Ousting a Guatemalan Dictator (1944)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Dictatorship and discontent

Jacobo ArbenzBy 1944, General Jorge Ubico y Castañeda had ruled Guatemala for 13 years. Last in a long line of Liberal Party dictators, General Ubico was known for being "thorough, efficient, intelligent, and heartless." When talk of a rebellion surfaced in 1934, Ubico lashed out with a murderous campaign intended to eliminate all opposition. "I am like Hitler," he commented, "I execute first and give trial afterwards...." 1

During the Second World War, Guatemala joined the Allies. The war not only aggravated economic instability in the Central American nation, it led to the presence of U.S. troops in the country and daily newspaper reports of the war. All this introduced new ideas that were at odds with the Guatemalan status quo. The ideas of political democracy and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" began to make inroads among Guatemala's small educated elite. Discontent was growing, but slowly.

Nonviolent contagion

In April and May 1944, unrest in neighboring El Salvador drew the attention of many Guatemalans. Although El Salvador's dictator, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, had crushed an attempted military coup with extreme brutality, the widespread nonviolent struggle that arose in the aftermath brought the country to a halt. On May 9, Martínez was forced out of office and into exile.

The Salvadoran experience had a profound effect on popular feelings about the dictatorship in Guatemala. Many students, teachers, and members of the professional classes saw the recent events in El Salvador as a model for bringing an end to their own tyrannical regime. In late May 1944, the first signs of public opposition began. Forty-five prominent lawyers asked for the removal of a biased and corrupt judge who regularly tried political opponents of the regime. General Ubico asked them to specify their charges. They did, publishing a series of articles in a major Guatemala City newspaper. This was the first time anyone had publicly asked Ubico for the removal of a public official.

University unrest

Several weeks later, 200 teachers signed a petition asking the government for a wage increase. Two of those who had drafted the petition were arrested, and shortly thereafter five students were detained for "printing propaganda." On June 19, the Student Law Association met at the National University and called for the resignation of the school's dean and for the reinstatement of a professor fired by Ubico for political reasons. On the following day, they were joined by 1,000 students from various departments of the university, and they broadened their demands to include support for the teachers' petition.

The students met again on June 21. This time, they raised the stakes with an ultimatum to Ubico. They demanded autonomy for the National University, the rehiring of two fired teachers, the release of several imprisoned students, and the opening of new departments and areas of study. The students also demanded the appointment of competent professors, not simply ones hired for their political loyalty to the regime. The petition was delivered to the National Palace the next day. The students threatened to call a strike if their demands were not met within 24 hours.

Petition against martial law

Ubico responded by declaring a state of emergency, and accused the students of exhibiting "nazi-fascist tendencies." As the students and teachers went on strike, an important group of professionals (primarily lawyers and a few doctors) came to their defense. Invigorated by El Salvador's successful nonviolent insurrection the month before, some lawyers had been hoping to eventually launch a similar movement in Guatemala. They would have preferred more time to organize, but the students had taken the initiative and this gave the lawyers the impetus to act. In less than two days, they gathered the signatures of 336 "prominent citizens" for a petition explaining the just actions of the students and teachers, rejecting the government's accusations against them, and calling for the lifting of martial law and the restoration of constitutional guarantees. Since 25 of the signatures were illegible, the document came to be known simply as the Memorial de los 311.

On June 24, the Memorial de los 311 was delivered to the National Palace. A group of students gathered that morning to march peacefully past the National Palace and the U.S. Embassy. All wore black and walked in silence in what they termed a "demonstration of pain." Although the protest was small, it was the first since the university strike began. It was an open repudiation of the state of emergency.

In the evening, another demonstration took place that was significantly larger. It filled the streets with teachers, students, pro fessionals, and some workers. Demonstrators sang La Marsellaise and the Guatemalan national anthem, and a lawyer read a copy of the Atlantic Charter. When passing the National Palace, protesters shouted the first public appeals for Ubico's resignation. Both demonstrations were peaceful. Later that night, however, the police sent a group of drunken thugs shouting anti-Ubico slogans into a neighborhood religious festival, in an attempt to discredit the movement. The police then moved in, ignoring the provocateurs, while beating and arresting hundreds of others. 

