In his 1953 address to the Guatemalan congress, President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán declared, “The Agrarian Reform Law begins the economic transformation of Guatemala; it is the most precious fruit of the revolution and the fundamental base of the destiny of the nation as a new country.” He went on to affirm that the law formed “a part of the heavy debt the ruling class and governors have contracted with the humble people, with people of the field with cheap cotton shirts and palm-leaf sombreros who do not have shoes, or medicine, or money, or education, or land.”1

Many of the young Guatemalan politicians who struggled to implement economic, social, and political reform during the decade of the revolution from 1944 to 1954 realized that in their country everything ultimately revolves around the land. In 1950, over two-thirds of the population depended on agriculture for their living. These politicians understood, if often only vaguely, that decades of land dispossession had helped bind the majority of the population into depths of poverty. They also realized that none of the ideals of the revolution could succeed without an alteration in the basic structure of land tenure in the country. All other legislation during the revolution paled before substantial agrarian reform.

However, agrarian reform faced significant opposition in Guatemala, and not just from large landowners. Agrarian reform as envisioned by Arbenz entailed a substantial alteration in both economic and political power along with land reallocation. Effecting this alteration provoked a storm of opposition to both the process of agrarian reform and the government. Eventually, it was the agrarian reform, the most precious fruit and the most indispensable measure of the revolution, that led to the overthrow of the Arbenz administration and the collapse of the revolution.

Despite the importance of the agrarian reform, Decree 900 (which spelled out the reform) and its application are not well understood. Most studies of the Guatemalan revolution have concentrated on U.S. involvement in the overthrow of President Arbenz. Discussions of the agrarian reform process have concentrated on the expropriation of the vast United Fruit Company lands and the reaction of the company and the U.S. administration to that expropriation. In the process, they have fostered a perception that the agrarian reform was predominantly a foreign policy issue.2 The few studies of the agrarian reform itself rarely discuss its application, or its role in fostering opposition to the Arbenz government.3

In this essay I shall attempt to provide a clearer picture of the Guatemalan agrarian reform and its effects by outlining the diverse pressures leading to the framing of Decree 900; comparing the various proposals for agrarian reform with the provisions of the decree itself; describing the support for and opposition to the agrarian reform; and analyzing the application of the measure. I shall argue that the law was carefully considered; that it created two very diverse foci of political power (one of which was the presidency and the other a network of local agrarian councils); that there was substantial effort to apply the reform legally; and that it was notably successful in achieving its major aim: transferring land from large landowners to peasants and rural laborers. Perhaps of most importance, the agrarian reform assisted the growth of powerful, semiautonomous, peasant and rural workers’ organizations that were essential in implementing the law. Partly as a consequence, the agrarian reform fostered substantial unrest, and was decisive in inspiring the army revolt that toppled President Arbenz and helped end the revolution.

Landholding in Guatemala

The history of land ownership in Guatemala is too complex to relate at length here. Nonetheless, it is important to understand the main features of that history before discussing the pressures for agrarian reform apparent in the early years of the revolution. The demographic collapse caused by European epidemic diseases accompanying the Spanish conquest ensured that through most of the colonial period land was an abundant resource and labor was scarce. Yet, as recent research has clearly indicated, even during that period of land abundance fertile and commercially viable pockets of land were readily appropriated from Indian communities by Spanish conquistadores, encomenderos, and hacendados.4

Wholesale expropriation of Indian lands did not occur until the latter half of the nineteenth century, spurred on by the spread of coffee cultivation. Land accumulation on the part of an elite of coffee planters, both foreign and national, occurred at varying rates in different parts of the country—based partly on the desirability of the land for coffee production, and partly on the need to control land so as to ensure sufficient labor for the coffee harvest. The Liberal governments that took power in the revolt of 1871, and dominated Guatemala until the beginning of the revolution, passed a number of land laws that resulted in the confiscation or sale of much of the village-controlled land and the growth of large coffee estates. These laws were accompanied by labor regulations that aided the recruitment of workers for the coffee harvest, and thus further facilitated the accumulation of large estates.5

By the beginning of the revolution in 1944, the pattern of minifundios/latifundios had been well established. Large landowners controlled much of the best land in huge estates, a large proportion of it not cultivated, cultivated through sharecropping arrangements, or rented in return for labor on the coffee harvest. The vast majority of the farming units consisted of tiny plots used for subsistence agriculture, with occasional surpluses sold in a complex intervillage market system. The 1950 Guatemalan agricultural census, carried out as part of the statistical preparation for agrarian reform, demonstrated clearly the need for land redistribution. The census showed that 72 percent of the agricultural land in the country was controlled by slightly more than 2 percent of the farming units. Eighty-eight percent of the farming units controlled only 14 percent of the land. In a country where almost 70 percent of the population depended on agriculture for a living, about half of the farming units, 165,850 families, had less than the bare minimum of 2 manzanas (1 manzana = two-thirds of a hectare) needed for subsistence. On the other hand, 22 fincas controlled 13 percent of the agricultural land in the country.6 Moreover, surveys prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1947 indicated that of the 3,803,974 manzanas then in private hands, only 449,103 manzanas were cultivated. A further 773,084 were used as pasture land, leaving 2,581,877 manzanas of privately owned land, much of it potentially productive and unexploited.7

“To Liberate the Oppressed”

Given this structure of land ownership, it is not surprising that agrarian reform was an important policy issue from the beginning of the revolution. For weeks, debate over agrarian reform and collective versus private rights dominated discussion in the constitutional assembly held in early 1945. The tiny, but influential, Vanguardia Nacional, a nascent socialist party, was the most active proponent. In February 1945, a speaker for the party declared in the assembly that the first priority of the state was to “regulate the national economy to benefit the collectivity” and proposed a concerted attack on latifundios and “feudal” property. This resolution prompted a vehement response, on the ground that it attacked the sacred right to private property and set the stage for the spread of communism. The members of the Vanguardia Nacional responded that to argue for an absolute private right over land was absurd; all they were suggesting was that land had a “social function,” and that private control must “always be limited and subject to the general interest.” Carlos Manuel Pellecer, quickly winning a reputation as a radical, was a strong supporter of the resolution. But his explanation that “[a]ll we wish, all we are trying to do, is to liberate the oppressed, the weak, from the sabotage of the strong”—while popular with the gallery—did not calm the fears of those opposed to the measure.8 Nonetheless, through the urging of Vanguardia and the efforts of the president of the constituent assembly, Jorge García Granados, a number of important provisions were included in the constitution. Articles 91 to 96 established the right of the government to expropriate land for the general welfare, and set other conditions for transferring land to peasants and workers. The constitution provided the legal framework necessary for the agrarian reform law that was to follow.9

During the first few years of the revolution, many other voices joined the politicians who had framed the constitution in calling for agrarian reform. Every major economic publication in the country not linked to the landowners’ associations argued periodically that the agrarian structure of the country needed to be altered. In addition, all the “revolutionary” political parties that supported the government gave at least rhetorical endorsement to agrarian reform. Rural workers and peasants needed little prompting from national organizations to demonstrate their hunger for land. Delegations of Indian communities traveled to the capital to petition President Juan José Arévalo for land. Numerous land invasions of private fincas and publicly held land occurred. Workers on the government-owned and -operated “national fincas” joined in a campaign first to force the government not to return the properties to their former German owners, and then to have them divided among themselves, or handed over in the form of cooperatives.10

Despite these repeated demands, the first government of the revolution did little to alter land tenure. A few government-owned fincas were divided among peasants or turned into cooperatives, a colonization program was begun in the underpopulated Petén, and a Law of Forced Rental was passed in 1949 and strengthened in 1951 that made it easier for peasants to rent land at reasonable rates. But these were minor measures with little impact.11

Arévalo argued that he could not do more to transform rural Guatemala because of the fear of violent reaction. Indeed, the government withstood an estimated 30 coup attempts during his presidency, and the most powerful man in the military, the Armed Forces chief, Colonel Francisco Javier Arana, was opposed to any radical measures in the countryside. Still, it is questionable how committed Arévalo himself was to agrarian reform. He appeared to have little understanding of rural Guatemala, and a romantic notion of conditions in the countryside drawn from his own youth as a son of a relatively prosperous landowner. At one point, he even suggested that there was not “what you could appropriately call an agrarian problem” in Guatemala. Rather, rural laborers and peasants “have lived in a psychological and political climate that has prevented the expression of the yearning to work the land.”12

