triumvirate that conducted the elections of December 1944, which brought Juan José Arévalo to power.

Named minister of defense by President Arévalo, Arbenz began to maneuver to succeed him. He also used his position to obtain the necessary bank loans to enable him to become a wealthy landowner. Faced with formidable political opposition from armed forces chief Major Francisco Javier Arana, Arbenz conspired with Arévalo to have him assassinated while investigating an illegal arms cache on 18 July 1949. This provoked a military uprising that was put down when Arbenz distributed arms to students and workers. Now the undisputed head of the Revolution and backed by a coalition made up of the military, many peasants, the trade unions, government employees, and a number of centrist and left-wing parties (named the Unidad Nacional), he was overwhelmingly elected president in November 1950.

Although perceived in the United States as either Communist or under Communist influence, the Arbenz regime can best be understood as populist and nationalist. Arbenz's economic policies were directed toward creating a modern capitalist nation. In his inaugural address, President Arbenz stated that his economic policies would stress private initiative, but with Guatemalan capital in the hands of Guatemalans. To achieve that end, he adopted the proposals of the World Bank to begin construction of an Atlantic port and highway to compete with the port and railroad owned by the United Fruit Company; he also built a hydroelectric plant to compete with the U.S.-owned power plant.

Arbenz's populism was reflected in his support for the newly formed National Confederation of Guatemalan Campesinos (CNCG)—which gradually came under Communist influence—and its campaign to increase agricultural wages. Most important was the enactment of the famous Decree 900, the agrarian reform law that was designed to expand domestic purchasing power and put unused land under cultivation. Under the law, idle land on holdings above 223 acres could be expropriated and distributed to peasants for lifetime usufruct. Owners were to be compensated through twenty-five-year bonds for an amount equal to their self-declared tax valuation for 1952 and paid for by the peasants at a rate of 3 to 5 percent of their annual production. Under the program some one hundred thousand peasants received 1.5 million acres, for which the government issued over $8 million in bonds.

The United Fruit Company, which had only 15 percent of its land under cultivation, was particularly hard hit: 400,000 of its more than 550,000 acres were expropriated for $1,185,115—the amount of its own valuation for tax purposes. The company declared that the property was worth at least $16 million.

The agrarian reform law, the perceived radicalization of the peasantry by the now Communist-led CNCG, and the growing influence of a small cadre of Communists such as José Manuel Fortuny, Carlos Manuel Pellecer, and Víctor Manuel Gutiérrez, galvanized both upper- and middle-class opposition, even from many of the individuals and groups that had originally supported the Revolution. Intense lobbying by the United Fruit Company and the fear that Guatemala might become a Communist "bridgehead" in the Americas galvanized the Eisenhower administration into making common cause with the opposition, now led by the exiled Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas and General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. When a shipment of arms from Czechoslovakia arrived in Guatemala in May 1954, the CIA helped Castillo Armas invade from Honduras. Abandoned by the army, Arbenz resigned the presidency on 27 June. U.S. Ambassador John Puerifoy dictated a settlement that resulted in Castillo Armas assuming the presidency on 8 July. Arbenz went into exile, living in Cuba, Uruguay, France, Switzerland, and finally Mexico, where he died.

See alsoUnited Fruit Company .


James Dunkerly, Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America (1988).

Manuel Galich, ¿Por qué lucha Guatemala? Arévalo y Arbenz: Dos hombres contra un imperio (1956).

Piero Gleijes, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States (1991).

Jim Handy, "Resurgent Democracy and the Guatemalan Military," in Journal of Latin American Studies 18 (1986): 383-408.

Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (1982).

Stephen C. Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (1982, 1983).

Ronald M. Schneider, Communism in Guatemala, 1944–1954 (1958).

Additional Bibliography

Cullather, Nick, and Piero Gleijeses. Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952–1954. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

                                        Roland H. Ebel