Today in the Americas, the death of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán


…I was elected by a majority of the people of Guatemala, but I have had to fight under difficult conditions. The truth is that the sovereignty of a people cannot be maintained without the material elements to defend it…. I took over the presidency with great faith in the democratic system, in liberty and the possibility of achieving economic independence for Guatemala. I continue to believe that this program is just. I have not violated my faith in democratic liberties, in the independence of Guatemala and in all the good which is the future of humanity.
-Jacobo Arbenz, July, 1954

Jacobo Arbenz is a much studied figure in Latin American (and United States) history. The details of his reign and the coup against him, from the innards of the intelligence community in the US or the multinational corporations like United Fruit, are legendary. It is almost forty years (38) to the day of his death on January 27, 1971. It is this second part of his life that is mysterious and riddled with sorrow.

To resist recounting the past – in an oversimplification, Arbenz was elected as Guatemala’s president in 1951 on the heels of Juan José Arévalo. In 1952, Arbenz enacted Decree 900 which dealt with land reform. It took fallow land and redistributed it. This was seen as a threat and vaguely communist, despite the particulars. (We also know of the detailed interactions between United Fruit and the Eisenhower administration, including the Dulles brothers). The CIA moved in with help from friends and Arbenz resigned on June 27, 1954.

As Castillo Armas took over and was promptly recognized by Eisenhower, Arbenz had to seek refuge in Mexico. In Jon Anderson’s Che, he relates Ernesto Guevara’s indignation with Arbenz for fleeing from his responsibilities and his reluctance in the face of a coup to “arm the people” (152). To add insult to injury, when Castillo granted Arbenz asylum, he was jeered at the airport and strip searched publicly.

Castillo Armas promised to live up to fighting communism and made Guatemala fiercely anticommunist. Over the following years, many dissidents and activists would be tortured and killed, an epidemic in the late ’50s, early ’60s. The new government reversed all of Arbenz’s reforms, outlawed political parties, trade unions and indigenous organizations of all kinds.

Arbenz was forced to leave, humiliated, for Mexico. The final twenty years of his life revolved around, much like Trotsky, moving to any nation that was willing to accept you. Like Norway not taking Trotsky because fascists planted “evidence” of his political activities he swore he would not take part in, Arbenz was a pariah. After leaving Mexico, he moved to Switzerland, which asked him to give up his Guatemalan citizenship. This must have been one of the more difficult moments in his life – forsake his home, or move forward. If he only knew the damage that had been done…

The late 1950s saw Arbenz in Paris, Prague, then Moscow. He finally, in 1957, was allowed back into Latin America – Uruguay accepting him. But by now, his spirit was broken. He moved to Cuba in 1960, just after the revolution. This was even before his daughter committed suicide in 1965. He was allowed to return to Mexico to bury Arabella. It was six years later, in 1971, that Arbenz died in his bathroom. Some suggest drowning, some burning. His death still remains a mystery. An ignominious end to a man poised, for better or worse, to shake up twentieth century Latin America. Deep inside, despite his moral failings and antithetical approach to the guerrilla era in Latin America, he inspired many people, including Ernesto Guevara, to fight for a different world.


~ by Daniel on January 27, 2009.

4 Responses to “Today in the Americas, the death of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán”

  1. “Your greatness is measured by your kindness; your education and intellect by your modesty; your ignorance is betrayed by your suspicions and prejudices, and your real caliber is measured by the consideration and tolerance you have for others.”- William J. H. Boetcker

  2. sturdysteps

  3. I read about this gentleman in Che’s bio by Anderson. He seems to have greatly inspired Che, who was in the city when American launched unprovoked attack on this little country. What a silly country US is, it is amusing to note how illiterate and stupid are those supposedly “educated” people in White House/Pentagaon are to launch such preposterous activities. Coming to Arbenz, I feel sad that he had to see the death of his daughter. Losing my own brother has brought in a devastating chain of affairs in our lives. So I can empathize.

    Do good to yourself first before doing good to anyone else.

  4. […] planted the idea in the public mind that Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was really a communist, allowing the U.S. government to ‘legitimately’ overthrow Guzman in a […]

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