Reframing Guatemala’s “Ten Years of Spring”

AHA Session 209
Conference on Latin American History 48
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room A703 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Jim R. Handy, University of Saskatchewan
Michel Gobat, University of Iowa

Session Abstract

It is difficult to underestimate the near mythic importance of Guatemala’s “Ten Years of Spring” (1944-54) has for Guatemalan politics and identity. In 1944, a movement spearheaded by students, teachers, military reformers, and an emerging middle class ousted Jorge Ubico and his would-be successor, Federico Ponce, from power. For one decade under two democratically elected presidents – Juan José Arévalo (1945-1950) and Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (1951-1954) – Guatemalans enjoyed unprecedented freedom and hope. Social liberals and radicals pushed through an ambitious set of political and economic reforms intended to make Guatemala an inclusive, modern country. Under the weight of Guatemala’s post-1954 descent into bloody civil war and state-sponsored genocide, the vision of the revolution as perhaps Guatemala’s only period of inclusive and democratic reforms has shaped scholarly interpretations of its origins, legacies, and untimely demise at the hands of a CIA-supported military coup. Yet, the revolution and its meanings were not nearly as singular as such narratives suggest.

 The papers in this panel reframe Guatemala’s famed “Ten Years of Spring” by examining it from the multiple and conflicting perspectives and propose alternative periodizations and interpretations of Guatemala’s revolution and, as a result, the meanings of dictatorship and democracy, foreign enclaves and sovereignty, as well as reform and revolution. The authors explore these questions through a combination of archival and oral history research in diverse regions of Guatemala from the multiethnic Caribbean to the largely Maya northern highlands. By bringing into focus the voices of the Caribbean coast’s multiethnic migrant population rather than the United Fruit Company, Dr. Castaneda highlights discourses of economic nationalism and sovereignty and provides new insights into the military overthrow of 1954. Likewise, Dr. Carey challenges us to take seriously the perspectives of rural workers who gained little from the revolution and thus brings into question romanticized narratives of the revolution and the meanings of democracy and dictatorship. Gibbings, too, seeks a new periodization of the revolution that accounts for the rise of antifascism and the expropriation of German properties at the end of World War II. Collectively, they ask us to question romanticized narratives of revolution, to consider new periodizations, and to take seriously diverse experiences and voices which sometimes demanded reform drawing on discourses of sovereignty and economic nationalism and were sometimes alienated by the state’s attempt to enact social change from above. This panel will be of interest to scholars of the Cold War, as well as those interested in questions of revolution and reform, state-directed development, and foreign enclaves.

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