By Nancy Kandutsch
The other day, while watching TV news about Guatemalans trying to get across the U.S.-Mexican border, I noticed that at least some, and probably most, of the immigrants are Mayan or mixed indigenous people. These are the very people to whom Guatemala’s President Arbenz Guzman in 1951 to 1954 was in the process of restoring farmland that had been stolen from them in preceding centuries.
Descendants of Spanish conquerors had been expropriating Mayan land for at least 200 years. Under a Guatemalan dictator named Ubico, in 1930 indigenous people were legally excluded from owning any land, which was instead awarded to people of Spanish descent. The Mayans, now landless, were converted to serfdom (slavery), especially during the rise of profitable coffee cultivation in the 1920s and 1930s. They were now required to work on sugar or coffee plantations for no pay at all, and could be executed for trying to leave their work.
This was the situation through the 19th century into the early 20th century when the United Fruit Co. (a U.S.-owned company) was awarded thousands of acres of prime agricultural land (46 percent of Guatemala’s land) for almost nothing in exchange for its support of whatever dictator was in office at the time. Only 2 percent of Guatemala’s population now owned 72 percent of the land. The Mayan indigenous population made up about half of Guatemala’s population.
In 1951, Jacobo Arbenz was elected during a period when most of the voters were in a reform mood. Arbenz’s plan was to convert the agricultural economy from one of feudalism to that of capitalism, which he felt would improve the entire economy by making the Mayans self-supporting, and increasing total agricultural production. Arbenz’s government expropriated only uncultivated land from the largest estates, including some of the United Fruit Co., and the owners were offered compensation in the form of 25-year bonds in the value reflected by the taxes paid. Arbenz also built railroads, opened a port for export-import and built roads and initiated reading and writing in Spanish to the Mayan population. He also facilitated loans at cheap rates for them to buy modern farming equipment.
One hundred thousand families comprising about 500,000 people benefited, in a short time, and farm production went up in the couple of years following land reform. However, there was stiff opposition from many former landowners, who funded political opposition, and from the United Fruit Co., which was vigorously supported by the Eisenhower administration, some members of which were stockholders in the company. The CIA used our military to bomb Guatemala’s capital in the civil war that followed, in 1954, and Arbenz was forced to resign and go into exile in Mexico. The United States supported a series of dictators following Arbenz’s departure. Arbenz himself was devastated by the destruction of his agrarian reform, and suffered depression, and may have committed suicide by drowning some years afterward.
Now the United States is reaping the consequences of overturning the Arbenz era democracy and land reform, which results in Guatemalans fleeing extreme poverty and violence. We should have made an effort to understand Arbenz’s purpose, and to persuade the United Fruit Co. to cooperate in the land reform. If we had done that, the Guatemalans would be a long way into self-sufficiency by now, and would not be the people against whom Donald Trump feels he needs to build a wall.
Nancy Kandutsch lives in Surry.