There was, of course, much opposition to potential agrarian reform. The most vehement came from the Asociación Guatemalteca de Agricultores (AGA), a large landowners’ group. In 1947, it warned that agrarian reform “would be an error of the most unfortunate type for the country. Other conservative sectors of society likewise opposed any such measure. An organ of the Catholic church, Acción Social Cristiana, through an article by “Juan sin Tierra” called agrarianism the “worst plague” affecting Guatemalan agriculture. It argued that all the talk of reform was imported from Mexico, where it had been a “rich vein continually exploited by unscrupulous politicians,” leading to falling production and extreme misery” for peasants. It urged that a “grand campaign” be unleashed in Guatemala to head off this “plague.”13

Nonetheless, by the time the campaign began for the 1950 elections, agrarian reform was the major priority of the revolutionary parties. The conventions of the Revolutionary Action party. National Renovation, and the Revolutionary Workers’ party of Guatemala held in 1950 Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, “the soldier of the people,” as their presidential candidate and linked their support for him firmly to the promise of agrarian reform should he be elected. Arbenz stressed agrarian reform in all of his major campaign speeches, and in his inaugural address he affirmed that “[i]n our program agrarian reform has capital importance.”14

Following his inauguration, the most determined of the revolutionary forces maintained constant pressure on Arbenz to keep his promises of agrarian reform. The Revolutionary Action party’s El Libertador issued the most forthright appeal, declaring:

The realization of agrarian reform … is the fundmental prerequisite for all economic, political, and social reforms of the October Revolution. No democratic conquest will be stable or permanent without the previous achievement of agrarian reform…. Without the realization of agrarian reform, the sovereignty of the Republic will always be threatened and the people will continue living in poverty.15

The Communist party, which had recently become a political contender under its own name, the rapidly growing Confederación Nacional Campesina de Guatemala (CNCG), and the Confederación General de Trabajadores de Guatemala (CGTG) all added their voices to the chorus. A play supporting agrarian reform was performed in Guatemala City, and the national radio station presented debates concerning it. Finally, at the May Day parade in 1952, the representatives of peasant and workers federations, backed by thousands of their members, presented a petition to Arbenz that read in part, “For many years Agrarian Reform has not been more than a promise and an inspiration. The workers and peasants demand the government quickly pass an Agrarian Reform. Perhaps this was the final prompting—if Arbenz needed one—for less than two weeks later, almost eight years after the beginning of the revolution, he sent an agrarian reform bill to congress.16

The Agrarian Reform Laic

At 1:10 a.m. on June 17, 1952, the agrarian reform bill was passed by congress after more than a month of debate. The bill that congress passed, slightly altered from Arbenz’s proposal, had diverse origins, and there has been significant disagreement over who had the most influence in its formation. But the proposal most closely resembling the actual law was that drafted by the leader of the CGTG and head of the congressional agrarian studies commission, Víctor Manuel Gutiérrez, and Ignacio Humberto Ortiz, also a member of the commission. Their communist affiliation and the similarities between this proposal and the actual law have led to charges that the agrarian reform law was inspired by communists for their own ends.17

There were substantial differences, however, between Gutiérrez’s suggestion and the law proposed by Arbenz, which came only after two weeks of discussion among his full cabinet, in which many moderates as well as radical activists were represented. Most important of the differences was that Gutiérrez’s proposal had favored the organization of full producer cooperatives on the expropriated land. Arbenz’s draft did not even mention the formation of cooperatives, while the law passed by congress allowed for, but did not stress, cooperatives. This became an important distinction in the course of the application of the law.18

During the month that the proposed law was debated in congress, agrarian reform dominated the national dialogue. The revolutionary organizations, political parties, unions, and CNCG gave it their full support. Even the cautious and extremely influential newspaper El Imparcial gave agrarian reform limited support. The landowners’ association attacked it vehemently, however.

The association held a stormy meeting with Arbenz on May 15, shortly after the law had been presented to congress, and four days later submitted its own proposal for agrarian reform. Its draft rejected virtually every aspect of the proposed law, especially the arrangements for expropriation and indemnification. Arbenz responded aggressively. Despite his repeated calls for support from “progressive” landlords and his often-stated hope that the reform could be implemented without serious conflict, his office issued a strongly worded rebuttal of the landowners’ proposal. The president’s statement traced the history of attempted reform measures during the revolution, and argued that the landlords had sought to sabotage them. Pointing out the fundamental difference between capitalist enterprises and “feudal” ones, the president’s office argued that capitalists, while they extracted surplus product, at least reinvested some of it to increase production, which in the long run benefited the national economy and the worker. Under capitalism, workers got a salary that allowed them the opportunity to accumulate savings and to advance. Latifundistas, on the other hand, simply collected the product of the workers without investment. Thus, “the owner, without worries, without anxiety, without risks, lives in the city, goes now and again to visit the finca, travels through European countries and plays in Monte Carlo.” To be a latifundista “one does not require intellect, exceptional talent, superior ingenuity. All that is necessary is a heart as hard as a rock, to uproot the peasant without respite or compassion.”

The statement asserted that as a result of the latifundistas’ control of previous governments, 22 owners controlled more than 249,169 peasants. In turn, the painful legacy of this inequality could be seen throughout the country, where:

barefoot, threadbare, badly clothed … the campesino comes and goes like a phantom, the phantom of the latifundios.… He doesn’t know how to read or write. He doesn’t know how to count past one hundred. He doesn’t know how to defend his elemental right to an hourly wage. He doesn’t know anything. Advanced in years, his culture is lost at the level of a child in kindergarten…. With [feudalism] he will always live in the same inhuman condition in which his parents, his grandparents, his great grandparents, his ancient ancestors lived.

The landowners’ attacks on the agrarian reform were prompted by their knowledge that the latifundio was to be supplanted by capitalist relations of production, the president suggested. To prevent this from happening, they had lent all their forces to “reactionary dictators.” “Unfortunately for the latifundistas, the reconquest of political power is difficult, better said, is impossible. The revolution of October has converted the State into a revolutionary fortress … untakable by force, by cunning, or by any other means. Eight years of continuous violent assault … [have] proved this irrefutably.”19 This statement was the angriest denunciation of the landowners’ association yet offered by Arbenz, and it marked a final break between the Arbenz administration and the landowners.

The agrarian reform law, Decree 900, was at heart capitalist, reflecting the preoccupation of the administration to attack “feudalism” in the countryside and inspire both more productive and more equitable agricultural enterprises. Based on Articles 90 to 95 of the constitution, it abolished all forms of servidumbre (unpaid labor) and unproductive latifundios, with the essential objectives of: developing the “capitalist peasant economy and the capitalist agricultural economy in general”; giving land to peasants, resident laborers, and agricultural workers who did not have any or had too little; introducing new methods of cultivation to peasants; and increasing agricultural credit to all peasants and agriculturalists in general.

Land was to be expropriated from a variety of classes of agricultural enterprises, and given out to peasants and workers in one of three forms. The law provided substantial protection for medium-sized and/or efficient farms. No finca less than two caballerías in size was to be affected by the law, whether cultivated or not. No finca larger than two caballerías and less than six caballerías which had at least two-thirds of its land cultivated was to be touched. Of those properties in this category that did not have two-thirds of their land directly cultivated, idle land or rented land could be expropriated. All property of the national fincas was subject to expropriation under the law, as were the areas in fincas larger than six caballerías that were not cultivated or in which land was rented in return for personal service, whether in lieu of or “to complete unsatisfactory salaries.” Municipal land denounced by legally recognized Indian or peasant communities could also be expropriated and distributed to members of the communities.

Private property expropriated under the law was to be paid for through agrarian bonds, with the price set at the declared value used in the latest property tax assessment. Bonds were to pay 3-percent interest, and were to mature at varying rates depending on the value of the property taken. Property worth more than Q30,000 (1 quetzal = 1 U.S. dollar) would not be paid for completely for 25 years. Property worth Q100 or less would be paid for in 2 years.

Land was to be distributed in various ways. It could be given as private property to peasants or workers. When expropriated land was not directly given out to peasants, it became national patrimony. In order to conform to the constitution, which declared that the property of the state was inalienable, such land was to be given out in lifelong usufruct, for which the beneficiaries paid 3 percent of the value of the harvest until the national agrarian debt was paid. In addition, national finca property could be given out, if the majority of the beneficiaries voted to do so, in the form of agricultural cooperatives. While all three of these forms were used, the majority of land taken under the agrarian reform was given out in usufruct. Despite suggestions to the contrary, however, the president demonstrated no reluctance to give out land directly as private property to beneficiaries of the law, as long as it could be done before the property became national patrimony.

