The October Revolution
October is a month that has various celebrations: Halloween, Columbus Day, Canadian Thanksgiving, and a Guatemalan holiday that commemorates an event that few outside the country know about: Revolution Day. What was this revolution? When did it happen? What was the outcome? Curious? Here are the answers…
Guatemalan society has had some stellar moments in which it has been possible to gaze beyond the horizon, away from the hardships of everyday life, and envision something better. One such moment was the October Revolution of 1944, a historical moment that marked the lives of the people of Guatemala.
In 1944, General Jorge Ubico’s thirteen-year dictatorship (1931-’44) of Guatemala was overthrown by the October Revolutionaries, a group of Guatemalan nationalists – politically dissident military officers, university students and middle-class liberal professionals – who felt politically empowered by the almost-simultaneous revolutions that had deposed dictatorships in Venezuela, Cuba, and El Salvador.
The killing of a schoolteacher by a Guatemalan Army soldier had led to unrest and moral outrage, and the populace rose in a general strike and nationwide protests that caused the national economy to grind to a halt. President Ubico resigned in early July amid the turmoil, but had passed the reins of power to a hand-picked triumvirate consisting entirely of military generals. The three generals promised to convene the National Assembly to hold an election for a provisional president, but when the congress met a few days later, soldiers held the congressmen at gunpoint and forced them to vote for one of the triumvirate’s generals (General Federico Ponce Vaides) rather than for the popular civilian candidate. Under duress, the Assembly appointed General Ponce who continued to take orders from Ubico and also kept many of the officials who had worked in the Ubico administration. The repressive policies of the Ubico administration were continued.
Opposition groups began organizing again, this time joined by many prominent political and military leaders.
On October 20, 1944, an armed uprising took place in Guatemala City. A small group of soldiers and students led by Jacobo Árbenz (who would later become president in 1951) and Major Francisco Arana attacked the National Palace, in what would later become known as the “October Revolution.” General Ponce was defeated and driven into exile, and Árbenz, Arana, and a lawyer name Jorge Toriello established a junta and declared that they would hold democratic elections before the end of the year.
The winner of those elections was a philosophy professor named Juan José Arévalo who ran as the candidate for a coalition of leftist parties known as the Partido Acción Revolucionaria (“Revolutionary Action Party”), and won 85% of the vote in elections that were widely considered to have been fair and open. Arévalo implemented social reforms such as minimum wage laws, increased educational funding, near-universal suffrage, and labor reforms. A new constitution was adopted in March 1945.
This military respect for law began what is known as “The Ten Years of Spring,” a democratic period of free speech and open political activity, plans for national land reform, and the perception that much and great political progress could be made in the civil governance of Guatemala. The October Revolution was the first time a transformation of the plight of Guatemalan society was attempted. The struggle for political and social change has continued to the present. But many of the issues, which emerged in the years following the Revolution, continue to concern Guatemalans today.