By Kara Andrade
On October 20, the day of Guatemala’s revolution, the country’s government formerly apologized to the family of former president Colonel Juan Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán – 57 years after he was deposed.
“I want to apologize to the family for the great crime committed on June 27, 1954,” said President Alvaro Colom at the National Palace in Guatemala City. “A crime committed against the former president, his wife, his family. It was a historic crime for Guatemala – that day changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it since.”
He glanced over at the stiff figure of Jacobo Arbenz Vilanova, son of the ex-president, seated next to Rafael Espada, Vice President of Guatemala, on a stage overlooking the government’s cabinet, diplomats, national institutions, and, the list of people presented by the family. There wasn’t a single young person visible – a bunch of suits and ties and older faces filled up half the seats in the audience.
After many decades, a Friendly Settlement Agreement had been signed by the State in the case of Guatemala vs. Jacobo Arbenz in May, 2011, and processed by the State of Guatemala and the Commission on Human Rights , a body of the Organization of American States.
I sat in the back of the room with the rest of the press and wrote down Colom’s quote: “that day changed Guatemala and we have not recuperated from it since.” It’s what the New York Times wanted, a dramatic quote about history, impact, significance, timeliness, geographic significance, but above all, truth. I called it in to the Mexico City office and wondered: Truth, but whose truth?
Back then the truth was that Arbenz was a Communist and a coup ensued. The coup orchestrated by the Eisenhower administration and the Dulles brothers at the CIA and State Department (who were on the board of directors for United Fruit Company) forced Arbenz into exile shortly after President Arbenz initiated a land-reform policy that saw agrarian councils distribute uncultivated land to individual families. The policy, started in 1952, was in effect for two years prior to the coup, with 1.5 million acres of land changing hands and 100,000 families benefiting from it. Arbenz was forced to resign.
“I say goodbye to you, my friends, with bitterness and sorrow, but firm in my convictions. I am forced to resign, to remove the pretext for an invasion of our country, and I do so with an eye on the welfare of the people. ” (Extract from the resignation speech given by Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on June 27,1954).
Arbenz’s family’s property was confiscated illegally and he was deported, along with his family. Arbenz was forced to strip naked before cameras at the Guatemala airport. For the next 50+ years, there was violence,a civil war, more than 200,000 students, workers, professionals, farmers and non-combatants killed, and more than one million people became refugees in Mexico and other parts of Guatemala. My mother became a coyote and in 1982 my family fled to the United States as things worsened in Guatemala.
But why was this apology necessary?
In part it was because a judicial process had been initiated In 1999 when the Arbenz family approached the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington seeking restoration of their name and reparations for property lost following the coup. The complaint was upheld by the Commission in 2006, which led to five years of negotiations with successive Guatemalan governments over what damages should be paid.
In addition to the apology, the Guatemalan government would revise textbooks in Guatemala to include Arbenz’ positive influence on the country during the “Guatemalan Spring”. Also, Arbenz’ biography would rewritten, the national highway he built will be named after him, and a new educational program would train government staff to take into account the needs of farmers and indigenous people.
“We suffered the consequences of an injustice that was done in 1954,” said Arbenz Vilanova said. “Now we see today how the United States recognizes its mistakes.”
But, really, why was this apology necessary? Could it be that a social order was being restored, even though it was coming from outside of Guatemala? Could it be a social fabric such as the one Karen Ness refutes in her article “La Sociología y la razón” was being stitched?
“The “collective” does not exist, the social is a series of abstractions, symbols,” writes Ness. Arbenz was a symbol of what Guatemala could have been in its full democratic spring. He was the road not taken and the intersection between state, political and social order. For that brief moment things were aligned for Guatemala and there was an opening, an awakening into its own fledgling democracy. Arbenz was a symbol, the “Soldier of the Village,” a messianic figure that Guatemalans needed to explain where things went wrong and to give it all a narrative. This much is true: We can never know if the memory of him and his obsevable work are completely reliable.
“Jacob Arbenz became president to be able to develop the economic means that were keeping Guatemala from its growth and were choking Guatemala from growing,“ said Vilanova
Perhaps even this moment in the present was some kind of historical revisionism? It was leaving a bad taste in my mouth. His son hinted at Arbenz’s capitalistic tendencies. In the three years, three months and three days that his government lasted he was able to develop out four key points around agrarain reform, the train that competed with the Atlantic road and a port that was built next to Puerto Barrios that is Puerto Santo Tomas de Castilla.
From a macro perspective the structural condition were aligning again – the right of state and the political order were (in a rare occasion in Guatemala) aligning with a social order that many Guatemalans had accepted long ago since the coup. Guatemalans were used to this truth: that nebulous forces outside the individual’s control are always shaping their destiny and they simply had nothing to do with it. Just lower your head and do your work.
Are these apologies common? When was the last time I’d heard the Guatemalan government issue a formal apology for anything? So I called Álvaro Velásquez, professor of social sciences and political analyst at Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Guatemala City.
“While it’s not something strange for the Guatemalan government to issue an apology, the apology is more symbolic than anything else,” said Velásquez. “With a new ex-military government this would not have happened.”
President Colom, however, lauded his administration as one that did not impede justice. This apology was just one of those moments his administration helped set “the stones to build the new Guatemala, the Guatemala without bias, the Guatemala with less inequality and more social justice.” One hopes in the future that justice will grow from within Guatemala and doesn’t reach down from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in D.C. – from the very country that caused this disruption.
Nic Wirtz contributed to this reporting. Sections of this article were published in Americas Quarterly.