Background Information


Terms:

finca: plantation

campesino: peasant- used loosely to include Guatemalans who farm a piece of land and/or hired agricultural workers

latifundios: giant privately-owned farms

expropriate: to take away from a person the possession or right to property

export: to send to foreign countries

import: to bring in merchandise into a place or country from a foreign or external source

land under cultivation: land being used to grow crops

advocate (v.): to plead in favor of


Facts

Prior to Arbenz coming to power in 1950, there was a dire need for land redistribution as a solution to rural poverty in Guatemala.

On the Pacific coast, the center of agro-export, 80% of the land was concentrated in medium to large farms for cattle rearing, cotton, sugar, coffee, and bananas.

Half of the population were landless wage laborers. Their annual income depended on work from a four month harvest season. Landowners did not always comply with the legal minimum wage.

Plantations larger than 1,100 acres equaled just .3% of farms in the country but contained more than half the nation's farmland.

Out of approximately 4 million acres owned by plantation owners, less than one fourth of it was under cultivation. Yet Guatemala had to import basic foods because they were not being grown within the country. People who were capable of growing their own food (if they had land) were starving or could not meet their basic nutritional needs because the best agricultural land was privately owned by large export companies.

Jacobo Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala in December 1950. He was only the second democratically elected president in Guatemalan history. Arbenz advocated the redistribution of land from wealthy plantation owners to 100,000 peasants. His government passed Decree 900 in which the government was empowered to expropriate uncultivated portions of large plantations. Farms less than 223 acres were not subject to the law under any circumstances. Nor were farms of 223-670 acres which were at least 2/3 cultivated or farms of any size that were fully cultivated.

All lands taken were to be paid for in 25 year bonds issued by the government at 3% interest. The value of the expropriated lands was determined by its declared taxable worth as of May 1952. However, many companies had undervalued their lands for years to reduce the amount of taxes they had to pay to the Guatemalan government.

Some of the land that was included in the redistribution was owned by United Fruit Company (UFCO; now Chiquita), a U.S. company. Over 500,000 acres owned by UFCO was expropriated because only 50,000 of its 565,000 acres was actually in use. The Guatemalan government offered UFCO $600,000 for its land based on the value that UFCO had declared on its taxes, however the company insisted that the land was worth close to $25,000,000.

At the same time, the government encouraged workers to organize into unions. From 1946 to 1952 there were important strikes against United Fruit Company and International Railways of Central America, a subsidiary of UFCO which owned the only Guatemalan port on the Atlantic Ocean and all of the railway lines in the country.

United Fruit launched a public relations campaign to depict Guatemala as a communist threat in Central America. Arbenz legally recognized the Communist Party as a political party in Guatemala. Also, after the U.S. refused to sell arms to Guatemala, Arbenz received an arms shipment from Czechoslovakia, then a communist country.

The foreign policy staff of President Eisenhower had several key members who were or had been legally, financially, or politically involved with United Fruit Company. Sam Zemurray, Managing Director of FCO, convinced Eisenhower's administration to stage a CIA-backed coup to overthrow Arbenz.

With the CIA's backing, an army colonel by the name of Castillo Armas ousted Arbenz and took over the presidency. He suspended the constitution and ruled by decree. All of the progressive ideas instituted by Arbenz were revoked. Armas was the first in a string of military dictators who would rule Guatemala for the next 35 years. Because these leaders did not address the problems of landlessness and poverty in the country, a revolutionary movement emerged. The revolutionary guerrillas fought to obtain basic necessities for Guatemalans such as food, access to land, health care, and education. The Guatemalan army tried to put down the revolutionary movement by force. However, the movement survived until 1996 when a peace accord was signed to end the civil war.


Sources:
Bizarro Ujpan, Ignacio. Campesino: The Diary of a Guatemalan Indian. Trans. James D. Sexton. Arizona: The University


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