Decree 900 established a hierarchical series of organizations, presided over by the president. The implementation of the law was to be overseen by the Departamento Agrario Nacional (DAN), which was to he advised by a Consejo Agrario Nacional (CAN). Below these national organizations were departmental and local agrarian councils. The DAN was answerable to and appointed by the president. The national council was to have nine members named by the president from the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Economy, General Office of Statistics, the Bank of Guatemala, the AGA, the CGTG, and two from the CNCG, with the chief of DAN presiding. Members could only be removed by the president. The departmental councils were to have five members named by the chief of DAN and proposed by him, the governor, the AGA, the CGTG, and the CNCG. The local councils were to be formed wherever there was property to be affected by the law. They were to have five members, with one nominated by the governor, one by the municipality, and three by the local peasant union or rural workers’ syndicate. Where such organizations did not exist, these three members were to be elected by a public vote, with representatives of the workers’ federation and peasant league present.

Expropriations were to be processed from the bottom up. Denunciations of land believed subject to expropriation were to be made to the local councils which verified the facts presented. These denunciations were passed on to the departmental councils, which made the initial decisions concerning the amount and value of land, if any, to be expropriated. Appeals could be made to the national council and then to the president. Once an expropriation was declared, the local council was responsible for the distribution of the land to those who denounced it.

The beneficiaries of the law were to be determined primarily by those who denounced land. There were certain priorities, though. In the case of national fincas—and, in practice, in large private fincas as well—resident workers and day laborers on the finca had first consideration. They were to receive no less than 5 and no more than 10 manzanas of cultivated land, and no less than 15 and no more than 25 manzanas of uncultivated land. Once all those who had denounced the land who were resident workers had received their parcels, workers and peasants from anywhere in the country could petition for land in usufruct. At the same time, DAN was to be guided by the consideration that general interests superseded private interests. Finally, the law stated that the decisions concerning the agrarian reform could not be appealed through the regular courts—appeals could be made only through the executive branch itself.20

The agrarian reform law had established two widely diverse foci of power. On the one hand, DAN and all its agencies were the creation of and answerable to the president. The law significantly augmented the power of the president, and allowed him, within certain limitations, to determine how rapid or slow, how widespread or restricted, the application of the law would be. On the other hand, the local agrarian councils also became important centers of power and influence. To a great extent, they were able to control the allocation of the most important local resource, land, and had almost unlimited discretion in determining who would benefit from the law on a local level. The dominant place on the local councils allotted to the workers’ federation and peasant league, coupled with their presence on the national council, also greatly increased the strength of these organizations.

The Application of Decree 900

Less than one year after he signed Decree 900, Arbenz announced to congress:

The Agrarian Reform has until today determined the internal political struggle. The question of the Agrarian Reform has drawn the classic line in the sand: on one side those who are definitely with the Revolution and on the other side those who are definitely against the Revolution.

As in all great historic decisions, there has been no place left for a middle ground. There is no family, there is no class, there is no person now in our country that has not felt, in one form or another … the impact of the commotions that the agrarian question has caused in Guatemala.21

Arbenz was not overstating the impact of the agrarian reform law. Soon after its passage, the implementation of the law led to an increasingly bitter power struggle in rural Guatemala that affected all aspects of Guatemalan politics. The struggle involved, among other things, the violent reaction of landowners to attempts to enforce the law, and land invasions fostered by peasants, rural workers, and political party activists. All this, and the government’s seeming inability to deal with the violence, inspired growing opposition to the Arbenz administration from sectors of the middle class that had previously supported many aspects of the revolution. Importantly, much of that opposition came from the military.

Yet, the agrarian reform proved immensely successful in its central objective: transferring land from the hands of large landowners to peasants and rural workers. Despite the substantial rural unrest that accompanied the law—and contrary to the claims of landowners and some subsequent studies—DAN struggled valiantly to apply the law as written, to control unrest, and to listen to landlords’ appeals while at the same time not dampening the momentum of peasant organizations and land distribution.

Less than a month after the law’s passage, the peasant league announced that four hundred local agrarian councils had been formed around the country. Two weeks later that number had almost tripled to one thousand, and by October 1952 a peasant league representative on the CAN declared that there were over three thousand. The local councils rapidly began the process of denouncing land (that is, petitioning for its expropriation); by August 1952, DAN reported having received almost five thousand denunciations of land. The first land distributed under Decree 900 was parceled out to workers and some neighboring peasants from the national finca Bárcena near Lake Amatitlán in early August 1952. By January 1953, the junta in charge of liquidating the national fincas announced that 35 of them were ready to be divided. In the same month, Arbenz expropriated parts of 4 private fincas. By early February, parts of 39 others had been expropriated.22

DAN’s records are not complete, but the existing records indicate that by June 1954, 765,233 manzanas of land had been expropriated from close to 800 private fincas. Agrarian agencies at one level or another had issued rulings declaring a further 189,803 manzanas subject to expropriation, although on these the appeal process had not been exhausted before the overthrow of the Arbenz government. There was, in addition, a huge backlog of denunciations on which no ruling had been made.23

The number of people who benefited from the law is difficult to determine. But DAN figures indicate that over 70,000 plots of land were given to beneficiaries from expropriated private land. In addition, there were more than 32,000 beneficiaries on national fincas either with private plots or in cooperatives. Close to 100,000 peasant families received land in some form under the reform. This directly benefited over 500,000 people in a population of close to 3,000,000, a remarkable transformation of the agrarian structure of the country in the space of two years.24

Much of the process of expropriation ran as intended. The official newspaper Diario de Centroamérica and the communist newspapers emphasized expropriations that proceeded according to the law, and they were many. The government publicly congratulated owners who abided by the rules of the decree and placed few obstacles in its way. It especially praised Edwin Dieseldorf, a German/Guatemalan planter in the Cobán. In addition, the law was applied to everyone. Arbenz lost 15 caballerías of his cotton finca. Nicolás Brol, the minister of agriculture, lost 85 caballerías of property; and Guillermo Toriello, then the ambassador to the United States and later foreign minister, lost slightly over 10 caballerías of his land in Escuintla.25

While the agrarian agencies occasionally drowned in confusion under the flood of denunciations and appeals, they genuinely tried to apply the law correctly. Five hundred and nine petitions for expropriation of property were turned down, almost as many as resulted in some land being taken. In addition, in the majority of cases landlords took advantage of the opportunities for appeal offered to them and most often this led to a reduction in the amount of land taken. In 239 of the cases on which Arbenz himself made a ruling, the amount of land taken under the law was reduced, sometimes substantially.26 The most common reason for denying petitions for land was that the property denounced was under two caballerías. But numerous fincas were kept intact because the owners cultivated or in some other manner used two-thirds of the property. In a few cases, however, landowners complained that they were not given sufficient opportunity to respond by the various appeal dates required under the law.27

To determine with any accuracy even the most simple data necessary for the process of expropriation proved immensely difficult. Agrarian officials needed to engage in exhaustive and often bewildering searches through various land registers going back decades before reaching an accurate estimate, because those petitioning for land rarely had any idea of its dimensions. The inspections carried out by the local agrarian councils seldom helped. It was not uncommon for the departmental commissions, relying on such inspections, to recommend expropriations larger than the property being denounced. On at least one occasion, even the CAN recommended taking more land than the property actually contained.28

It was often just as difficult to determine the identity of the current owner of denounced property. To prevent landowners from selling parts of their property in an attempt to avoid the application of the law, the Arbenz administration had sponsored a law refusing to recognize any sales after May 9, 1952, and this could easily complicate the process. In addition, the agrarian reform agencies seldom received the willing assistance of landowners. When the finca El Jocotón, in Jilotepeque, Jalapa was denounced in January 1953, the departmental and national agrarian commissions had trouble getting the landlord to respond to their requests for information concerning ownership of the property. The departmental commission finally determined that the property was co-owned by a number of adult members of the same family and declared it unaffected by the law. DAN then scolded one of the owners, Francisco Pinto, on May 28, 1954, saying, “Your policy of not providing the information already requested three times is not very intelligent (as the property has already been declared unaffected)…. We need to know the registration number of the property in order to send that decision to you. For the last time we ask you for it, the next time you will suffer a penalty under Decree 900.”29

There was often good reason for landowners’ reluctance to come forward with registration numbers. When the finca Santo Domingo los Ocotes in San Antonio la Paz, El Progreso was denounced and the whole property declared expropriated by the departmental agrarian council, the owners presented no defense and failed to take advantage of any of the appeal procedures available. After the overthrow of the Arbenz government, when they applied to the new agrarian officials for return of the property (over 90 percent of that taken was returned nationwide), only 2 of the 15 caballerías were returned. The new officials decided that the former owners could not prove legal possession of the land, and subsequent testimony indicated they had acquired it from the neighboring community during the administration of Jorge Ubico (1931-44) on questionable legal grounds.30

There were many other problems in the application of the reform. While Decree 900 declared property under two caballerías to be exempt, it said little about individuals who owned more than one property, or who tried to evade the law by legally dividing their property into smaller parcels. The agrarian officials responded to this problem by attempting to draw tables of land ownership in various departments so as to identify landowners who controlled various parcels of land. In such cases, the land was generally considered to be all one property, even if it was dispersed throughout the country. This procedure was often used to expropriate fincas ele mozos (property kept in the highlands in order to tie peasants to a labor contract for the coffee harvest elsewhere) that were less than two caballerías in size.31

The most important such case concerned Casimiro Gutiérrez of the department of El Quiche. Gutiérrez owned more than 73 tiny parcels of land in a number of municipalities in the department, most of which he rented out to a few peasants. One person who petitioned for some of his land, in a letter to the chief of the DAN, called Gutiérrez an “antiagrarista and falangist.” He declared that he was tired of complaining about him to the chief of the departmental council, who did nothing in response. He further stated that he and “all the peasants that support the agrarian reform” had been continually subject to outrages committed by Gutiérrez and his “flunkies.” Gutiérrez was evicting all the peasants who had joined the peasant union from land they had rented for many years. After listing a number of people who had suffered that fate, he concluded by saying, “I could continue giving cases and more concrete cases of the rabia of this señor Casimiro, and asked for the immediate assistance of the agrarian officials. The departmental agrarian council received more than 25 denunciations of Gutiérrez’s property, all of which were under the two caballerías limit set by the law. The council decided to consider all of his property as one, and 13 expropriations occurred; 5 were pending when the Arbenz administration was overthrown; and 4 of his lots were declared unaffected.32

Decree 900 was also rather vague about what constituted proper use of land. This was most important in the case of property used to raise cattle. Landowners were continually claiming land to be fully utilized by pointing to a few head of cattle grazing on it. The agrarian agencies occasionally accepted these arguments, and declared the holdings unaffected by the law. Most often, however, they tended to be skeptical of claims for exemptions based on cattle, and required evidence of significant amounts of the property having been planted in grass and substantial investment in infrastructure. The situation pertaining to forest reserves was even more confusing. The revolutionary governments had made the protection of forests one of their priorities, and the agrarian reform law had stipulated that forest reserves in slopes of greater than 30 percent were exempt. It was probably in this area that the various agencies of the agrarian reform outstepped the bounds of the law most often. While land left in forest reserves was occasionally declared unaffected, significant amounts of land with slopes greater than that were taken under the law.33

Most of these problems were rather minor, although serious for individual landowners. The majority resulted from the need to create a huge bureaucracy in a short period of time to implement the law. In general, there was a definite attempt to abide by requirements of the law in the application of Decree 900, and landowners had substantial opportunity to appeal the decisions of the agrarian agencies, albeit only through executive channels. Most landowners took full advantage ofthat opportunity.

Landlord Reaction

The safeguards and appeal procedures written into the law did little to appease the bulk of landowners who lost or feared losing land under Decree 900. Even before the agrarian reform was passed by congress, the largest landowners’ association, the AGA, had demonstrated its opposition. Landowners’ opposition to the law and to the government continued to grow until the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954. Despite a number of invitations, the AGA refused to collaborate with Decree 900 and to send the representatives to the various organs of the agrarian reform bureaucracy to which it was entitled. Perhaps the association’s perception of the law was best expressed in one advertisement it placed in El Imparcial that asked, “Can a cow give lemonade? The communists cannot make a democratic law” (emphasis added).34

Landowners also attempted to fight Decree 900 through the courts, despite the provision in the decree that declared that they would have no jurisdiction over disputes involving the agrarian reform. The most serious challenge came in the case brought to the Supreme Court by Ernesto Leal Pérez in February 1953. Leal’s finca, Las Conchas in San Pedro Sacatepéquez, had been denounced by 67 peasants in August 1952. Both the departmental and national agrarian councils had ordered that five and one-half of Leal’s seven and one-half caballerías should be expropriated. Despite Leal’s claims that the land was too steep to be affected by the law, Arbenz denied his request for reconsideration and ordered the expropriation carried out. Leal immediately took the case to the courts. The Supreme Court ruled four to one that the expropriation had not been carried out properly. In addition, in a three to two decision it declared that Arbenz had “abused his authority” and ordered that an immediate stop be placed on the process of expropriation of Leal’s property.35

The decision prompted much concern among revolutionary forces; if landlords were allowed to appeal DAN rulings, the process of agrarian reform would be delayed substantially. Consequently, Arbenz, buttressed by an avalanche of telegrams from local agrarian councils, and affiliates of the various revolutionary political parties and organizations, removed the four judges who had ruled against the expropriation. After 39 straight hours of debate, congress approved the dismissals on February 7. The secretary-general of CGTG and Communist party member, Víctor Manuel Gutiérrez, had been one of the most forceful defenders of the actions, arguing, “One can live without tribunals, but one can’t live without land.”36

The dismissal of the judges prompted a number of public demonstrations against the government, in which one person was killed. But protest quickly subsided. At a rally held to support his action, Arbenz demonstrated his decision to continue with the agrarian reform despite all opposition. He vowed, “WHATEVER COMES TO PASS, WHATEVER IT COSTS, with the assistance of the army, and within the law, we will complete the application of the agrarian reform” (emphasis in original). He went on to warn landowners, “We are tired of the maneuvers of the reaction. Despite them, with the Constitution in hand, we will continue fighting for our rights…. But, I want to say publicly … I want to warn the other side, that if they go outside of the law, if they provoke a civil war, we will also fight.”37

Arbenz’s speech marked a major escalation in the conflict over the agrarian reform which was growing more violent. Peasants and rural workers continually complained about the actions of landowners attempting to avoid the law and abusing peasants who denounced land or even joined peasant unions. In some communities the peasants organized self-defense committees before sending official notification to the authorities that they had formed a local agrarian council. The peasant league and the workers’ federation were continually requesting gun licenses, usually to no avail, for their workers in the countryside. Numerous activists were imprisoned by alcaldes of rural communities or the rural civil guard. Many were killed. Peasant leaders were shot, hung, beaten up, set fire to, and run over in rural areas throughout the country. By 1954, after yet another peasant organizer was found hung in Ipala, Chiquimula, the Communist party newspaper denounced “a new wave of oppression against the peasants who are fighting for land,” begun by the “feudal landowners.”38 Not a few landlords, whether “feudal” or not, were killed or beaten too.

Nor was all of the violence associated with the agrarian reform law the result of landlord reaction. At times, the distribution of land taken under the law prompted a mad scramble among various sectors of the rural population. Peasants battled finca workers for land; community fought community; and different factions within peasant villages struggled for preferential treatment. In addition, the extension of political parties and revolutionary organizations into rural areas often aggravated these disputes and led to complaints of corrupt application of the law. While a full discussion of the resulting conflicts is not possible here, it should be noted that they did not easily fit the “revolutionary/reactionary” dichotomy the government favored, yet seriously heightened the violence in rural areas.39

Peasant Organization and Land Invasions

The agrarian reform law was a powerful spur to peasant and rural worker organization in Guatemala. Much of the success of the law can be attributed to the work of peasant and rural worker activists. In many important ways, this was the most important product of the law, as peasant organization and a sympathetic national government meant that the rural poor had, for the first time in over a century, an effective voice in national politics and were increasingly gaining power in local politics. Without this shift in political power, the process of agrarian reform would have been stillborn. Yet, in many ways the increasing demands of the organized rural poor fostered the unrest in the process of agrarian reform and prompted the fateful confrontation between the military and the Arbenz administration that ended the revolution.

The CNCG was formed in May 1950 by members of the teachers’ union and Revolutionary Action party activists. From modest beginnings, it grew steadily, with 275 delegates attending its first national conference in 1951. After the passage of the agrarian reform law, the peasant league blossomed. By August 1952, the league executive claimed to represent 215,000 people in 1,600 locals. By 1954, the communist newspaper claimed the peasant league had 2,500 locals. While a number of people have disputed this larger figure, or even the more moderate earlier one, it is clear that by 1954 there was a functioning peasant local in all but the most isolated and tiny communities. The CNCG was by far the largest organization in Guatemala. The major rural workers’ union linked to the CGTG was a close second.40

The leaders of both organizations worked diligently for peasant and rural worker concerns during the last years of the revolution. Following the agrarian reform, they concentrated much of their effort on facilitating the application of the law in various communities. While occasionally the rivalry between the two organizations led to factional conflicts that delayed implementation of Decree 900 in certain areas and strengthened those opposed to the law, they were invaluable in carrying out the reform, as Arbenz recognized.41

The structure of the agrarian reform agencies ensured an important voice for the peasant league and workers’ federation in the process, at both local and national levels. Arbenz appointed a military officer and trusted confidant, Major Alfonso Martínez, to head the DAN. But the importance of the peasant league and workers’ federation, both of which many people believed to be controlled by communists, and the presence of Waldemar Barrios Klee, another suspected communist, as vice-president of the DAN disturbed many people.42

This concern increased as Decree 900 began to be implemented in the countryside. It quickly became apparent that many people involved in the reform were not prepared to wait for or abide by the decisions of the agrarian agencies. A series of land invasions by peasants and rural workers began in January 1953. In some instances, these invasions simply occupied land already denounced under the law and slated to be distributed. In many cases, however, they forceably occupied land not affected under the terms of the law. Many people blamed the peasant league and worker organizations for the invasions, with some justification. A CGTG organizer and prominent member of the Communist party, Carlos Manuel Pellecer, openly admitted to fostering invasions, and Arbenz subsequently blamed him for much of the unrest. Persistent rumors that the expropriation of some of Arbenz’s property in Escuintla had been preceded by an armed invasion served to confirm suspicions that the government had lost control of the countryside, and that the communists were prepared to take over.43

A careful survey of the available information on these invasions indicates that many were not prompted by national-level peasant organizers but by pressure from the grassroots. The greatest number of these invasions occurred in the early months of 1953 and 1954 at a time when land in many parts of the country needed to be obtained to prepare for seeding. In such cases, “LAND IN THIS MONTH” was a rallying cry. Moreover, despite the rapid alteration in landownership occasioned by the reform, there were constant complaints to the agrarian agencies and the government that the distribution of land was taking too long. Some local organizations were demanding to know why no action had been taken on denunciations almost two years after they had first been made. When land invasions occurred, the national organizations were often informed only after they had been completed—at which point they would sometimes admonish the local leaders for what they had done.44

It is apparent that the peasant league and the workers’ federation trod a thin line between discouraging rural organization and controlling local affiliates that were chafing at the bit and demanding land they had been promised for years. From 1952 to 1954, once it became clear that the sympathetic national government was not going to react vigorously against them, local peasant organizations led assaults on land they had coveted for generations. They needed little prompting from the national organizations to do so.

“Not a Single Step Backwards”

The question remains: why did Arbenz not take a tougher stand against the invasions, force the rural organizations to curtail the activity of their local affiliates, and/or allow the army to move in as it had under Arévalo in the face of peasant unrest in the 1940s? There is no simple answer. The head of the DAN, Alfonso Martínez, clearly tried to bring matters under control on a number of occasions. After a series of land invasions in Escuintle in January 1954, Martínez went to the department of Escuintla for what many considered to be a showdown between Pellecer and himself. Much was made of the fact that Martínez left the country shortly after. It was suggested that Arbenz had failed to back him in the confrontation, and that Martínez’s departure would lead to even greater concessions to communists and other radicals and increased anarchy in the countryside.45

Martínez himself declared that he was going to Switzerland for a heart treatment and that there had been no disagreement between himself and Arbenz, who did not seem overly concerned about the problem. The U.S. Embassy’s explanation, on the other hand, was that Arbenz had been completely won over to the communists.46

Arbenz’s vow before 35,000 supporters in February 1953 that “[w]hatever it costs, whatever comes to pass, the Agrarian Reform will continue” became a slogan employed by many government officials and revolutionary activists to end speeches. In 1954, in the face of increasing calls to curtail radical reforms and move against the communists, the slogan became “Not a single step backwards.” Arbenz clearly believed that, while there were some excesses accompanying the application of the law, the basic purpose of his Decree 900 was being carried out. To congress he suggested that the “line in the sand” he had mentioned earlier had deepened and had more firmly divided the two sides. He warned that lately many of the reactionaries had “struck their breasts and declared that they were with the agrarian reform, but ‘with strict adherence to the law,’ without radicalism and communist extremism…. These words really disguise a new position toward the Agrarian Reform: that it be as superficial as possible.” Arbenz was determined that the reform substantially alter landownership and agricultural production. In addition, he felt little threat from the communists and the rural unrest, believing he could control the former whenever he wished to do so. With the army firmly behind him—as both he and most other observers believed it to be—the greater danger to the revolution stemmed from violent conservative reaction and the invasion force being prepared in Honduras. There appeared to be little to gain and much to lose from a too precipitous restriction of rural organizations.47

There are nevertheless some indications that by the spring of 1954 Arbenz had decided to act firmly against the land invasions. Following the death of two landowners in Escuintla, he ordered an extensive investigation of the violence. His 1954 May Day speech warned against sectarian application of the agrarian reform law and called for it to be applied correctly. Martínez, on his return to the country, declared that the law was to be applied properly and that the invasions would stop. Arbenz, like the national leaders of the peasant league and the workers’ federation, was apparently determined to strike a balance between encouraging a real transformation of land tenure in the country and controlling unrest. He had not, however, made much real progress toward lowering the level of violence by the time he was overthrown.48

The Intervention and the Military

There was never any thought among those involved in the application of the agrarian reform that the nation’s largest landholder, the United Fruit Company, would not be subject to the law. In early 1953, the first expropriation of land belonging to the United Fruit and its subsidiary, Compañía Agrícola, began. By August of that year, over 230,000 of its more than 350,000 manzanas had been expropriated.49 The expropriations of United Fruit Company land were done in a more orderly fashion than was common on other property, primarily because there was little pressure from peasant unions clamoring for the land as was the case elsewhere in the country. Along with its land planted in bananas, the company was left with substantial forest reserves and thousands of manzanas in pasture. It was offered Q609,572 in agrarian bonds in compensation.50

The company fought the expropriations vigorously. Its protests were based on a number of points. The most substantial complaints focused on the amount of land to be expropriated and the compensation offered. The company claimed that much of the land taken from it was in actual use for pasture or forest cover, and should not have been affected. More importantly, the company asserted that because of the prevalence of banana diseases requiring that the infested land be rested and flooded, the company should not be affected by the law at all. Perhaps the most important criticism of all centered on the amount of compensation. For the purposes of Decree 900, the value of land was based on a self-declared tax assessment. As the last rural property assessment had been done in 1935, the revolutionary government called for new assessments in 1945. The new value had to be registered by November 1948. The United Fruit Company submitted its declaration in September 1948 but by April of the next year, perhaps in response to all the discussion of a coming agrarian reform, it asked to have the declared value of its property changed. The government began inspections to rule on the change in June 1951, but the new assessment was never registered. The company therefore declared that the compensation based on the 1948 assessment was not adequate. It claimed Q15,854,849, almost 30 times the amount offered by the government.51

Throughout all of the United Fruit Company’s problems with the revolutionary governments, the U.S. State Department and Embassy were steadfast allies of the company. The attitude of the embassy was aptly summed up by First Secretary Milton Wells. Commenting on labor court rulings concerning a strike at a Guatemalan cement company, he noted, “If the Guatemalans want to handle a Guatemalan company roughly that, again, is none of our business. But if they handle an American company roughly it is our business.” Despite opposition from some people in the embassy, the U.S. mission and the State Department soon became the principal negotiators for the company over the agrarian reform law as well.52

The Guatemalan government reacted as could be expected. Responding to a petition from the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, Guillermo Toriello, noted:

The Agrarian Reform Law is a general law, applicable equally to natural or juridical persons, whether nationals or foreign.… Its application constitutes an act of inherent sovereignty, for which reason the Government of Guatemala could not consider at this time, or in the future, the possibility of making this case a matter for international discussion.53

The government correctly argued that it had not discriminated against United Fruit and that the law was being applied equally to other landowners in the country. It refused steadfastly to negotiate any aspect of its dealings with the company through the embassy.54

The problems the United Fruit Company were experiencing in Guatemala, and the company’s determination to brand the Arbenz regime as communist and focus U.S. attention on the communist threat, have been painstakingly detailed in a number of publications. To be sure, there is some question concerning how much of an impact the United Fruit Company’s troubles had in fostering the Eisenhower administration’s plans for intervention. While these troubles were certainly a contributing factor, it seems apparent that the U.S. government became determined to act against Guatemala because it was convinced that the Arbenz administration was in danger of falling under the control of communists. The increasing importance of people the U.S. administration considered to be communists in the application of the agrarian reform law, and their growing influence in the peasant league and workers’ federation, were important considerations in that regard.55

The Eisenhower administration’s decision to launch Operation Success in an attempt to overthrow the Arbenz administration was an important element in the final defeat of the revolution. But of even more importance was the decision by the majority of senior officers in the Guatemalan military to refuse to defend Guatemala from the Liberation Army invading from Honduras under U.S. tutelage and their decision finally to demand Arbenz’s resignation. The military’s actions were even more closely linked to the application of the agrarian reform law.

Arbenz was intimately wedded to the Guatemalan military, and enjoyed a certain affection from most officers. As president, he attempted to assure military loyalty to his regime and to the precepts of the revolution through a variety of means. He rewarded the military with increased salaries and attractive perquisites ranging from duty-free commissaries to subsidized housing, and preference for many government posts. He also promoted his most trusted officers to sensitive government positions; Major Alfonso Martínez’s appointment as head of the DAN was one of the most important. He further attempted to tie the military to the policies of the revolution through increased army involvement in government programs, most importantly the construction of the highway to the Atlantic.56

Arbenz was restricted in the ways he could win army loyalty, however. Because the 1945 constitution had removed army promotions from the control of the president, he was unable to act decisively to ensure that officers loyal to himself were in important positions of command. This was to have important consequences as the army became increasingly concerned about the application of the agrarian reform law and rural unrest. The Guatemalan military had always jealously guarded its position of dominance in rural Guatemala. From independence to the revolution it was the preeminent—and often the only—national institution that stretched its tentacles into rural areas. Its influence was exerted primarily through a system of military commissioners, rural militias, and a militarized rural police force, the civil guard. The revolution then challenged the military’s dominance in a number of ways. The rural militias were disbanded in 1945; and the army responded by increasing dramatically the number of military commissioners in villages, from two thousand in 1944 to seven thousand by 1947. The civil guard was also reorganized after the revolution and reorganized again and nominally demilitarized in 1949.57

In the early years of the revolution, the military had been quick to intervene, often brutally, against rural unrest or labor organization among rural workers. After the agrarian reform law was passed and the peasant league and workers federation developed into powerful, often antagonistic rural organizations, conflict between the military and peasant and rural worker organizers increased dramatically. The revolutionary organizations realized the need for civil guard commanders and military commissioners sympathetic to peasant needs and in agreement with the ideals of the revolution. There was some attempt to achieve this through a rapprochement between the military command and the DAN. The military was given representation in most of the government organizations active in the countryside, including the CAN, where Major Rafael Arreaga was the army s representative. Under Decree 900, peasants and workers serving their stint in the army could receive land, an important detail if local land tenure arrangements were to be altered while a peasant was away in the army. In addition, the government promoted army/peasant cooperation through a series of advertisements. The most striking was a picture of a soldier lighting a cigarette for a peasant under which the caption read, “THIS WAS IMPOSSIBLE UNDER THE TYRANNY OF UBICO! TODAY THE FRIENDSHIP OF THE ARMY AND WORKERS is founded in the common interest in the land, in democracy, and the dignity of the fatherland.”58

Nevertheless, conflict between the revolutionary organizations on one side and the military on the other emerged almost immediately after the passage of Decree 900. There were constant complaints to the leaders of the peasant league and workers’ federation from their locals about the arbitrary actions of civil guard commanders and military commissioners, linking them to local landowners or reactionary municipal authorities. According to the reports, peasant organizers were arbitrarily arrested or forced from communities, and some of those arrested were never heard from again.59

On the other hand, by late 1953 and early 1954, the peasant league and workers’ federation enjoyed increasing influence in the appointment of these local military representatives. The support that Leonardo Castillo Flores and Víctor Manuel Gutiérrez, the heads of the CNCG and CGTG respectively, received from Arbenz and from the sympathetic head of the civil guard, Major Cruz Wer, meant they were able to control much of the posting of civil guard commanders in the country. Local commanders even began writing to them when trying to advance their careers in the civil guard. Cruz Wer’s support was obvious. In late 1953, he issued a circular warning commanders they would be disciplined if they stood in the way of the “proletarian masses” in the implementation of agrarian reform. The U.S. Embassy interpreted the circular as “clearly a warning to the regular army officers who command the police that their careers would suffer if they resisted the Arbenz administration’s leftist program by impartiality in the class struggle or more specifically attempted to oppose the communist-oriented CGTG and CNCG which were stimulating land seizures.”60

These organizations also attempted to have unsympathetic military commissioners censured or removed from their posts by the army. The chief of staff, Colonel Enrique Díaz, was not Cruz Wer. He was much more powerful and independent than the other; he was not particularly close to Arbenz, although he professed some affection for him; and he represented a military that did not completely agree with Arbenz’s agrarian policies. Requests for action against military commissioners were always couched in the most polite terms, and they were often turned down. Nevertheless, with Arbenz’s support, Gutiérrez and Castillo Flores were able to have many military commissioners removed.61

By late 1953, sporadic measures to get rid of uncooperative commanders and commissioners turned into a full-fledged campaign. Castillo Flores wrote local peasant unions asking for lists of people in either position who were part of the “reaction.” Requests for their transfer became more frequent and insistent. At the same time, there were rumors that the military was going to move against rural unrest on its own in defiance of the president. The military command became increasingly concerned about its loss of control in rural areas. In 1954, a Superior Defense Council commission reported on conditions in the countryside with alarm. Citing the earlier disbanding of the militias, it warned, “We encounter at this date the following panorama: TOTAL LACK OF CONTROL AND ABSOLUTE MILITARY DISORGANIZATION of the militias.” The commission went on to suggest that the military would be unable to mobilize effectively in the face of attack. While much of the report was framed as a discussion of the military’s ability to defend the country, it was also obviously aimed at countering the influence of the peasant league and workers’ federation in the countryside. These fears were heightened in the months before the overthrow of Arbenz by his half-hearted attempts to arm peasant and worker militias. While Arbenz did not see these actions as opposition to the military, many officers in the high command were alarmed by the plan and made certain that the militias would receive no arms.62

The increasing strength of the peasant league and workers’ federation in rural areas, coupled with the disarray apparent in the military’s rural apparatus, raised grave fears among many officers over their ability to control those organizations. The support they received from the president and the apparent impunity with which local affiliates of these organizations broke the law, invaded property not affected by Decree 900, and provoked escalating unrest in the army’s traditional domain, prompted much bitterness. In addition, the manner in which they had been able to use their influence with the president to meddle in the assigning of military positions, matters over which the military was extremely jealous, caused a growing opposition movement toward the president to develop among officers not aligned with either conservative or radical factions and somewhat ambivalent about the goals of the revolution; they easily made up the majority of officers.

As early as August 1953, Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia reported to U.S. Ambassador Schoenfeld that the military high command was “closely watching the movements of communist leaders” and suggested that there was a movement afoot against Arhenz. On June 5, 1954, the top military commanders presented Arhenz with a list of questions concerning his connections to the communists and their influence on him. After some delay, a meeting with a much larger group of officers was held on June 14 for Arhenz to answer their concerns. The officers apparently gave Arhenz 24 hours to reply more fully to their demands to get rid of the communists and control the agrarian reform process.63

In the midst of this pressure, the Liberation Army entered Guatemala on June 17, and on June 18 bombing raids flown from bases in Nicaragua began. The military knew it could easily repel the Liberation Army and Arhenz was still confident the military would defend the government. But, the Army high command had had enough. After a few days of indecision, the army chief of staff. Colonel Díaz; the president of the Superior Defense Council, Colonel Sarti; and the minister of defense, Colonel Parrinello, entered the presidential palace leaving behind instructions that the palace he surrounded by artillery if they did not come out shortly, and informed Arbenz they demanded his resignation. Arbenz would not attempt to rule without the support of the military, and a few hours later on June 27, he resigned his position in a radio address. The revolution had effectively ended.64


The agrarian reform was the cornerstone of the Guatemalan revolution, indispensable for the maintenance and continuation of the social and economic transformation envisioned by Arhenz and the reformers who surrounded him. Without it, there was little of permanence in the reforms that preceded it. For eight years following the resignation of the last Liberal dictator, Jorge Ubico, pressure had been building, both among national organizations and in the countryside, for a significant alteration in land tenure in the country. Finally, in 1952, realizing he would lose all credibility and much of his support if he refused, Arhenz proposed the Guatemalan agrarian reform law, Decree 900. The measure was intended to begin a fundamental economic and social transformation.

The Guatemalan agrarian reform law was, in many ways, well constructed and was almost immediately successful in beginning that transformation. The various agrarian agencies, despite the increasingly violent opposition to the law from landowners, attempted to apply the law fairly and in most cases legally. However, central to the Guatemalan agrarian reform was the active participation and organization of Guatemala's rural poor. Without this, without a very real transfer of power in rural areas to the organized peasantry and rural workers, the agrarian reform could not take hold. Assisted by the national organizations, their vigorous pursuit of land through the agrarian reform agencies and their willingness to confront the reaction of landowners allowed the agrarian reform to function and began the transformation of landholding in Guatemala.

In the process, peasant organizations occasionally paid little attention to the restraints imposed by Decree 900. Rural agitation and land invasions heightened opposition to the reform. Arbenz was prepared to accept a measure of unrest, unrest he felt he could easily control, if it would contribute to the transformation he envisioned. But the decision left him open to charges that his government was dominated by communists, who were believed to be most active in organizing the peasantry and responsible for much of the unrest. This, in turn, redoubled the efforts of the U.S. administration to remove his government and temper the revolution.

Most importantly, however, the concern over communist influence heightened opposition in the Guatemalan military, which, in many ways, already saw itself in the middle of a struggle lor power with both local peasant unions and their national organizations. The military was increasingly alarmed over the growing level of violence in the countryside and was determined to force the president to control it. When Arbenz refused to curtail the reform, even in the face of the invasion by the Liberation Army, the military command moved against him. The “most precious fruit of the revolution,” perhaps unavoidably, set in motion a chain of circumstances that ultimately led to the revolution’s destruction.


Jacobo Arbenz, Informe … al congreso … 1953 (Guatemala City, 1953), 6.


The best known of these works are Stephen Kinzer and Stephen Schlesinger, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (Garden City, NY, 1982); José Aybar de Soto, Dependency and Intervention: The Case of Guatemala in 1954 (Boulder, 1978); and Susanne Jonas-Bodenheimer, Plan piloto para el continente (San José, Costa Rica, 1981).


See José Luis Paredes Moreira, Reforma agraria: Una experiencia en Guatemala (Guatemala City, 1963) and Jesús García Añoveros, La reforma agraria de Arbenz en Guatemala (Madrid, 1987). The former is primarily a technical discussion of the agrarian reform, and the latter is based on scanty research and draws few conclusions from the reform. The best work on the agrarian reform and its implications is Edelberto Torres-Rivas, “Crisis y coyuntura crítica: La caída de Arbenz y los contratiempos de la revolución burguesa,” Revista Mexicana de Sociología, 41:1 (Jan.-Mar., 1979), 297-323.


George Lovell, “Landholding in Spanish Central America: Patterns of Ownership and Activity in the Cuchumatán Highlands of Guatemala,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 8 (1983), 214-230; John Hawkins, Inverse Images: The Meaning of Culture, Ethnicity and Family in Postcolonial Guatemala (Albuquerque, 1984); and Robert M. Carmack, John Early, and Christopher Lutz, eds., The Historical Demography of Highland Guatemala (Albany, 1982).


David McCreery, “Coffee and Class: The Structure of Development in Liberal Guatemala”, HAHR, 56:3 (Aug. 1976), 438-460 and his “Debt Servitude in Rural Guatemala, 1876-1936,” HAHR, 63:4 (Nov. 1983), 735-759.


Censo agropecuario 1950 (Guatemala City, 1954) I, 17-34.


Manuel F. Chavarría, president of the technical council of the Ministry of Agriculture, in El Imparcial, May 9, 1947. (All newspapers are published in Guatemala City and references begin on page one unless otherwise stated.)


Proclamation of the Vanguardia Nacional reprinted in El Imparcial, Feb. 1, 8, 1945; Carlos Manuel Pellecer quotation comes from Diario de sesiones: Asamblea constituyente ele 1945 (Guatemala City, 1951), 740-748.


Tile Guatemalan constitution is reprinted in Kalman H. Silvert, A Study in Government: Guatemala (New Orleans, 1954).


See Félix J. Osequeda, “Sistemas de explotación de la tierra en Guatemala” and Manuel Villacorta Escobar, “Necesidad de un reajuste en el tamaño de la explotación agrícola,” in El mes económico y financiero, May 31, 1947, p. 1 and Jan. 1950, pp. 1, 18-19; “Declaraciones de los principios y bases fundamentales del programa político del PAR aprobados en sesión plenaria de la convención nacional celebrada el 18 de noviembre de 1946, located in the Guatemalan Documents, Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, box 1 (hereafter Guat. Doc.); Norman Stines, third secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City to the State Department, Nov. 1, 1946, in U.S. National Archives, General Records of the Department of State, Decimal Series, 814 (subfile numbers are not available) (hereafter USNA-DS); and El Imparcial, June 21, 1945.


See. for example. the Carátula para expediente for the national finca. Rejón de Osuna, which was parceled out to workers on Oct. 27. 1948. The Carátula is located in records of the Departamento Agrario Nacional (DAN). Fincas Nacionales section, in the Archivos Generales del Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria (hereafter INTA). Guatemala City.


El Imparcial. Apr. 14, 1945.


The landowners association cited in El Imparcial, june 14. 1947 See also Acción Social Cristiana, July 19, 1945, p. 3.


For political parties, see El Impartial, Feb. 20. 1950 and Nuestro Diario, June 2, 1950. Most of Arbenz’s election speeches can be found in the State Department records. For example, see despatches of J. Fisher, June 9, July 11, 1950, USNA-DS 714. The Arbenz quote comes from Discursos del doctor Juan José Arénalo y del teniente coronel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán en el acto de transmisión de la presidencia de la república, 15 de marzo de 1951 (Guatemala City, 1951), 26-27.


El Libertador, June 30, 1951, cited in J. Sloan, “The Electoral Game in Guatemala” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas, 1969), 33-34.


Octubre, May 15, 1952.


Most of the various proposals for an agrarian reform were reprinted in Transformación económica; Hacia una reforma agraria (Guatemala City, 1951). See Diario de Centroamérica, Apr. 6, 1951 for a reprint of the Gutiérrez-Humberto proposal.


“Translation of Agrarian Reform Project of Law submitted by the president to Congress, May 10, 1952,” in “Guatemala, Political and Economic Conditions,” Record Group 20, vol. 1, Public Archives of Canada.


Crítica al proyecto de Ley Agraria de la Asociación General de Agricultores (AGA) (Guatemala City, 1952).


Decreto 900. Ley de reforma agraria (Guatemala City, 1952).


Arbenz, Informe al congreso … 1953, 9-10.


El Imparcial, July 15, Aug. 1, 1952; letter from Clodoveo Torres Moss, peasant league representative on CAN to secretary general of the peasant union in San Vicente Pacaya, Escuintla, Oct. 14, 1952 in Gnat. Doc., reel 50. For accounts of the first land being given out from national fincas, see Diario de Centroamérica, Aug. 7, 1952. See Carátula para expediente against Samuel Padilla, DAN records, private fincas, Department of Suchitepéquez, INTA, for the first expropriation.


This total comes from the Carátulas para expedientes, DAN records, private fincas, INTA.


Arbenz, Informe al congreso … 1954, 11-12; Tribuna Popular, May 1, 1952, p. 10 and June 19, 1954, p. 5.


Tribuna Popular, Nov. 20, 1953, p. 2; Diario de Centroamérica, Nov. 30, 1953; W. Krieg, first secretary of U.S. Embassy to Dept. of State, Nov. 23, 1953, USNA-DS, 714; El Impartial, Jan. 3, 1953; and Carátulas para expedientes, private fincas, Alta Verapaz for expropriation of Edwin Deiseldorf’s finca fíaxpec and private fincas, Escuintla, for expropriation of Toriello’s Torolita finca, INTA.


Exps., INTA.


See, for example, the exp. against Federico Rosengarten’s finca Santo Tomas, that was turned down because his property was an efficient té de limón farm, or against José María Valladeres’s in San Miguel Ixcanal that was turned down because the property hosted three hundred head of cattle; exps., INTA.


See the exps. against María Teresa Larraondo’s finca in Palin, Escuintla, INTA.


Exps. against his property in INTA. Quote comes from letter from Eduardo Sosa, inspector for DAN to Pinto, May 28, 1954.


Exps., INTA. The report from the perito agrónomo, director general of agrarian affairs, Oct. 17, 1956 and letter from Miguel Pérez and Juan Antonio Cruz to the director general on Jan. 4, 1956 are also located in the file.


See, for example, the exps. against the finca Alto Egipto owned by Julio del Calderón and the finca owned by Herlinda Portillo called El Rosario, in Sololá, INTA.


