Guatemalans remember 1954 U.S.-backed coup as they battle today’s right-wing election theft
Semilla Party congresswoman-elect Elena Motta is embraced by a supporter as they celebrate at Constitution Square in Guatemala City, June 26, 2023. Semilla's presidential candidate Bernardo Arevalo and former first lady Sandra Torres of the UNE party are going to an Aug. 20 presidential runoff. But the right-wing powers-that-be are determined go block Semilla and its candidate from participating. | Moises Castillo / AP

On June 25, Guatemala held presidential elections that saw some 22 candidates in the running. To the surprise of many in the ruling class, Bernardo Arévalo of the center-left Semilla (Seed) Movement advanced to the second round due on August 20. Their response? Do everything possible to try to block Semilla.

Previous polls showed Arévalo and Semilla polling at below 3%, not even among the top seven candidates. But Arévalo will now be pitted against Sandra Torres, former first lady and now candidate of the right-wing UNE party (National Unity for Hope).

Contrary to conservative claims, Arévalo isn’t a communist or socialist, but his party’s platform certainly represents a shift away from the right-wing status quo. Semilla’s policy promises are a direct challenge to the powers that have long ruled Guatemala. The party pledges to invest billions in public education and beef up public healthcare with the goal of eventually reaching universal coverage.

Arévalo also wants to establish diplomatic and economic ties with the People’s Republic of China. Guatemala is one of the few countries in the world that still recognizes the authorities in Taipei, Taiwan, as the official government of all of China.

Bernardo Arévalo, presidential candidate of the Semilla party, center, walks with supporters during his closing campaign rally in Guatemala City, June 21, 2023. | Moises Castillo / AP

All of these are non-starters for the ruling elite of Guatemala. With Arévalo advancing to the second round, those who want to hold onto their power are putting out multiple obstacles in an attempt to stop Semilla from gaining momentum for the Aug. 20 second round.

On the first day of July, Guatemala’s top court ordered the ballots from the first-round presidential elections to be reviewed at the request of several right-wing parties, including Torres’s UNE and the ruling party Vamos (Let’s Go).

To the dismay of the Guatemalan people, at some ballot box storage sites, the military—with several right-wing parties assisting soldiers—seized ballot boxes by force. This raised fears of outright election theft and ballot destruction of falsification.

Eventually, the Guatemalan TSE (Supreme Electoral Tribunal) certified the results, but that didn’t stop the right-wing offensive. On July 12, Rafael Curruchiche, new head of the FECI (Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity) declared he was disqualifying Semilla for “supposed” fraud,

However, according to article 92 of the TSE, “no party can be suspended after the start of elections and until elections are over.” On July 13, the TSE refuted Curruchiche’s claims and suspended the order disqualifying Arévalo.

But further showing the ruling class’s disdain for democracy, the Public Ministry—in conservative hands—has yet to certify the results, informing the country that it will continue the investigation against Semilla for alleged “anomalies” during the election.

In response, thousands of Guatemalans continue protesting to demand the government fully certify the election results. For many, the events unfolding in Guatemala bring back tragic memories of past progressive advances and the reactionary response they garnered.

Revolution and counter-revolution

Guatemala has a tumultuous history when it comes to left-wing advances and the resulting right-wing repression. In 1944, a coalition of the urban and rural sectors of the working class ousted dictator Jorge Ubico, who ruled from 1931 to 1944. These events are known as Guatemala’s “October Revolution” and ushered in the “Ten Years of Spring,” a period of democratic progress that stretched until 1954.

Juan Jose Arévalo, the father of Bernardo Arévalo, was elected president of Guatemala in the country’s first democratic elections. For six years, the PAR (Revolutionary Action Party) governed, overseeing a liberalization of politics and public life. The government enacted labor reforms that included the formation of the IGSS (Guatemalan Institute of Social Security) and a new constitution.

Arévalo called his philosophy of governance “spiritual socialism,” later referred to as Arevalismo. Spiritual socialism may have worked towards liberating the psychology of Guatemalans, but its reach into transforming the economic realm was shallower. Despite this, newly enfranchised labor unions did bring benefits for the urban sector of the working class, though the rural countryside—where the majority still lived—lagged behind.

Jacobo Árbenz addresses the people amidst the coup, June 18, 1954. | AP

In 1951, representing PAR, Jacobo Árbenz was elected as Guatemala’s next president. His presidency is most remembered for the passing of Decree 900, an agrarian land reform measure that became law in 1952. It did nothing less than revolutionize conditions for peasants in the countryside and overturn the powers of the land-owning elite.

By June 1954, 1.4 million acres of land had been expropriated from foreign owners and domestic landlords and distributed to approximately 500,000 individuals. Most of those who received land were Indigenous people who had been dispossessed generations earlier following Spanish colonization.

Decree 900 also included the provision of financial credit to the peasant families who received land from the redistribution. Contrary to myths pushed then and later by opponents of the Árbenz government, Guatemalan agriculture productivity increased. Overall, the law resulted in a major improvement in living standards for thousands of Indigenous peasant families.

