The Real Story

Who was Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán? Why is Arbenz relevant to History and

Early Life

Born in 1913 Quetzaltenango, he was the son of a Swiss German pharmacist who immigrated to Guatemala in 1901. His family was relatively wealthy and upper-class; his childhood has been described as “comfortable”.
His father became addicted to morphine, and began to neglect the family business. It eventually went bankrupt, forcing the family to move to a rural estate which a wealthy friend had set aside for them “out of charity”. Jacobo had originally desired to be an economist or an engineer, but since the family now had no money, he could not afford to go to the university. He didn’t want to join the military, but there was a scholarship available through the Escuela Politécnica for military cadets. He applied and passed all of the entrance exams, and entered as a cadet in 1932. Two years later, his father committed suicide.[1]

Military career

Árbenz excelled in the academy, and was deemed “an exceptional student”. He became “first sergeant”, the highest honor bestowed upon cadets, that only 6 people received from 1924 to 1944. His abilities earned him an unusual level of respect amongst the officers at the school, including Major John Considine, the U.S. director of the school, and of other U.S. officers who served at the school. Árbenz graduated in 1935.
In 1938 he met his future wife María Vilanova, the daughter of a wealthy Salvadoran landowner. They were married a few months later. Árbenz stated that his wife had a great influence on him.It was through María that Árbenz was exposed to Marxism. María had received a copy of The Communist Manifesto at a women’s congress, and left a copy of it on the Jacobo’s bedside table when she left for a vacation. Jacobo was “moved” by the Manifesto, and he and María discussed it with each other, and both felt that it explained many things they had been feeling. Afterwards, Jacobo began reading more work by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, and by the late 1940s was regularly interacting with a group of Guatemalan communists.In 1937, Árbenz was asked to fill a vacant teaching position at the academy. Árbenz taught a wide range of subjects, including from military subjects, history, and physics. In 1943, he was promoted to captain, and placed in charge of the entire corps of cadets. His position was the third highest in the academy, and was considered one of the most prestigious positions a young officer could hold.After graduating, he served a stint as a junior officer at Fort San José in the capital, and later under “an illiterate Colonel” in a small garrison in the village of San Juan Sacatepéquez. While in San Juan, Árbenz had to lead squads of soldiers which were escorting chain gangs of prisoners (including political prisoners) to perform forced labor. The experience traumatized Árbenz, who said he felt like a capataz (i.e. a “foreman”).


Historical background

In the 1890s, the United States began to implement the Monroe Doctrine, pushing out European colonial powers and establishing U.S. hegemony over resources and labor in Latin American nations. The dictators that ruled Guatemala during the late 19th and early 20th century were generally very accommodating to U.S. business and political interests. So unlike other Latin American nations, such as Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba, the U.S. did not have to use overt military force to maintain dominance in Guatemala, and the Guatemalan military/police worked closely with the U.S. military and State Department to secure U.S. interests. The Guatemalan government exempted several U.S. corporations from paying taxes, privatized and sold off publicly owned utilities, and gave away huge swaths of public land.
In 1930, the dictator General Jorge Ubico came to power, backed by the United States, and initiated one of the most brutally repressive governments in Central American history. He created a widespread network of spies and informants, and had large numbers of political opponents tortured and put to death. A wealthy aristocrat (with an estimated income of $215,000 per year, in 1930s dollars) and a staunch anti-communist, he consistently sided with landowners and urban elites in disputes with peasants. He implemented a system of debt slavery and forced labor, and passed laws allowing landowners to execute workers as a “disciplinary” measure.[4][5][6][7][8] He also openly identified as a fascist; he admired Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler, saying at one point: “I am like Hitler. I execute first and ask questions later.”[9][10][11][12][13] Ubico was disdainful of the indigenous population, calling them “animal-like”, and stated that to become “civilized” they needed mandatory military training, comparing it to “domesticating donkeys”. He gave away hundreds of thousands of hectares to the United Fruit Company (UFCO) and exempted them from taxes, and allowed the U.S. military to establish bases in Guatemala.[4][5][6][7][8]
Ubico considered himself to be “another Napoleon”. He dressed ostentatiously, and surrounded himself with statues and paintings of the emperor, regularly commenting on the similarities between their appearances. He militarized numerous political and social institutions—including the post office, schools, and symphony orchestras—and placed military officers in charge of many government posts. He frequently travelled around the country performing “inspections”, in dress uniform, followed by a military escort, a mobile radio station, an official biographer, and cabinet members.[

Ubico’s repressive policies and arrogant demeanor eventually led to a widespread popular insurrection, led by middle-class intellectuals, professionals, and junior army officers. On July 1, 1944 Ubico resigned from office amidst a general strike and nationwide protests. Initially, he had planned to hand over power to the former director of police, General Roderico Anzueto, who he felt he could control. But his advisors noted that Anzueto’s pro-Nazi sympathies had made him very unpopular, and that he would not be able to control the military. So Ubico instead chose to select a triumvirate of Major General Bueneventura Piñeda, Major General Eduardo Villagrán Ariza, and General Federico Ponce Vaides. The three generals promised to convene the national assembly to hold an election for a provisional president, but when the congress met on July 3, soldiers held everyone at gunpoint and forced them to vote for General Ponce, rather than the popular civilian candidate Dr. Ramón Calderón. Ponce, who had previously retired from military service due to alcoholism, took orders from Ubico and kept many of the officials who had worked in the Ubico administration. The repressive policies of the Ubico administration were continued.

Opposition groups began organizing again, this time joined by many prominent political and military leaders, who deemed the Ponce regime unconstitutional. Among the military officers in the opposition were Jacobo Árbenz and Major Franciso Javier Araña. Ubico had fired Árbenz from his teaching post at the Escuela Politécnica, and since then Árbenz had been in El Salvador, organizing a band of revolutionary exiles. On October 19, 1944 a small group of soldiers and students, led by Árbenz and Arana, attacked the National Palace, in what later became known as the “October Revolution”.[20] Ponce was defeated and driven into exile, and Árbenz, Arana, and a lawyer name Jorge Toriello established a junta and declared that they would hold democratic elections before the end of the year.

The winner of the 1944 elections was a philosophy professor named Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo ran under a coalition of leftist parties known as the Partido Acción Revolucionaria (“Revolutionary Action Party”, PAR), and won 85% of the vote in elections that are widely considered to have been fair and open.[22] Arévalo implemented social reforms such as minimum wage laws, increased educational funding, near-universal suffrage (excluding illiterate women), and labor reforms; but many of these changes only benefited the upper-middle classes and did little for the peasant agricultural laborers that made up the majority of the population. Although his reforms were relatively moderate, he was widely disliked by the United States government, Catholic Church, large landowners and employers (such as United Fruit Company), and Guatemalan military officers, who viewed his government as inefficient, corrupt, and heavily influenced by Communists. At least 25 coup attempts took place during his presidency, mostly led by wealthy conservative military officers.[23][24] During the 1944 revolution, Arana had demanded that he be appointed as the Chief of Staff, in exchange for loyalty to the Arévalo government. However, Arévalo did not trust Arana, and installed Árbenz as the minister of defense, to act as a check on Arana. Over time, tensions rose between Arana and Arévalo, peaking when Arana was mysteriously killed in a Guatemala City gun battle on July 18, 1949, ultimately leading to a failed revolt that was put down by troops led by Árbenz.

Election and inauguration

Before his death, Arana had planned to run in the upcoming 1950 presidential elections. His death left Árbenz without any serious contenders in the elections (leading some, including the CIA and U.S. military intelligence, to speculate that Árbenz personally had him eliminated for this reason). Árbenz got more than 3 times as many votes as the runner-up, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. Fuentes also claimed that electoral fraud was committed which favored Árbenz, however scholars have pointed out that while fraud may possibly have caused Árbenz to gain more votes, it was not the reason that he won the elections.

The election of Árbenz alarmed U.S. State Department officials, who stated that Arana “has always represented [the] only positive conservative element in [the] Arévalo administration”, that his death would “strengthen Leftist[sic] materially”, and that “developments forecast sharp leftist trend within [the] government.”

In his inaugural address, Árbenz promised to convert Guatemala from “a backward country with a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state”.[28] He declared that he intended to reduce dependency on foreign markets, and to dampen the influence of foreign corporations over Guatemalan politics.[29] He also stated that he would modernize Guatemala’s infrastructure, and that he would do so without the aid of foreign capital.

Land reform

By 1950, a handful of U.S. corporations controlled Guatemala’s primary electrical utilities, the nation’s only railroad, and the banana industry, which was Guatemala’s chief agricultural export industry.[3] By the mid-1940s, Guatemalan banana plantations accounted for more than one quarter of all of United Fruit Company’s production in Latin America.[31]

Land reform was the centerpiece of Arbenz’ election campaign.[30][32]

The revolutionary organizations that had helped put Árbenz in power put constant pressure on him to live up to his campaign promises regarding land reform.[33] Árbenz continued Arévalo’s reform agenda and, in June 1952, his government enacted an agrarian reform program. Arbenz set land reform as his central goal as only 2 % of the population owned 70 % of the land.[34]

On June 17, 1952 Árbenz’ administration enacted an agrarian reform law known as (Decree 900). The law empowered the government to create a network of agrarian councils which would be in charge of expropriating uncultivated land on estates that were larger than 672 acres (2.7 km2).[28] The land was then allocated to individual families. Owners of expropriated land were compensated according to the worth of the land claimed in May 1952 tax assessments (which they had often dramatically understated to avoid paying taxes). Land was paid for in twenty-five year bonds with a 3 percent interest rate.[35]

The program was in effect for 18 months, during which it distributed 1,500,000 acres (6,100 km2) to about 100,000 families. Arbenz himself, a landowner through his wife, gave up 1,700 acres (7 km2) of his own land in the land reform program.[36]


Instability, combined with Árbenz’s relative tolerance of Guatemalan Party of Labour (PGT) and other leftists influences, prompted the CIA to draw up a contingency plan entitled Operation PBFORTUNE in 1951. It outlined a method of ousting Árbenz if he were deemed a Communist threat in the hemisphere.

