Guatemala 1944

Gene Sharp

Latin America is more famous for its political violence than for nonviolent action. This may be an unbalanced view. There have apparently been a large number of instances in Latin America of general strikes and several cases of nonviolent civilian insurrections. For example, within a few weeks in 1944 two Central American dictators, in El Salvador and Guatemala, fell before massive civil resistance.

With the help of the secret police General Jorge Ubico had resulted Guatemala since 1931. Ubico was extolled in some U.S. magazines as a ‘road-and-school dictator’; the men who had faced his political police knew better. Time magazine called him an admirer of Hitler’s 1934 blood purge, and quoted Ubico: ‘I am like Hitler, I execute first and give trial afterwards…’

During World War II many U.S. troops were in Guatemala, which had joined the Allies. The Americans there promoted ideas of democracy for which, they said, the war was being fought. These appealed especially to Guatemalan students and young professional men. Other changes were undermining Ubico’s position. Seizure of the German-owned coffee fincas (plantations) in 1942 removed some of his supporters. Domestic issues were causing unrest, both among workers and within the business community. The dictator of nearby El Salvador, Martinez, had fallen a few weeks previously in the face of widespread nonviolent resistance. That proved to be a dangerous and contagious example. Action began in Guatemala, mildly – at first.

In late May 1944 forty-five lawyers asked for the removal of the judge who tried most political opponents of the regime brought before a civil court. Ubico asked for specific charges against the judge. Surprisingly one newspaper was allowed to publish them.

On the day prior to the annual parade of teachers and schoolchildren in tribute to the dictator, two hundred teachers petitioned Ubico for a wage increase. Those who drafted the petition were arrested and charged with conspiracy against the social institutions of the supreme government. The teachers replied with a boycott of the parade; they were fired.

On June 20 a manifesto announced the formation of the Social Democrat Party and called for opposition parties, social justice, lifting of the terror, and hemispheric solidarity. Students petitioned for university autonomy, rehiring of two discharged teachers and release of two imprisoned law students. Unless the demands were granted within twenty-four hours, they threatened a student strike.

Ubico declared a state of emergency. He called the opposition ‘nazi-fascist’. Fearful, many student leaders sought asylum in the Mexican Embassy. However, young lawyers and professional men refused to submit to intimidation, and supported the students. On June 23 the school-teachers went on strike.

Ubico had once said that if three hundred respected Guatemalans were to ask him to resign he would do so. On June 24 two men delivered the Memorial de los 311 to Ubico’s office. The three hundred and eleven prominent signers had risked their lives. The document explained the reasons for unrest, asked for effective constitutional guarantees, and suspension of martial law. The same day, students marched past the U.S. Embassy and emphasized reliance on nonviolent means. Officials seemed surprised at the form of this demonstration. A peaceful meeting that evening demanded Ubico’s resignation. Later that night, however, police beat and arrested hundreds at a neighbourhood religious and social celebration. Some blamed ‘drunken bandits, previously coached by the police’; others pointed to clashes between people shouting anti-Ubico slogans and the dictator’s strong-arm men.

The next day the foreign minister summoned to the National Palace the two men who had delivered the Memorial de los 311 – Carbonell and Serrano. The ex-head of the police joined the meeting. Simultaneously, a demonstration took place before the National Palace; against it the government massed platoons of soldiers, cavalry, tanks, armoured cars, machine guns, and police armed with guns and tear-gas bombs. Carbonell and Serrano were asked to ‘calm the people’. Although all meetings had been banned, the men were permitted to meet with other ‘leaders’ of the movement to seek a solution to the crisis.

That afternoon women dressed in deep mourning prayed for an end to the night’s brutalities at the Church of San Francisco in the Centre of Guatemala City. Afterward they formed an impressive silent procession; the cavalry charged and fired into the crowd. An unknown number were wounded and one, Maria Chincilla Recinos, a teacher, was killed. She became the first martyr. ‘…the mask had been torn from the Napoleonic pose, revealing Ubico and his regime standing rudely on a basis of inhumanity and terror.’

Guatemala responded with a silent paralysis. The opposition broke off talks with government. Workers struck. Businessmen shut down stores and offices. It was an economic shutdown. Everything closed. The streets were deserted.

After attempts at a new parley failed, at Ubico’s request the diplomatic corps arranged a meeting that afternoon between the opposition and government. The delegates told Ubico to his face that during his rule ‘Guatemala has known nothing but oppression.’ Ubico insisted: ‘As long as I am president, 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.’ The possibility of Ubico’s resigning and the question of a succession were discussed. The delegates were to sample public opinion.

The opposition later reported to Ubico by letter the unanimous desire of the people that he resign. They again demanded the lifting of martial law, freedom of [the] press and association, and an end to attacks on the people. Petitions and messages from important people poured into the palace; they also asked Ubico to resign. The silent economic shutdown of Guatemala City continued. The dictator’s power was dissolving.

On July 1 Ubico withdrew in favour of a triumvirate of generals. Immediate and unaccustomed political ferment followed. Labor and political organisations mushroomed, and exiles returned. General Ponce, one of the triumvirate, tried to install himself in Ubico’s place. In October he faced another general strike and a student strike and was ousted by a coup d’etat. Difficult times were still ahead.

The victory over Ubico was not well utilised to establish democracy. But it had been a victory, both for the people and for their type of struggle. Mario Rosenthal writes:

‘Energetic and cruel, Jorge Ubico could have put down an armed attack… He could have imposed his will on any group of disgruntled people, 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.

‘The movement that brought Waterloo to Guatemala’s Napoleon was, fittingly, a peaceful, civilian action; the discipline, serenity and resignation with which it was conducted made it a model of passive resistance.’

Rosenthal paid tribute to the intelligence with which it was directed and the solidarity shown by Guatemalans of all social classes, and ethnic and political backgrounds.

Reference: Gene Sharp The Politics Of Nonviolent Action, Part One: Power and Struggle Boston: Porter-Sargent, 1973.

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