From Heaven to Hell In the United States we often look to European and African countries for examples of dictatorship, civil war, inequality and genocide. In the 1990s, several countries experienced mass exodus, civil war, race war, religious war, and genocide. Yugoslavias Serbian population attempted to cleanse itself of Muslims and Croats, in Rwanda the Hutu population exterminated almost the entire Tutsi population, while in East Timor and several other countries refugees fled from the tyranny of “their” government. Less often however do we look, or even realize that our neighbors to the south are experiencing remarkably similar acts of violence, hate, and misuse of power. Bordered mostly by Mexico, Belize, and Honduras Guatemala is known for its volcanoes, exquisite beaches, gorgeous landscapes, ancient Mayan ruins, and a unique culture.
However, it is also a country tainted by oppression, injustice, servitude, racial inequality, and genocide. Andrew Miller, a Penn State University student describes Guatemala: “Guatemala, it has been said, is a country of extremes. Within can be witnessed the riches of breathtaking scenery, natural resources and cultural diversity. Simultaneously, however, one sees extreme poverty and exploitation of indigenous peoples which characterize the countrys history.” Another view, by Jean-Marie Simon, describes the Guatemalan dark side, the reality of all Guatemalans. “Guatemala is a place where the political, economic, and social panorama is unfairly skewed in every possible way.
.. In Guatemala, life gets better for a minority, at the expense of millions of others.” After centuries of race and class wars, Guatemala teetered between peace and war during the “ten years of spring,” or ten years of democracy. Unfortunately, Guatemala finally plunged into complete darkness and genocide followed. Guatemalas genocide now serves humanity, along with all other occurrences of genocide, as a reminder that we are all capable of committing acts of horror. History is the only reference that humanity has to use to answer the “unanswerable questions” that surround any genocide.
The questions include why and how could this have ever happened, and what makes humans capable of terror? Through understanding and studying the causation and actual genocide in Guatemala, it may be possible to shed some light on the questions that humanity faces. What, one may ask, causes a country with such obvious beauty and potential to recess into a shadow of hate, racism, and classism that can only lead to one result, genocide? Guatemala was not always teetering between genocide and no genocide. Rather the genocide that occurred in Guatemala happened as a result of a sort of evolution from a dictatorship to “a largely peaceful revolution” to conditions embracing hate, violence, and finally genocide. Several factors influenced this transition from relative peace to extreme violence. Economic issues regarding land and labor fueled the fire, as did political issues.
In fact, the United States of America greatly contributed to the violence by training Guatemalan police in torture tactics in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “Between 1956 and 1963 annual U.S. military assistance to Guatemala multiplied by tens times.” Conflicts between races and classes also contributed to the evolution. However, what remains amazing about Guatemalas genocide is that it followed ten years of a relatively peaceful revolution from 1944 when Ubico was overthrown to 1954 when President Arbenz resigned (due to a coup led by the United States). In his history of Guatemala, Gift of the Devil Jim Handy, a Central America historian describes those ten years as “Ten Years of Spring.” Nevertheless, and while generally peaceful, the national revolution between 1944 and 1954 provided Guatemala with a foundation for decades of racial injustice, economic and political inequality, and “the worst genocide in the Americas since the first arrival of the Europeans.” General Jorge Ubico, who Handy describes as “the archetype of Guatemalan dictators,” led the dictatorship that existed before the ten years of spring. “To many Guatemalans, the rule of Jorge Ubico too closely resembled the European and Japanese fascist dictatorships they were now joined in struggle against.” During the last years of Ubicos reign, from the late 1930s to the early 1940s, Guatemala experienced a growth of workers, small businessmen, professionals, and students.
While the indigenous and poor workers of Guatemala were the most involved in the opposition to Ubico, all of these groups of Guatemalans proved critical to the revolution as they led the desire for reform. They sought a new leader as well as economic and social reforms. Finally in 1944, students, workers, professionals, intellectuals, and young military officers overthrew Ubico. A year later, in 1945, a teacher was appropriately named president, Juan Jos Arvalo. Juan Jos Arvalo wanted to create a capitalist economy while leading a democratic and nationalistic revolution that was sympathetic to the working man and woman. In his inaugural speech he proclaimed, “Now we are going to begin a period of sympathy for the man who works in the fields, in the shops, on the military bases, [and] in small business.” This is a monumental proclamation.
In Guatemala it was and remains rare for any political figure with power to openly support the indigenous majority. For decades, the white minority had ruled with an iron fist creating barely bearable living conditions for the working man, woman, and child. Arvalo sought to change all this, and began by signing into law the 1945 Constitution. The 1945 Constitution reflected Arvalos first four political reforms. First, the constitution created new voting regulations.
This is a substantial reform because it allowed illiterate men and literate women the right to vote. As well, the new voting regulations allowed Guatemala to catch up in voting rights with fully developed democratic nations. In the United States the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920, the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote in the US in 1870. The second major provision of the 1945 Constitution attacked Guatemalas history of dictatorships. It prevented the re-election of any president.
This, in theory, ensured that Guatemala would no longer be subjugated to dictatorial rule and ensured democracy for the future. Thirdly, the new Constitution required the military to be apolitical and uphold the 1945 Constitutional decrees. Making the military apolitical is another device that Arvalo used to prevent future dictatorships. An apolitical military is only a tool for the government, and cannot act as the government in any way, thus preventing a man like General Jorge Ubico from taking power. Finally, the 1945 Constitution paid tribute to the students who had fueled Ubicos overthrow.