Under siege

On Sunday morning, June 25, Guatemala City awoke to a virtual state of siege. The city had been completely militarized, with artillery posted outside every strategic location. Morning demonstrations were broken up by soldiers and cavalry. Meanwhile, lawyers Federico Carbonell and Jorge Serrano - the two men who had delivered the Memorial de los 311 - were summoned to the National Palace. In a meeting with Ubico's cabinet ministers, Carbonell, Serrano, and a few others were recognized as "representatives of the people" (a title that they insisted did not belong to them). The lawyers did what they could to press their case. Nevertheless, the government was inflexible, and simply demanded that they "calm the people."

In the afternoon, Carbonell and Serrano met with members of the diplomatic corps, and then spoke directly with General Ubico late in the day. During the latter meeting, shots were heard in the distance. A women's march of mourning had been attacked by police. When the cavalry charged the crowds and opened fire, several people were wounded, and schoolteacher María Chincilla Recinos was killed. The movement now had its first martyr. 

Talks broke down after the killing of Chincilla, and further negotiations were fruitless. "As long as I am president," declared an unrepentant Ubico, "I will never permit a free press, nor free association, because the people of Guatemala are not ready for a democracy and need a strong hand."2 Carbonell and Serrano responded by sending a new message to Ubico later that evening, indicating that the only way to restore order was for the General to step down.

Paralysis against dictatorship

On June 26, an economic shutdown went into effect. Although plans for a widespread work stoppage had been in the planning stages for almost a week, the nearly complete participation in the strike was due in large part to public outrage over the killing of Maria Chincilla.

The streets were emptied. Workers, businessmen, shopkeepers, market vendors, and bus drivers joined the already striking students, teachers, and lawyers. Opposition leaders received word from the chief of police that any further demonstrations would be fired upon, even if the protesters were only women and children. Rather than risk more lives, all efforts were thrown behind the economic shutdown.

For five days, Guatemala City was paralyzed. Students distributed leaflets calling on the public to remain nonviolent and to continue resisting. The government's militarization of transportation sectors and threats of reprisals against striking businesses had little effect on the populace. Scores of letters and petitions flooded the National Palace, asking for Ubico's resignation. 

The army and police did not know what to do. Everyone was at home, and there was no target or organized group for them to attack. The dictator's power had crumbled, and the people had lost their fear. As Mario Rosenthal wrote:

Energetic and cruel, Jorge Ubico could have put down an armed attack. He could have dodged an assassin's bullet and cut the assassin down himself. He could have imposed his will on any group of disgruntled, military or civilian, and stood them up against a wall. But he was helpless against civil acts of repudiation, to which he responded with violence, until these slowly pushed him into the dead-end street where all dictatorships ultimately arrive: kill everybody who is not with you, or get out.3

Withdrawal of support and resignation 

Jorge Ubico handed in his resignation on July 1, 1944, and turned power over to a triumvirate of generals.

Although the June nonviolent struggle movement had only lasted one month, it produced a victory, both for the people and for their method of struggle. Exiles soon returned, political parties formed, and constitutional guarantees were restored. However, one of the junta members, General Federico Ponce, envisioned himself as a new supreme ruler and fraudulently ensured his own victory in makeshift elections on October 13. Opposition parties and students responded by initiating limited strikes. On October 20, with the backing of students and workers, a group of reform-minded junior officers led by Jacobo Arbenz and Javier Arana launched a swift coup d'état and wrested power from General Ponce. Fair elections soon followed, and Guatemala entered into its 10-year "springtime of democracy."

Joshua Paulson, reprinted from Chapter 11 (pp. 149-155) of Waging Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp.  Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2005.

1 Rosenthal, Guatemala, p. 201.
2 Rosenthal, Guatemala, p. 211.
3 Rosenthal, Guatemala, p. 200.
Selected material about the movement to overthrow Jorge Ubico
  • Clamp, Christina. The Overthrow of Jorge Ubico: A Case of Nonviolent Action in Guatemala, unpublished manuscript: Friends World College, 1976.
  • Rosenthal, Mario, Guatemala: The Story of an Emergent Latin American Democracy (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962), pp. 191-222.
  • Schneider, Ronald, Communism in Guatemala: 1944-1954 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1959), pp. 1-19.
  • Silvert, K. H., A Study in Government: Guatemala (New Orleans: Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, 1954), pp. 1-7.
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