Under colonial rule, the Spanish instituted a system of land distribution through which colonists and priests received grants of land to be tended by the labor of indentured indigenous serfs. A racial hierarchy was established that held "criollos" (European descendents) on top, "ladinos" (mixed blood) in the middle, and the indigenous majority at the bottom.
Independence from Spain came in 1821 but brought even worse conditions for those of Maya descent. The Spanish Crown's few liberal safeguards were now abandoned. Huge tracts of Maya land were stolen for the cultivation of tobacco and sugar cane, and the Maya were further enslaved to work that land.
In 1945, a civilian, Juan Jose Arevalo, became the first
He was succeeded in 1951 by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman - another democratically-elected reformist president. Arbenz' most important advances involved land distribution. In 1950, 2 percent of the landowners in Guatemala controlled 70 percent of the nation's arable land. Arbenz considered this unequal land distribution to be the main obstacle to Guatemala's economic development, so he set out to redistribute large parcels of idle land to a desperate peasantry. He believed the country needed "an agrarian reform which puts an end to the "latifundios" and the semi-feudal practices, giving the land to thousands of peasants, raising their purchasing power and creating a great internal market favorable to the development of domestic industry."
Arbenz' agrarian reform was approved in 1952 with Decree 900, which empowered the government to expropriate only uncultivated portions of large plantations. Farms smaller than 223 acres were not subject to this law. Nor were those of 223-670 acres of which at least two thirds were cultivated. Fully worked farms of any size could not be expropriated.
In case of expropriation, the government would pay with twenty-five-year government bonds at a 3% interest rate. The value of a parcel of land was to be determined from its declared taxable worth as of May 1952. The expropriated lands would be distributed only to landless peasants in plots not bigger than 42.5 acres each.
The Agrarian Reform managed to give 1.5 million acres to around 100,000
families (~ 1/6 of all families) for which the government paid $8,345,545 in
bonds. Among the expropriated landowners was Arbenz himself. Around 46 farms
were given to groups of peasants who organized themselves in
With 550,000 acres of land, only 15% of which was actively being cultivated, United Fruit was the largest landowner in Guatemala. Since the company had undervalued its property for decades in order to avoid taxes, it was not eligible to receive the higher compensation shareholders believed their due. When Arbenz expropriated 400,000 of United Fruit's lands, the company turned to its connections in the U.S. government.
With strong ties to the Eisenhower administration, including three major shareholders, (UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and head of the CIA Allen Dulles), United Fruit executives took advantage of the anti-Communist fervor of the time, convincing the U.S. administration that Guatemala was a critical test to keep Communism out of the western hemisphere. In short order, the CIA began Operation PBSuccess, a covert operation to overthrow Arbenz.
In 1954, the CIA led a full spectrum coup, isolating Guatemala diplomatically, working with U.S. businesses to create an economic crisis, and applying insights from the new post-WWII behavioral social sciences to manipulate Guatemalan public opinion. The CIA even took the extraordinary step of commandeering a Guatemalan radio channel and broadcasting reports intended to convince the Guatemalan people that their own government had betrayed them and were in fact Communists. The reports escalated to the point of inventing military skirmishes and exaggerating the numbers of "Liberation Army" troops prepared to march on the capital and save Guatemala; in fact, the CIA was training a ragtag group of a few hundred mercenary troops in Honduras. CIA planes were convincing, however, as they conducted air raids, bombed strategic targets, and created a fearful frenzy.
Led by Guatemalan Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, the U.S.-sponsored mercenaries invaded from Honduras. Fearing overwhelming retribution from the United States, the Guatemalan military did not leave its barracks to defend the Arbenz administration. Seemingly outnumbered and outgunned, Arbenz resigned and fled the country.
Morally destroyed, when Arbenz realized resistance would only bring more deaths and no triumph for his movement, he decided to announce his resignation to the Guatemalan public over the radio. In his dramatic speech he declared, "They have used the pretext of anti-communism. The truth is very different. The truth is to be found in the financial interests of the fruit company and the other U.S. monopolies which have invested great amounts of money in Latin America and fear that the example of Guatemala would be followed by other Latin [American] countries.. I took over the presidency with great faith in the democratic system, in liberty and the possibility of achieving economic independence for Guatemala. I continue to believe that this program is just. I have not violated my faith in democratic liberties, in the independence of Guatemala and in all the good which is the future of humanity.."
Colonel Castillo Armas assumed the presidency with U.S. backing. Castillo reversed Arevalo and Arbenz reforms as quickly as he could, particularly targeting the Agrarian Reform Law and the legalization of union activities. He reinstituted mechanisms of repression, including a committee against communism that compiled lists of thousands of former union members and Arbenz supporters who were suspected subversives. His successor continued this repressive trend.
Since Arbenz, no other government administration has seriously tried to address the inequitable and untenable land situation in Guatemala, made worse by the military's illegal confiscation of lands during the armed conflict. As a result, Guatemala remains one of the most inequitable societies in the Americas today.
About Us |
Get Involved |
Themes & Campaigns |
News & Analysis |
Activist Tools |
© 2009 Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala