In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The United States and the Guatemalan Revolution

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works on Guatemala
  • Guatemala before 1944
  • Aftermath

Latin American Studies The United States and the Guatemalan Revolution
Piero Gleijeses
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0072


“It wasn’t a great conspiracy, and it wasn’t a child’s game. We were just a group of young men searching for our destiny.” So said Alfredo Guerra Borges one evening in January 1973, quoted in Gleijeses’ Shattered Hope (Gleijeses 1991, p. 3; cited under the 1944–1954 Guatemalan Revolution: Accounts by Scholars and Journalists of the Presidencies of Arévalo and Arbenz). Guerra Borges had been a leader of the Communist Party of Guatemala (PGT) in the early 1950s. He spoke of Jacobo Arbenz—the Red Jacobo—who had been president of Guatemala in 1951–1954. He spoke of himself and of his Communist friends, of—what they accomplished, and of what they failed to achieve. He spoke of Washington and of Ambassador John Peurifoy, whom he had ridiculed in the columns of the PGT’s Tribuna Popular. And he spoke, as in wonder, of the fall of Arbenz. The Eisenhower administration had engineered the coup that brought down Arbenz and ended the 1944–1954 Guatemalan Revolution—a revolution that had seen the PGT bask in Arbenz’s favor while Communists were persecuted everywhere else in Latin America. It was a revolution that had seen the first true agrarian reform of Central America: half a million people (one-sixth of Guatemala’s population) received the land they desperately needed. Juan José Arévalo (1945–1951) and Jacobo Arbenz had presided over Guatemala during those ten “years of spring in the land of eternal tyranny” (Luis Cardoza y Aragón, La Revolución Guatemalteca, Mexico City: Cuadernos Americanos, 1955, p. 9). Arévalo—eloquent and charismatic—was a prominent intellectual. Arbenz—introverted and, even by CIA accounts, brilliant—was an unusual young colonel who cared passionately about social reform. According to American observers, the virus of Communism had infected them both, especially Arbenz. A few months before the fall of Arbenz, the New York Times delivered its indictment: Arbenz had become “a prisoner of the embrace he so long ago gave the communists” (6 November 1953, p. 3). More than fifty years have passed. Very few scholars now disparage Arévalo: he is considered a democrat whom Washington had misunderstood. But Arbenz is still controversial. Many believe that he, too, was misjudged and that the CIA plotted his overthrow because he had expropriated the land of the United Fruit Company. Others disagree. The former secretary general of the PGT, Arbenz’s closest friend, observes drily, “They would have overthrown us even if we had grown no bananas” (José Manuel Fortuny, quoted in Gleijeses 1991, p. 4).

Introductory Works on Guatemala

Guatemala is a country of rich soil and abject poverty. Until the end of World War II, land was the main source of wealth and prestige, and the landed elite was a close-knit group of a few hundred families. This elite has now branched out into industry, commerce, and banking, and the middle class has grown, though it remains fragile. Many of the poor live in urban slums, but most still eke out a living from the land, from their own tiny plots and from tilling the great estates of the rich. Guatemala, however, is rent by more than profound class differences; it also suffers from the fissure between the indigenous population and the Ladinos. More than half of its fourteen million inhabitants are Indians—the descendants of the vanquished Maya. The Ladinos look down on the Indians, but “Ladino” is an ambiguous, catchall category that ranges from upper-class whites, who boast of their European lineage, to landless Indians who have renounced the culture of their people. From independence in 1821 until 1944, Guatemala had known civil war and dictatorship; democracy was fleeting. But in 1944, a democratic parenthesis began—the Guatemalan Revolution. It lasted ten years, until, that is, the United States overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz. The fall of Arbenz ushered authoritarian governments that fervently opposed any social reform. For more than three decades—from 1962 to 1994—the guerrillas fought against the status quo and the army responded with a bloodbath that killed 200,000 Guatemalans. Armed struggle ended in 1994, but social reform remains taboo. Handy 1984 and Luján Muñoz 1998 review the history of Guatemala. Asturias 1985, Gleijeses 1988, and Grandin 2000 offer a snapshot of Guatemalan society. Bulmer-Thomas 1987 reviews the economy of Central America and Cohen Orantes 1972 the birth of Central American integration. Coatsworth 1994 surveys US policy toward Central America.

  • Asturias, Miguel Angel. El señor presidente. San José, Costa Rica: EDUCA, 1985.

    Originally published in 1946, this novel by Guatemala’s foremost author portrays a society in which fear of the dictator is the only cohesive force. It grips every strata of the population. This was Guatemala under the dictatorships of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) and Jorge Ubico (1931–1944). This was also Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s, as the armed forces wreaked havoc to defeat the guerrillas. Fear is the keynote of Guatemalan history.

  • Bulmer-Thomas, Victor. The Political Economy of Central America since 1920. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511572029

    A solid overview of the economy of Central America from the 1920s through the 1970s.

  • Coatsworth, John. Central America and the United States: The Clients and the Colossus. New York: Twayne, 1994.

    A good overview based on a thorough knowledge of the literature in English and Spanish.

  • Cohen Orantes, Isaac. Regional Integration in Central America. Lexington, MA: Heath, 1972.

    An incisive analysis of the origins of Central American economic integration and its impact on the development of the five Central American countries.

  • Gleijeses, Piero. Politics and Culture in Guatemala. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1988.

    Argues that through the cacophony of the many Guatemalan cultures—the Indian and the Ladino, the elite few and the miserable many, the town dweller and the peasant, the civilian and the military—cuts one keynote: the culture of fear. Violence, torture, and death are the final arbiters of Guatemalan society, the gods that determine behavior.

  • Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

    Examines the evolution of the Quiché community of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second city, from the mid-18th century through the fall of President Arbenz. Well written and insightful, it offers a penetrating snapshot of the Maya population of Guatemala.

  • Handy, Jim. Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala. Boston: South End, 1984.

    The best one-volume history of Guatemala based on a mastery of the secondary sources and, for some periods, of the primary sources.

  • Luján Muñoz, Jorge. Breve historia contemporánea de Guatemala. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998.

    Well-written history of Guatemala from the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century through the 1980s. The author has a good grasp of the key secondary sources.

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