October 19, 2004

Revolution Day

October 20th is the holiday known in Guatemala as Revolution Day. It commemorates the “October Revolution” of 1944 in which a virtually bloodless coup led to the overthow of the Ponce dictatorship and the presidency of Dr. Juan Jose Arevalo Bermejo.

In order to understand and appreciate the significance requires a little history lesson...

The story begins near the end of WWII when Guatemala had been ruled by a harsh dictator named General Ubico for over a decade. In the spring of 1944, a growing coalition of teachers, shopkeepers, skilled workers and students decided enough was enough. This coalition had been exposed to the promise of democracy and was motivated by FDR’s “Four Freedoms” - a declaration that all people were entitled to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Realizing the harsh conditions they had been living in, the Guatemalans saw the inequities in their system and were finally doing something about it.

At the same time, middle-class Guatemalans were seeing some improvements being made to the middle-class in Mexico as a result of that country’s nationalizing of its oil industry. This too started to get Guatemalans thinking that the country was in need of more social programs and freedoms.

All of this caught the Ubico regime and the ruling aristocracy a bit by surprise as they never realized that the people could organize so effectively.

The first overt act of protest was carried out by teachers demanding higher wages when they announced that they would refuse to march, as tradition demanded, in the annual Teacher’s Day parade scheduled for June 30, 1944. Furthermore, they began to stage a series of nonviolent demonstrations. On June 29th, the scattered protests came together into what was the largest protest in the country’s modern history. It encompassed nearly every segment of urban Guatemalan culture. The coalition converged on the capital’s central square demanding that Ubico step down from power. Ubico responded by ordering in his cavalry and some 200 people died. But the response was not what Ubico had hoped for. Instead of ending the unrest, many of the victims became martyrs and the energy of the movement grew.

A few days later, 311 teachers, lawyers, doctors, small businessmen, and other citizens handed Ubico the “Petition of the 311” which expressed the “full solidarity” of the signers with the “legitimate aspirations” of the protestors. This shocked Ubico as many of the signers were not from the lower class and were known personally to him as friends and prominent citizens.

On July 1, Ubico surprised the nation when he resigned and placed one of his military commanders, General Frederico Ponce, into office. Ponce was not much better than Ubico and thought that all the country wanted was a new strongman. He was gravely mistaken as the ferment continued. In the fall of 1944, Guatemala’s most prominent journalist, Alejandro Cordova, who was also a member of the largely powerless National Legislative Assembly, incited the dissident movement with a series of anti-government newspaper articles. He followed these up with a fiery speech before the Assembly and was promptly assassinated within a few days. This new act violence only gave the dissent more fervor.

In order to create the impression of democracy, Ponce called for a free election to present himself for popular ratification. While many people came forth to present themselves as opposition candidates, the teachers were looking for someone revolutionary who had no history in the politics that had for so long fought against popular will. They found this in Dr. Juan Jose Arevalo Bermejo, himself a teacher who had lived in exile in Argentina for 14 years.

On September 2, 1944, Arevalo returned to Guatemala and was met with a huge, cheerful demonstration that was larger than any of the prior ones. However, Arevalo had to quickly go into hiding as Ponce had issued a warrant for his arrest.

Ponce never got to participate in the election though as he was forced to flee the country on October 22 to Mexico following an armed revolt led by two young officers, Major Francisco Arana and Captain Jacobo Arbenz. Ubico, who was waiting in the wings hoping to return to power, was forced to seek sanctuary in the British Legation.

Guatemala’s “October Revolution” was won in lightning speed with only 100 lives lost. Arana and Arbenz were deemed victorious heroes and formed a ruling junta with Jorge Toriello, a prominent businessman. They immediately announced that free elections, the first in the nation’s history under a democratic constitution, would be held soon.

Arevalo won that election as a clean candidate and promptly called for democratic reform with a definite socialist bend. On March 15, 1945 he took office as the first popularly elected President of Guatemala. This was the start of an age of reform that later led to Arbenz becoming President. And it was the Arbenz presidency and his land reform policy which ultimately caused the CIA to stage a coup against him, essentially beginning the horrendous 36 year civil war which led to the massacre of an estimated 200,000 mostly innocent indigenous civilians.

For more information on the Civil War and the 20th century history of Guatemala, please read the book Bitter Fruit, where most of this information on Revolution Day came from.

Posted by Kevin at October 19, 2004 12:08 PM

Can anyone recommend a good basic book to start with? I would like to learn more about the history of Guatemala and there are so many books to choose from.


Posted by: Heather at October 20, 2004 12:46 AM

Bitter Fruit is great. As is Paradise in Ashes.

Posted by: Kevin at October 20, 2004 11:32 AM


Thanks for reminding us that date and his history, I should remember it from now on since it's my birthday.

I've heard of this book and look forward to read it.

Posted by: Manuela at October 21, 2004 09:46 AM

Kevin -- Thanks for the reminder and refresher. The celebration must be bittersweet in Guatemala knowing (now) that within 10 years the promice of the Revolution would be crushed, Arena would be dead, Arbenez in exile, and a long civil war on the horizon.

Posted by: Michael at October 22, 2004 07:37 AM

Kevin -- Thanks for the reminder and refresher. The celebration must be bittersweet in Guatemala knowing (now) that within 10 years the promice of the Revolution would be crushed, Arena would be dead, Arbenez in exile, and a long civil war on the horizon.

Posted by: Michael at October 22, 2004 07:37 AM