The United Fruit Company - now renamed Chiquita - a U.S.-based corporation, was also threatened by Árbenz’s land reform initiative. United Fruit was Guatemala’s largest landowner, with 85% of its holdings uncultivated, vulnerable to Árbenz’s reform plans. In calculating its tax obligations, United Fruit had consistently (and drastically) undervalued the worth of its holdings. In its 1952 taxes, it claimed its land was only worth $3 per acre. When, in accordance with United Fruit’s tax claims, the Árbenz government offered to compensate the company at the $3 rate, the company claimed the land’s true value was $75/acre but refused to explain the precipitous jump in its own determination of the land’s value.

In 1952, the Guatemalan Party of Labour was legalized; Communists subsequently gained considerable minority influence over important peasant organizations and labor unions, but not over the governing political party and won only four seats in the 58-seat governing body. The CIA, having drafted Operation PBFORTUNE, was already concerned about Árbenz’s potential Communist ties. United Fruit had been lobbying the CIA to oust reform governments in Guatemala since Arévalo’s time but it wasn’t until the Eisenhower administration that it found an ear in the White House. In 1954, the Eisenhower administration was still flush with victory from its covert operation to topple the Mossadegh government in Iran the year before. On February 19, 1954, the CIA began Operation WASHTUB, a plan to plant a phony Soviet arms cache in Nicaragua to demonstrate Guatemalan ties to Moscow.[37]

As it happened, WASHTUB was unnecessary. In May 1954, Czechoslovak weaponry arrived in secret into Guatemala aboard the Swedish ship Alfhem. The ship’s manifests had been falsified as to the nature of its cargo. The U.S. took this as final proof of Árbenz’s Soviet links. The Czechoslovaks supplied, for cash down, obsolete and barely functional German WWII weaponry.[38]

The direct contacts between the Soviet Union and the Árbenz Government consisted of one Soviet diplomat working out an exchange of bananas for agricultural machinery, which fell through because neither side had refrigerated ships. The only other evidence of contact the CIA found after the operation were two bills to the Guatemalan Communist Party from a Moscow bookstore, totalling $22.95.[38]

The Árbenz government was convinced a U.S.-sponsored invasion was imminent: it had previously released detailed accounts of the CIA’s Operation PBFORTUNE (called the White Papers) and perceived US actions at the OAS convention in Caracas that year as a lead-up to intervention. The administration ordered the CIA to sponsor a coup d’état, code-named Operation PBSUCCESS that toppled the government. Árbenz resigned on June 27, 1954 and was forced to flee, seeking refuge in the Mexican Embassy.

After the coup, Frank Wisner organised an operation called PBHistory to secure Árbenz Government documents. PBHistory aimed to prove Soviet control of Guatemala and, in so doing, hopefully provide actionable intelligence with regard to other Soviet connections and personnel in Latin America. Wisner sent two teams who, with the help of the Army and Castillo Armas’s junta, gathered 150,000 documents. Ronald M. Schneider, an extra-Agency researcher who later examined the PBHistory documents, found no traces of Soviet control and substantial evidence that Guatemalan Communists acted alone, without support or guidance from outside the country.[39]

Later Life

He initially stayed in Mexico, and then he and his family moved to Switzerland. The Swiss government would not allow him to stay unless he gave up his Guatemalan citizenship. Refusing to do so, Árbenz moved to Paris, and then to Prague. Czechoslovak officials were uncomfortable with his stay, unsure if he would demand the government to repay him for the poor quality of former arms from the Second World War that they had sold him in 1954. After only three months, he moved again, this time to Moscow. He tried several times to return to Latin America, and was finally allowed to move to Uruguay in 1957.

In 1960, after the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro asked Árbenz to come to Cuba, to which Arbenz readily agreed. In 1965, his eldest and favorite daughter, a fashion model named Arabella, committed suicide, shooting herself in front of her boyfriend, the Matador Jaime Bravo, in Bogotá, Colombia. Árbenz was devastated by her death. He was allowed to return to Mexico to bury his daughter and, eventually, was allowed to stay. On January 27, 1971, Árbenz died in his bathroom, either from drowning or scalding.

In May 2011 before the Interamerican commission of human rights and the OAS, the Guatemalan government signed an agreement with his surviving family to restore his legacy, the real story, educational programs for their public officials and publicly apologize for the government’s role in ousting him. This included a financial settlement to the family due to the expropriate of the family farm, and pain and suffering damages.

The son of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, Jacobo Arbenz Villanova, is currently a Guatemalan politician.

The Arbenz Story moves from powerful piece of history to the silver screen.