President Arbenz achieves: ‘Farmer, here is your land. Defend it, care for it, cultivate it.’” (C.P.R. Urbana from LIFE magazine). President Jacobo Arbenz (Cubadebate). Bitter Fruit tells the story of the 1954 coup. Tanks in front of the National Palace after the coup (TeleSUR).

Seventy years after land reform promise, Indigenous Guatemalans struggle for land rights

First in a series by Jim Hodgson

For a decade that ended with a military coup in June 1954, Guatemalans had a chance at peace with social justice. Central to that vision was the proclamation by Jacobo Árbenz, the democratically-elected president, on June 17, 1952, of an agrarian reform. The reform sought to reduce the grotesque inequalities of land tenure, and generate greater prosperity, social justice and democracy in the country.

Seventy years later, that proclamation and the coup that followed are understood as inflection points in Latin American history. After the Guatemalan coup, it was clear that the United States and its corporate allies would not tolerate such reforms – or if they were attempted (Cuba after 1959, Nicaragua after 1979), their governments and people would be forced to pay a heavy price. Indeed, the crushing of democratic reform in Guatemala launched guerrilla movements across Latin America led by people who saw that the institutions of formal democracy could not bring about fundamental change.

Guatemala’s decade of democracy had produced social health programs and labour rights for banana and coffee workers. Árbenz prohibited the entry of foreign oil prospectors. The agrarian reform proposed that uncultivated parts of large land-holdings would be expropriated in return for compensation and redistributed to impoverished farm-workers. The reform also expropriated about 408,000 acres of land owned by the United Fruit Company on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for redistribution among landless farmers. Compensation offered to the company was rejected as insufficient.

Together with other large land-owners, and with backing from the United States, Honduras and Nicaragua, the military seized power and turned back almost all of the previous decade’s advances. Árbenz took refuge in the Mexican embassy and was eventually forced into exile. Large landowners grabbed land for banana, sugar, palm oil, coffee and cardamom plantations, producing products for foreign markets.

Nowadays, people in Guatemala struggle to hold on to whatever piece of land they and their communities have inhabited.

At the end of a visit in May to a Q’eqchi’ community in Uspantán municipality, department of Quiché, I spoke with Leocadio Juracán, national coordinator of the Highlands Committee of Small Farmers (CCDA). I asked him if it was fair to make a historical timeline like from the 1954 coup until now (including the 36-year civil war and its 200,000 deaths): is it the same counter-revolution?

His response: “Yes.”

“We commemorate 1952 agrarian reform. That was practically the only period of attention to the democratization of land ownership. However, with the counter-revolution, United Fruit Company and the others obtained the land. Everything was aimed at generating wealth for the foreigners and less for the Guatemalans,” he said.

Leocadio Juracán, national coordinator of the Highlands Committee of Small Farmers (CCDA) interviewed by Jim Hodgson.

“What goes on today is that they are using the same counter-insurgency tactics that they used during the war, the land-owners or the state itself creating shock forces so that it appears there are conflicts among the small farmers themselves. But those who are behind this are these gangsters who seek to confront the population so as to justify and keep their territory, with the natural resources that they contain: the hills for mining extraction and the rivers for hydroelectric generation.

“These are the conditions of injustice, subjugation and dispossession that continue to be seen today in remote areas of the country.”

The other strategy used today against community land defenders is to bring criminal charges or lawsuits against them.

“There are 1,010 arrest warrants against leaders,” said Juracán, “and of those 374 are women. They are not criminals. They are demanding compliance with constitutional rights of the right to land, the right to development, the right to life, the right to peace, the right of security. But they are being charged with murder, trespassing, which they are not.

“So the injustice in the country continues, the repression continues, the criminalization, the violence, murders have occurred in Guatemala, political prisoners.”

Almost every day on its Facebook page, CCDA denounces specific human rights abuses against individuals and communities. It accompanies communities in almost all parts of Guatemala. “We can say that the greatest concentration of agrarian conflict is in the Upper and Lower Verapaz, western Izabal, southern Petén and eastern Quiché. If we look at a linguistic map of Guatemala, it is precisely the territory of the Q’eqchi’ peoples.”