While the Árbenz government was hard at work improving the lives of urban and rural workers, others who were less enthused by the PAR’s efforts were busy plotting its downfall. The biggest loser of the land redistributions policies was the United Fruit Company (UFCO), based in the United States.

The company lost tens of thousands of acres of land in Guatemala, representing a big hit to their produce profits. Its representatives and political friends in Washington began lobbying heavily against Árbenz in the U.S. Perhaps the most outspoken was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had strong links to United Fruit. He used manipulative Cold War rhetoric to portray Árbenz as a communist. Dulles and others used the fact that Árbenz had allowed the communist Guatemalan Party of Labor to emerge from illegality—a simple democratic move—as proof of his red credentials.

A short time later, the U.S. government authorized the CIA to enact Operation PBSUCESS to bring down the Árbenz government by any means necessary. Piloting a program that would be deployed years later in the “Bay of Pigs invasion” intended to overthrow Cuba’s revolutionary government, the CIA armed, funded, and trained a small force led by Carlos Castillo Armas, a military officer who had gone into exile after trying to overthrow the Arévalo government in 1949.

Castillo Armas, seated next to the driver, and members of his Guatemalan military junta drive into Guatemala City after their victory, June 1954. | National Archives of Guatemala

Castillo Armas’s army invaded on June 18, 1954, supported by U.S.-backed bombings of Guatemala City, a naval blockade of the major ports, and an onslaught of psychological warfare that included radio stations broadcasting fake news of Castillo Armas victories. Even though Castillo Armas’s troops were no match for the Guatemalan army, many government troops fell victim to the propaganda broadcasts and feared an all-out U.S. invasion. Many soldiers refused to fight.

Árbenz made an attempt to arm and mobilize civilians to resist the coup, but with so little time, the effort was unsuccessful. On June 27, he was forced to resign as the U.S.-sponsored coup toppled his government. Within days, Col. Castillo Armas had become dictator.

In office, he reversed the agrarian reform program, taking land back from Indigenous farmers and returning it to corporations like United Fruit and other large landowners. Trade unions and peasant organizations were destroyed. A “National Committee of Defense Against Communism” was created, which put 10% of the country’s population on its list of suspected communists. Thousands of people were arrested and killed, all with U.S. approval.

Beginning in 1960 and lasting for the next 36 years, the country would be engulfed in a civil war between leftist guerrilla forces and the Guatemalan dictatorship funded and supported by the U.S. government. In 1996, peace accords were finally signed, but the people of Guatemala have yet to experience true peace in their country.

The resistance continues

From 1996 to 2023, Guatemalan politics continued to be dominated by a conservative and comprador elite. On Sept. 15, 2015, after months of protest from the Guatemalan people, Otto Pérez Molina resigned as president after a warrant was issued for his arrest over a scheme that involved defrauding the country of millions of dollars. He also participated in the scorched earth military tactics of 1982-83 that led to the massacre of thousands of Indigenous people during the civil war.

More recently, in the summer of 2021, the Guatemalan people took to the streets again, demanding that President Alejandro Giammattei—the latest in a string of right-wing heads of state—resign after he fired anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval. Since then, Guatemalans have been protesting regularly, demanding better economic and social policies from an elite that has no interest in listening to them.

With the 2023 elections, the people have stood firm. Their resilience is a continuation of the labor, peasant, and democratic struggles that have animated Guatemalan history for the last hundred years. The progressive unity of the current moment is broad, and it stretches well beyond the ranks of Arévalo’s Semilla party.

Supreme Electoral Tribunal magistrates hold a press conference in Guatemala City, July 12, 2023. The tribunal certified presidential election results, sending candidates Sandra Torres and Bernardo Arévalo to an Aug. 20 runoff, but the Attorney General’s Office announced that Arevalo´s party had been suspended. A battle is now underway to prevent the right wing from stealing the election. | Wilder Lopez / AP

On July 13, 2023, the Indigenous socialist party MLP (Movement for the Liberation of the People) issued a statement calling for unity against the right-wing electoral fraud clearly unfolding in the country. The peasant union, CODECA, has also called for people to mobilize. The Indigenous ancestral leadership of the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán issued a declaration that same day that if the government doesn’t certify the election results, it would mobilize all the Indigenous peoples of Guatemala against the corrupt government.

On July 14, the Guatemalan communist party (PGT) issued a declaration saying that a victory for Semilla would represent a progressive shift away from the neoconservative policies of the right-wing dominated government. With this, the Communists also called for unity to defend the will of the people of Guatemala.

How the situation will ultimately unfold remains to be seen, but a powerful coalition of Indigenous people, urban workers, and university students is angry, hopeful, and mobilized. They’re determined to resist the ruling elite’s efforts to overturn their votes and to ensure Guatemala doesn’t see a repeat of 1954 and the dreadful decades that followed.

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Brandon Sanchez
Brandon Sanchez

Brandon Sanchez writes from Louisiana.