08 March 2012

Guatemala Redistributes Land

Father of Spin by Larry Tye, 1998, Excerpts

Guatemala was a hot spot and had been since 1944, when a mass uprising ended the fourteen-year rule of military strongman General Jorge Ubico Casteneda. Juan Jose Arevalo, a professor living in exile in Argentina, returned home and was swept into office in 1945 with more than 85 percent of the vote. Arevalo faced overwhelming obstacles from 70 percent illiteracy to more than 70 percent of the land being held by just 2 percent of the population. But he began to make changes, introducing a democratic political system, overseeing construction of new schools and hospitals, establishing a limited social security network, and giving workers the right to organize and strike.

The Arevalo reign raised a red flag for United Fruit. Workers went on strike at its banana plantation and seaport, forcing it for the first time to make concessions in a labor contract, and the fruit company was targeted as Guatemala’s most glaring symbol of hated Yankee imperialism.

In March 1951 Arevalo was succeeded by his defense minister, Jacob Arbenz Guzman. Arbenz picked up the pace of change, most significantly, implementing a plan to redistribute uncultivated lands of large plantations. Between 1952 and 1954 the Arbenz government confiscated and turned over to 100,000 poor families 1.5 million acres – including some 210,000 acres of United Fruit Company holdings.