Juan José Arévalo

Juan José Arévalo

From 1944 to 1954 Guatemala experienced an unprecedented democratic opening that began with the overthrow of the 13-year dictatorship of Jorge Ubico (1931–44) and ended with a coup d’état against president Jacobo Arbenz (1951–54), orchestrated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Serving as president during the first six years of that democratic opening (March 15, 1945, to March 15, 1951), and instituting far-reaching constitutional, social, and labor reforms, was the former university professor and “spiritual socialist” Juan José Arévalo.

In the early 1940s a protest movement against Ubico erupted in Guatemala, centered on the cities and spearheaded by university students, professionals, and disgruntled military officers. Ubico resigned on July 1, 1944. The three-man military junta that assumed power oversaw national elections, widely considered the fairest in Guatemalan history up to that time. Arévalo won around 85 percent of the vote.

Arévalo was born in Taxisco, Guatemala, on September 10, 1904. At age 30, he traveled to Argentina, earning a doctorate in philosophy and teaching at the University of Tucumán. With Ubico’s overthrow, Arévalo returned to Guatemala and became the favorite of the protest movements that had ousted Ubico. In his inaugural address he outlined his vision of the “spiritual socialism” that would guide his administration.

A complex and not entirely coherent political philosophy, Arévalo’s spiritual socialism emphasized the interests of working people, social justice, individual and collective rights, and respect for the dignity of ordinary people, including Guatemala’s large indigenous population.

One of his administration’s first steps was to promulgate the constitution of 1945, which expanded the franchise to all illiterate males and literate females age 18 and older; forbade presidential reelection; and guaranteed the autonomy of Guatemala City’s University of San Carlos, with funding at 2 percent of the national budget.

There followed a series of broad-ranging reforms in public health, social security, education, and labor relations akin to the New Deal in the United States. Government expenditures on public health, including rural health clinics and potable water projects, expanded dramatically. The Social Security Law of 1946 created the Guatemalan Social Security Institute. Spending on education, literacy programs, and school construction rose 155 percent from 1946 to 1950.

The 1947 Labor Code guaranteed workers’ rights to unionize, strike, and bargain collectively; mandated minimum wages; and limited child and female wage labor. An especially delicate issue on which Arévalo tread lightly was land reform.

Most of the country’s arable land was owned by a small landowning elite and, on the Caribbean littoral, by the United Fruit Company, with its huge banana plantations. Establishing an Agrarian Studies Commission in 1947, and guaranteeing certain rights for rural laborers in wages, rents, and housing, for the most part Arévalo left the land tenure issue alone.

His successor, Jacobo Arbenz, instituted major agrarian reforms, provoking the opposition of powerful conservative elements within Guatemala, the United Fruit Company, and the Eisenhower administration. Arbenz was ousted in a coup in June 1954, ushering in a prolonged period of military dictatorship. Arévalo died in Guatemala City on October 6, 1990.