Communism and Catholic social doctrine in the Guatemalan revolution of 1944.

Author:Holden, Robert H.

Few episodes in the twentieth-century political historiography of Latin America can match the prominence earned by the successive Guatemalan governments headed by residents Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz between 1945 and 1954. Once-secret U.S. government archives and other records document their status as the founders of the "Guatemalan Revolution," a decade of electoral democracy, political freedom, and social justice reversed by a covert U.S. government plot that paved the way for three decades of guerrilla warfare and military rule. An interpretive consensus attributes the ferocity of the domestic and foreign opposition to both governments to anticommunist extremism. The enemies of the two governments, in both Washington and Guatemala, exaggerated their leftist inclinations and the danger they posed to liberal democracy, while seeking to protect the privileges of a narrow, corrupt and exploitative elite composed of foreign capitalists and Guatemala's upper class, including the Catholic Church.

Despite the abundance and the apparent exhaustiveness of the historiography, however, its treatment of anticommunism, which is almost invariably presented as the primary motivation of the enemies of the revolution, is superficial and misleading. Not only is "anticommunism" presented as a simple, one-dimensional ideology that motivated all of the Revolution's enemies, but historians of the Revolution and its collapse also imply, when they do not explicitly affirm, that "anticommunism" was itself an unworthy or illegitimate motive, for two reasons: The first is that the governments of Arevalo and Arbenz only welcomed communism as part of their commitment to democracy, and in allowing Communists to join their governments merely sought to exploit their political skills and administrative expertise. Second, as either a political movement or an ideology, communism posed no threat to Guatemala or to U.S. interests, and could even have benefited the country. In any case, the conventional interpretation continues, the anticommunist opposition was wholly negative in character. Anticommunists simply opposed the Revolutionary governments' progressive policies of economic development any social justice (particularly Arbenz's historic land reform decree of 1952) without proffering any realistic alternative program. The general policies of the Arevalo and Arbenz administrations represented Guatemala's best hope for the progressive social change that anticommunists sought to block. A compact, representative example of the now-standard interpretation can be found in the introductory paragraph of William C. Thiesenhusen's essay on the Revolution. Its reforms, he reported, "clashed with violent counterrevolutionary forces (composed of landlords, members of the entrepreneurial middle class, and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church), which joined with the United Fruit Company and ultimately the U.S. government. This mighty alliance withered the reforms, which were quickly rolled back." (1)

Until the 1982 publication of Schlesinger and Kinzer's Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, interpretations of the Revolution in Spanish and English alike were both scarce and shallow, the principal exception being Ronald M. Schneider's explicitly anticommunist but impeccably researched Communism in Guatemala 1944-1954, published in 1958 under the supervision of Arthur P. Whitaker at the University of Pennsylvania's Foreign Policy Research Institute. The turning point came in the mid-1970s, when new, researcher-friendly congressional amendments to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act furnished opportunities to acquire government documentation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's pivotal role in the destruction of the Revolution. Schlesinger and Kinzer's book marked the birth of the contemporary historiography of the Revolution, framing it in the terms outlined above. In 2005, Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies reissued the book, proclaiming it "a classic, a textbook case of the relationship between the United States and the Third World," and "a warning of what happens when the United States abuses its power." But Bitter Fruit, like Richard H. Immerman's The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention, published in the same year, focused almost exclusively on the U.S. intervention. The Revolution itself was largely neglected until the early 1990s, when the two most thoroughly researched and influential studies of the Revolution in any language, those by Piero Gleijeses and Jim Handy, were published. The basic interpretation has remained remarkably consistent over the last three decades, and can be found in textbooks, journal articles, and monographs referencing the Revolution. The main controversies have centered on the principal motive of the U.S. intervention (to defeat communism or to protect U.S. economic interests?), the precise role of the Guatemalan military in the collapse of the Arbenz government, and the reach and impact of Arbenz's land reform decree. (2)

This article aims to show that the opposition to communism in Guatemala was in fact multidimensional, encompassing mutually hostile positions not reducible to the simplistic, right-left dichotomy typically presented in the historiography. Nor was the anticommunist position bereft of alternative solutions to Guatemala's development crisis. In making the argument for the superficial, and therefore misleading nature of the conventional interpretation, and for the complexity of contemporary anticommunism, this essay focuses on the role of the Roman Catholic Church and on the behavior of the controversial head of the country's metropolitan see, Archbishop Mariano Rossell Arellano of Guatemala City. (3) From 1945 onward, the archbishop and other bishops strongly criticized the mounting influence of communism in the country's political affairs. But Rossell's denunciations of communism were almost invariably coupled with equally forceful condemnations of Guatemala's social structure and the country's idiosyncratic version of political liberalism. The archbishop repeatedly criticized the rich while defending the rights of the country's rural and urban poor to just treatment and to a higher standard of living. With few exceptions, however, historians of the Revolution, while probing the role of the Church, have overlooked or distorted the considerable documentary evidence of Rossell's position. This essay argues that the treatments of both anticommunism and religious belief that now dominate the historiography of the Guatemalan Revolution typify the historiography of the Cold War in Latin America more generally, to the detriment of a fuller understanding of anticommunism, the Cold War, and the role of religious belief. (4)

Arguing from a still broader perspective, this essay suggests that Rossell's presentation in the contemporary historiography highlights the exploratory work waiting along the darkest and most distant borderland in the discipline of history, namely, that which separates it from theology. In its broadest sense, theology is the authoritative interpretation of a religious tradition. Accurate knowledge of that tradition, therefore, is a sine qua non for understanding religiously-tinged historical problems. Owing to the immense scope of the topic, and the limits imposed by an article-length presentation, the theology discussed here will be confined to the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, as proclaimed and contested in that first, decisive battle in the Latin American theater of the Cold War. I will go on to suggest, however, that the now-distant Guatemalan episode provides a key to understanding the better-known "theology of liberation" as it unfolded in Latin America during the second half of the Cold War, and to revising the prodigious body of published research that it inspired.


Until 1944, a series of dictatorships that succeeded one another according to the fortunes of civil war and coups d'etat governed Guatemala. Political movements organized themselves around leading personalities (and sometimes their economic interests) rather than coherent ideologies. The officer corps of the armed forces, though often deeply factionalized, had come to play the decisive role in settling political contests. The country's economy depended on the production of bananas and coffee for export. The U.S.-based United Fruit Co. controlled the banana business, and had also become the country's largest single landowner and employer, owned the company's railroad system, and was the principal investor in other sectors of the economy. Illiteracy, poverty, and underemployment were the lot of the majority of the country's inhabitants, one-half or more identifying themselves as Mayan Indians.

With the collapse of the thirteen-year dictatorship of Gen. Jorge Ubico in 1944, a faction of the officer corps launched a transition to the first free elections in the country's history, and a decade of genuine political freedom, contested elections, and government-initiated social change under two successive left-of-center presidents, Arevalo (1945-1950) and Arbenz (1950-1954). At the same time, Guatemala's Communist Party took advantage of the opportunity to recover from the harsh repression of the Ubico administration by reorganizing and recruiting new members. The Revolution ended abruptly in 1954, when a U.S.-backed insurgency led by Col. Carlos Castillo Armas frightened the armed forces into withdrawing its support for Arbenz.

After Arevalo welcomed Communists into his government, counting them among his closest friends and collaborators, Arbenz formally legalized the country's Communist Party (which operated openly after 1944), and accorded it a leading role in his government. The party dominated the country's trade unions; its membership rose from a few hundred in 1951, to more than...

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