Juan Jose Arevalo, 'founding father' of modern Guatemala

October 08, 1990

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- Juan Jose Arevalo Bermejo, 86, a former president whose civilian government was considered a shining moment for the poor in a nation dominated by military governments, died late Saturday at the Spanish Hospital in the Guatemalan capital.

The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. Arevalo, a former university professor in the humanities, returned to Guatemala from Argentina after a 1944 popular uprising that ended the 14-year-old military dictatorship of Jorge Ubico. Becoming president the next year, he set about carrying out social reforms akin to those of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States.

During his six years in office, Mr. Arevalo established a social security system, began agrarian reforms and worked to integrate the Indians, who made up about half the population, into the nation.

In 1951, he turned the government over to his elected successor, Col. Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, who expanded the reforms under a center-left administration until he was overthrown in a U.S.-backed revolt in 1954.

Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, who led the CIA-funded rebels in an invasion from Honduras, took power until his assassination in 1957. A series of right-wing military governments followed, and a leftist insurgency began in 1960 and still continues today.

"Within Guatemalan history, Mr. Arevalo will stand out as a kind of founding father of modern Guatemala," said Stephen Schlesinger, co-author of the Guatemalan history "Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala."

"What he will be remembered for is this extraordinary time -- the zTC only time, really, since its creation in 1821 -- that it had a government that was compassionate toward the poor and the Indians," Mr. Schlesinger said in New York.

Mr. Schlesinger said Mr. Arevalo's "legacy will be that he was a shining moment in Guatemala's political history, a moment that was extinguished by the 1954 American coup.

"He's still a symbol of a moment of hope in Guatemala's history, a symbol that many Guatemalans hope will be reflected in change in the coming decade."

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