The Constitution allocated money to the University of San Carlos and granted it autonomy and the right of association. This of course ensured that there would always be students and intellectuals to counter aspirations of dictatorial rule. Arvalo did not stop his reformation of Guatemala with the 1945 Constitution; in fact, he almost immediately embarked on creating health and social reforms for Guatemala. Truly revolutionary, the health and social reforms instituted under Arvalo targeted the poor and working class individual. The first four reforms focused on health and safety issues, while the fifth and sixth reforms were social in nature.
Arvalo first instituted rural health clinics, and then projects to provide potable water in isolated villages. White Cross-clinics were also set up and the infrastructure improved in the poor neighborhoods of the cities. To ensure a healthier lifestyle Arvalo set up sewage systems in poor neighborhoods as well. The social reforms included a higher income (wage reform) and freedom for unions to organize and operate, which Ubico did not allow during his dictatorship. In 1946, Arvalo also instituted the Social Security Law and began his school reform that would last until 1950.
The Social Security Law did several things for Guatemala to ensure good health and prosperity. It “establish[ed] the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS) and provid[ed] injury compensation, maternity benefits and health care.” The school reforms Arvalo created from 1946 to 1950 also did several things to ensure future prosperity for Guatemala and all its citizens. Arvalo allocated more money to schools for the expansion and improvement of the schools, and instituted literacy campaigns. “By 1950 the Arvalo government was spending over $7 million on educational projects.” Never before had the Guatemalan government cared for or spent so much on the education of not just the white minority but also the indigenous and peasant majority. The ten years of spring also saw major attempts at labor and wage reform under Arvalo. In 1947, the Arvalo government passed into law the Labour Code. The Labour Code took steps towards providing economic equality and dignity for all Guatemalans. This is significant because it attempted to bridge the gap between the elite minority and poor majority.
The Labor Code first provided workers with the right to strike. Before the Arvalos Labor Code workers who went on strike faced serious punishments including torture, imprisonment, and even death. While the Labour Code did not completely abolish such acts of employer violence, it at least made them illegal and punishable under the law. The Labour Code also gave workers the right to collective bargaining, which is a tool for unions. In addition, the code set minimum wages, restricted child and female labor, and legislated working hours.
Finally, the Labour Code created labor courts. Designed to deal with “labor-management” problems the labor courts often “reimbursed [workers] for lost wages if a strike was found to be the fault of [the] management.” In addition, in 1947, the Arvalo government created the Agrarian Studies Commission. The government designed the commission to evaluate the use and ownership of Guatemalas lands and to study agrarian reform in other countries, with the intent of producing a report with recommendations for agrarian reform in Guatemala. Arvalo also in 1947 abolished the Vagrancy Law and adopted Law(s) of Forced Rental. Positive outcomes from Arvalos reforms included wage increases, creation of unions and relative peace in a normally, internally hostile country.
“Urban wages increased 80 percent during Arvalos term in office.” The National Institute to Encourage Production (INFOP) was created as a result of Arvalos desire to create a society with equality for all. As well, INFOP promoted indigenous enterprises and acted as the director of development. INFOP sought to accomplish its tasks in a “socially productive manner.” As well, the right to strike proved to be an effective reform. In 1950 “a series of strikes on government-owned fincas.. soon spread to large private estates, with the result that at least on many large fincas wages went from 5 to 20 cents a day to 80 cents.” Thus, the poor indigenous working class reaped social and economic benefits during Arvalos presidency.
Unfortunately, six years was not enough time for the revolution to reach or change much of Guatemala. “The pattern of minifundia-latifundia remained intact and the bulk of the population in the highland left with.. little land.” Neither did the balance of power in Guatemala change. The white landowners maintained their dominance over the economy while also retaining political influence. Arvalo addressed the problem of the landowners upon leaving office. “To achieve [reform] in Guatemala we had to combat the peculiar economic and social system .. of a country in which the culture, politics and economy were in the hands of 300 families.” The church, which opposed the revolution openly, also maintained influence over society and the people of Guatemala.
The church is one of three forces that opposed Arvalos reforms and revolution. The landowners of Guatemala also opposed Arvalo, as did the military. While the church and landowners were not easily reckoned with, the military posed the most serious threat to Arvalo. The most serious challenge Arvalo and his government overcame was an attempted coup by Arana supporters in the military. The attempted coup occurred following Colonel Francisco Aranas death in 1949. While the Arvalo government successfully resisted the coup attempt, it left 150 dead and 300 wounded.
Following the attempted coup Arvalo replaced a forth of the militarys officers. This was not the only coup attempted on the Arvalo administration. In fact, the Arvalo administration withstood 30 attempted coups. Arvalo and his administration were also was subjugated to propaganda created by the press and military. The military and press both worked together to create a communist image for Arvalo.
To Guatemalans, “communism had long been used.. to defame any movement towards social reform.” Thus, the military and press essentially told the public that Arvalo did not seek social reform, but wanted to maintain the social and racial injustices from the past. While Arvalo was not actually a communist, the propaganda remained a serious threat …