See the letter from Eusebio Álvarez Mejía, Cantón Pachoj, to the chief of the DAN, May 4, 1954 in the exps. against Gutíerrez’s property in the municipio of Santa Cruz del Quiché, INTA.


There are numerous complaints about forest reserve property being taken in the exps.


El Impartial, June 5, 1952. Emphasis added.


See the exps. against his property in San Pedro Sacatepéquez, INTA. Also see El Imparcial, Jan. 20. 1952.


In Guat. Doc., box 3 there is a whole folder of telegrams of support. For the Gutiérrez quote, see Octubre, Feb. 12, 1953.


Arbenz quoted in Octubre, Feb. 12, 1953. On demonstrations see U S. Ambassador R. Schoenfeld to Dept. of State, Feb. 13, 1953, USNA-DS, 814.


Quotation comes from Tribuna Popular, Jan. 5, 1954, p. 8. For accounts of attacks on peasant leaders see telegram to Castillo Flores from Alfredo Tki Cucul, local agrarian council (hereafter CAL), Carchá, Alta Verapaz, Oct. 30, 1953. Guat. Doc., box 10; telegram to Castillo F. from srio. gen. of the peasant union, Santa Ana Huista, Huehuetenango, Nov. 7, 1952, Guat. Doc., box 10; letter to the workers’ federation from CAL, finca Las Delicias, Villa Canales, Oct. 26, 1952, and letter to federation from local in finca Morelia, Santa Sofía, Escuintla, Sept. 9, 1952, both in Guat. Doc., reel 3. On the formation of self-defense committees see letter to workers federation from the CAL, finca Alapa, La Reforma, San Marcos, June 29, 1952, Guat. Doc., reel 3.


For a fuller discussion see Jim Handy, “Resolution and Reaction: National Policy and Rural Politics in Guatemala, 1944-1954” (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1985), 302-359.


For the first congress see Diario ele Centroamérica, Feb. 3, 1951. For the other estimates, see Schoenfeld to Dept. of State, Aug. 21, 1952, USNA-DS, 714; open letter from C. Torres Moss, secretary of information for the peasant league, Oct. 9, 1952 in Guat. Doc., reel 50; Tribuna Popular, Feb. 2, 1954, p. 3. There is mention of or correspondence concerning slightly more than eight hundred peasant unions in the Guat. Doc. and other records. Many did not make their way into the records.


Letters and telegrams from the workers’ federation and the peasant league explaining how to apply for land abound in the Guat. Doc. For one example, see the letter from the srio. gen. of the peasant union, Panzos 1, Pueblo Nuevo, to Castillo F., Jan. 1, 1954 and Castillo’s reply, Jan. 8, 1954, both in Guat. Doc., reel 50.


See Schoenfeld to Dept. of State, July 2, 1952, USNA-DS, 714; El Imparcial, July 1, 1952; Diario de Centroaméríca, July 1, 1952; and Tribuna Popular, Mar. 20, 1954, p. 2.


On invasions see W. Krieg, first secretary of the U.S. Embassy to Dept. of State, May 14, 1954, USNA-DS, 714; Swiss consul to minister of external relations. Mar. 4, 1953, Guat. Doc. box 10; El Imparcial, Jan. 22, 23, 24, 26, 1953 and Carátulas para exps., finca Loma de Lashin, Mixco, Guatemala, DAN records, INTA. For Arbenz blaming Pellecer, see M. Cehelsky, “Habla Arbenz, su juicio histórico retrospectivo,” Alero, 3a época, 8 (1975), 120-121. For rumors of the invasion of Arbenz’s property, see an interview with Pellecer in Tribuna Popular, Jan. 15, 1954.


See the petition from CAL and the peasant union, finca El Guapinol, Malacatán, San Marcos to GAN, May 31, 1954, Guat. Doc., reel 51; letter from the srio. de actas, finca El Faro, to Gutiérrez, June 18, 1952, Guat. Doc., reel 2. For examples of Castillo and Gutiérrez being presented with invasions that had already been carried out, see telegram to Castillo from the president of CAL, Escuintla, Oct. 5, 1953, Guat. Doc., reel 50; telegram to the workers’ federation from the srio. gen. de la federación campesina, Suehitepéquez, Jan. 28, 1953, Guat. Doc., reel 4; and telegram to the workers’ federation, from srio. del campesinado de Buena Vista, Jan. 8, 1953, Guat. Doc., reel 4.


Krieg, first secretary of the U.S. Embassy to Dept. of State, Jan. 22, Mar. 1, 1954, USNA-DS, 714.


La Horn, Feb. 23, 1954.


Octubre, May 7, 1953 and Arbenz, Informe al congreso … 1954, 2.


Krieg to Dept. of State, Apr. 9, 1954, USNA-DS, 714 and letter from Martínez to srio. gen. of the workers’ federation, June 9, 1954, Guat. Doc., reel 9.


Schoenfeld to Dept. of State, Aug. 14, 1953, USNA-DS, 714; Cleveland McKnight, economic attache to Dept. of State, Nov. 5, 1953, USNA-DS, 814; Tribuna Popular, Nov. 22, 1953, p.·5·


Diario ele Centroamérica, Nov. 16, 1953; exps. against Compañía Agrícola in separate file, DAN records, INTA.


State Department memorandum, Apr. 28, 1953, USNA-DS, 814; Diario de Centroamérica, Sept. 21, 23, 1953; and State Department memorandum, May 24, 1954, in Guat. Doc., box 1.


Quotation in Milton Wells to Dept. of State, May 17, 1950, USNA-DS, 714. Emphasis in original.


Included in Schoenfeld to Dept. of State, June 26, 1953, USNA-DS, 714.


See ad for DAN in Tribuna Popular, Sept. 11, 1953.


For a discussion of the company’s relations with the government see Luis Cardoza y Aragón, “Guatemala y el imperio bananero,” Cuadernos Americanos, 74 (Mar.-Apr., 1954), 19-45; CIA Research Reports, Latin America, reel 5, SR-46, July 27, 1950, and author’s interview with Krieg, in Antigua, Guatemala, Feb. 1983. For a fuller discussion of this point, see Handy, “Revolution and Reaction,” 362-384.


Él Impartial, July 6, 1951; Octubre, Aug. 22, 1951; CIA Research Reports, “Coronel Castillo Armas,” Jan. 19, 1950, reel 5.


Juan José Arévalo, Informe al congreso1950, 19. The number of military commissioners comes from Cehelsky, “Habla Arbenz,” 118-225. The number printed in the article is 70,000. This is either a misprint or an exaggeration on Arbenz’s part.


See Cehelsky, “Habla Arbenz,” 121; Tribuna Popular, Aug. 15, 1953; Castillo Flores to Colonel Díaz, June 4, 1952, Guat. Doc., box 10.


See El Imparcial, Dec. 18, 1951; Octubre, Mar. 6, 1952; telegram from the srio. gen. of the peasant union, Casillas, Nuevo Santa Rosa to Castillo, Jan. 17, 1954, Guat. Doc., reel 52; and letter from the peasant league executive to the editor of the Diario de Centroamérica, Feb. 26, 1954.


For the Cruz Wer circular, see Schoenfeld to Dept. of State, Aug. 12, 14, 1953, USNA-DS, 714. Also see Krieg despatch, May 14, 1954, ibid. Castillo Flores to director of the civil guard, Jan. 18, 1953, Jan. 30, Feb. 4, May 13, 1954, all in Guat. Doc., box 10.


Castillo Flores to Colonel Díaz, Apr. 23, 1953, Guat. Doc., reel 52; secretary of the chief of the armed forces to Castillo Flores, Jan. 24, 1954, Guat. Doc., box 1; Castillo Flores to Díaz, June 13, 1952, Guat. Doc., box 1.


Otilio Marroquín R., member of the executive of the peasant league, to all peasant unions in the department of Guatemala, June 16, 1954, Guat, Doc., reel 50; plan presented by the Superior Defense Council, May 19, 1954, in Guat. Doc., box 1; Cehelsky, "Habla Arbenz,” 123; “Current Intelligence Digest,” June 3, 1954 in CIA Research Reports, reel 5 and U.S. Ambassador J. Peurifoy to Dept. of State, June 21, 1954, USNA-DS, 714.


See memorandum of conversation between Schoenfeld and Peralta, Aug. 21, 1953, USNA-DS, 714; “Current Intelligence Digest," June 15, 17, 1954, in CIA Research Reports, reel 5; Cehelsky, “Habla Arbenz,” 122-123; and Impacto, June 30, July 25, 1954.


Cehelskv, “Habla Arbenz,” 123; Peurifoy to Dept. of State, June 28, 1954, USNA-DS. 714.