GUATEMALA’S Social revolution
In December of 1944 Jose Arevalo, a university professor became the first elected president of Guatemala. Under Arevalo a new constitution was written which included provisions for a strong presidency, an elected representative body, and a supreme court. Arevalo’s administration allowed unprecedented freedoms but was still considered moderately conservative. Teachers and some industrial workers were allowed to unionize somewhat, but were denied the right to strike. The new government made no provisions for the organization or representation of the rural peasantry, which made up 70%-80% of the population. Also, under the new administration the army remained very powerful and for the most part outside of the control of the government.
As Arevalo’s term was coming to an end, there appeared to be two possible successors. Major Francisco Arana, who was backed by conservative interests, attempted to secure his ascension to power by seizing the presidency from Arevalo in 1949. Arana was killed by forces loyal to Arevelo. This solidified the succession of his chief rival Jacabo Arbenz who was also a former military officer, but was far more progressive than Arana. Arbenz won the elections of 1950 by a landslide, but no one suspected that he would attempt to implement widespread social change. Arbenz primary goal was economically developing Guatemala so that it could become independent of foreign influence. He soon found that the only politicians that shared his view for empowering the country were those of the far left, including the communists. (Karabell 97-100)
President Jacabo Arbenz
Arbenz’s plan for economic development centered on reforming the feudalistic land divisions of the Guatemalan countryside. In 1952 he presented Decree 900 to the representative assembly. This was a land reform bill that he had drawn up with the help of his close advisors, many of whom were communists or had communist leanings. The decree was more capitalist than communist, however, as it divided land into individual holdings instead of collectivization. The land reform initiative took conservative and moderate Guatemalans by surprise. It was opposed by land owning Ladinos, the Catholic Church, and the conservative press. Arbenz went through with the plan despite the opposition. Under Decree 900 uncultivated lands on estates over 675 acres were subject to expropriation. The former land owners would be compensated with 25 year bonds based on the value of the land as was reported on property tax returns.
Bananas- a major cash crop
In order to bring about this land reform Arbenz formed an agrarian based bureaucracy. This organized and politicized the country-side, something entirely new. This alarmed conservative land-owners as well as the middle class because empowering 75% of the population that had formerly been politically dormant threatened the power structure of the country. For the most part Arbenz agrarian reform was a success. In 18 months 100,000 peasant families benefited from the redistribution of lands. During this same time agricultural production remained steady. Of Guatemala’s 341,000 landowners only 1700 were affected by the expropriations, but these 1700 had previously owned about half of Guatemala’s arable land.
Arbenz’s plan for economic development also included a replacement of foreign controlled infrastructure. His first focus, however, was land reform. While he was focusing on the countryside the urban populations began to feel neglected and uneasy about the empowerment of the peasantry. This public was easily influenced by the conservative land-owners and press and soon questioned Arbenz’s loyalties and affiliation with the communists. (Gleijeses 453-475)