On 20 October 1944 in what has come to be known as the October Revolution, armed students and workers as well as dissident military officers ousted the dictatorial Jorge Ubico regime. In its place, an interim regime led by Francisco Arana and Jacobo Arbenz held a presidential election in which Juan José Arévalo won 85 percent of the vote and became president. The revolution and subsequent elections marked the beginning of what has been termed the Ten Years of Spring, lasting from 1945 to 1954.
Arévalo immediately democratized the state by granting universal suffrage to all adults except illiterate women. He also arranged for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and he permitted all political parties except for the Communist Party to function. He devoted large amounts of government funding to social programs and also improved labor codes, which angered Guatemala's largest landholder, the American-owned United Fruit Company (UFCO). Although Arévalo was a staunch anti-Liberal individualist and anti-Marxist, the U.S. press quickly labeled him a communist. Indeed, the United States demanded that he modify the labor codes and terminate a number of his cabinet members because of their alleged communist proclivities.
In 1951, after two failed coup attempts, Defense Minister Arbenz was elected president. He proceeded to expropriate nearly 1.5 million acres of land, much of which belonged to the UFCO, and distributed it to roughly 100,000 peasant families. Even though the UFCO received what was arguably fair monetary compensation for the land, it along with Guatemala's landed oligarchy demanded an immediate reversal of the land reforms.
Early in 1953 the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) engineered a plan to help overthrow Arbenz. It also trained and equipped a mercenary army of mostly Guatemalan exiles. In June 1954 the self-labeled liberacionista (liberationist) army, consisting of between 150 and 200 men, crossed into Guatemala from neighboring Honduras. The army did not press on, however, instead allowing three U.S.-provided planes (flown by U.S. pilots) to menace Guatemala City and other urban centers. Guatemala's army high command feared the United States and forced Arbenz from power. He then went into exile in Mexico. Many of the younger soldiers and officers who were extremely loyal to Arbenz resisted, however, thus beginning a guerrilla war that lasted until 1996.
The army leadership that took power in Guatemala was firmly anticommunist and allowed American personnel to be directly involved in government decision making. In 1956 the military, now in complete control of the government, reversed Arbenz's reforms. The military continued to direct the country even in the face of many (failed) coup attempts and escalated guerrilla warfare. The Pentagon directed the counterinsurgency movement during 1966–1968, at which point almost all political offices in Guatemala were held by military personnel. Under the guise of alleged antiterrorist campaigns, the military suspended all civil rights, carried out mass assassinations and kidnappings, and prevented all opposition parties from participating in the political process. These increasingly brutal tactics led to Guatemala's increasing international isolation as well as staunch civilian resistance.
The years 1980–1983 saw the most intense fighting. Under the leadership of President-General Romeo Lucas García (1978–1983), newly formed death squads attempted to quell guerrilla forces in the cities and the countryside. In rural areas, a scorched-earth policy resulted in the destruction of entire villages—sometimes along with their inhabitants—and decimated jungles and forests. Up to 200,000 civilians may have perished during the forty years of civil war.
By 1982 there were a number of different coup plots in which the CIA was involved. Lucas, realizing that he could not remain in charge, stepped down, and General José Efraín Ríos Montt took over as head of a military junta. He was forced to resign on 8 August 1983, however, because he continued to stall democratic reforms. General Oscar Mejía Victores then took over. He held the country's first real and free election since 1951, which was supported by the United States.
A civilian, Vinicio Cerezo, was elected president in 1985. Yet during 1983–1989 the military still held the reins of political power and fought against the guerrillas and constant coup attempts. At the end of the Cold War, despite nearly half a century of dictatorial repression, revolutionary movements continued to gain strength in Guatemala. By 1996 the government and military establishment finally realized that it could not win against the guerrilla forces, and a peace accord was signed between the two sides to end the civil war. Nevertheless, political corruption and violence continue to plague the country.
Jonathan A. Clapperton
Jonas, Susanne. The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.; Schirmer, Jennifer. The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.