Arévalo Bermejo, Juan José (1904–1990)

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Arévalo Bermejo, Juan José (1904–1990)

Juan José Arévalo Bermejo (b. 10 September 1904; d. 7 October 1990), president of Guatemala (1945–1951). Born in Taxisco, Santa Rosa, he graduated from the Escuela Normal in 1922. After working for the Ministry of Education, he spent the duration of the Ubico administration in voluntary exile in Argentina, where he completed his doctorate in philosophy in 1934. The leaders of the October Revolution of 1944 brought him back to campaign for the presidency, which he won overwhelmingly in December 1944.

Arévalo took office on 15 March 1945 with a broad, and ultimately contradictory, populist agenda: to pursue economic development while defending economic nationalism; to create a stable democratic order while greatly increasing political participation; and to expand social welfare while encouraging industrialization. Unable to achieve all of these objectives, the Arévalo administration, nevertheless, changed the legal and institutional structure of the country. Among its major accomplishments were a social security law (1946) guaranteeing workmen's compensation, maternity benefits, and health care; a labor law (1947) legalizing collective bargaining and the right to strike, and mandating a minimum wage (although peasant unions were forbidden); the Social Security Institute (IGSS), which built hospitals and clinics throughout the country; the National Production Institute (INFOP), which provided credit and expertise for small producers; and the creation of a national bank and a national planning office. Foreign investments were to be left intact but subject to government regulation. In 1949 the Congress enacted the Law of Forced Rental, which allowed peasants to rent unused land on large estates. The government also began to distribute lands confiscated from their German owners during World War II.

Arévalo's populist coalition began to unravel early in his administration. Among the causes were the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union on 20 April 1945, the emergence of Communist leadership in the Confederación de Trabajadores de Guatemala (Víctor Manuel Gutíerrez Garbín) and the Partido de Acción Revolucionaria (José Manuel Fortuny), the creation of the Communist-oriented Escuela Claridad (1946), and the passing of a Law on the Expression of Thought (1947) that expanded the definition of sedition to include anything urging "disregard of the laws or authorities."

The final blow to the legitimacy of the Arévalo administration was his connivance with his hand-picked successor, Captain Jacobo Arbenz, in the assassination of Arbenz's conservative presidential rival, Major Francisco Javier Arana, on 18 July 1949. The assassination touched off a military rebellion that was put down by students and workers armed by Defense Minister Arbenz. However, stimulated by the "minute of silence" demonstrations commemorating the assassination, many students and professionals joined the conservative opposition. In all, President Arévalo had to contend with over twenty coup attempts against his government.

Although he left Guatemala at the end of his presidency and Arbenz was overthrown in 1954, arevalismo remained an important current in Guatemalan politics and was greatly feared by the supporters of the counterrevolution of 1954. His 1962 announcement (from Mexico) that he would once again run for the presidency in 1963 precipitated the demand that a "preventive coup" be launched by the army. On 29 March he secretly crossed the Mexican border, precipitating the overthrow of the Ydígoras Fuentes government. The military government that followed canceled the elections, thereby ending his bid for the presidency. He returned to Guatemala City in the 1980s, where he lived until his death.

See alsoGuatemala, Political Parties: Revolutionary Action Party (PAR) .


Juan José Arévalo, The Shark and the Sardines (1961), Anti-Kommunism in Latin America: An X-Ray of a Process Leading to a New Colonialism (1963), and Escritos Políticos y Discursos (1953).

Archer Bush, Organized Labor in Guatemala, 1944–1949 (1950).

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

Stephen 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).

Leo A. Suslow, Aspects of Social Reforms in Guatemala, 1944–1949: Problems of Planned Social Change in an Underdeveloped Country (1950).

Additional Bibliography

Juárez-Paz, Rigoberto. El pensamiento de Juan José Arévalo, Héctor-Neri Castañeda y otros escritos. Guatemala: [n.d.], 1996.

LeBaron, Alan. "Impaired Democracy in Guatemala: 1944–1951." Ph.D. diss., University of Florida, 1988.

                                      Roland H. Ebel