Jorge Ubico Castañeda (10 November 1878 – 14 June 1946), nicknamed Number Five (based on the letters of the name Jorge) or also Central America's Napoleon, was the authoritarian ruler of Guatemala from 14 February 1931 to 4 July 1944. A general in the Guatemalan army, he was elected to the presidency in 1931, in an election where he was the only candidate. He continued his predecessors' policies of giving massive concessions to the United Fruit Company and wealthy landowners, as well as supporting their harsh labor practices. He was removed by a pro-democracy uprising in 1944, which led to the ten-year Guatemalan Revolution.
Jorge Ubico was the son of Arturo Ubico Urruela, a lawyer and politician of the Guatemalan liberal party. Ubico Urruela was a member of the legislature that wrote the Guatemalan Constitution of 1879, and was subsequently the president of the Guatemalan Congress during the government of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920). Jorge Ubico was privately tutored, and attended some of Guatemala's most prestigious schools, as well as receiving further education in the United States and Europe.
By 1897 Ubico received his commission into the Guatemalan army as a second lieutenant, a commission which was largely due to his political connections. He rapidly established himself in the army and rose through the ranks, and, after a military campaign against El Salvador, held the rank of colonel at the age of 28. A year later, he was made the governor (jefe politico) of the province of Alta Verapaz, followed four years later as governor of Retalhuleu. During his tenure, he oversaw improvements in public works, the school system, public health, and youth organizations. In 1918, he drained swamps, ordered fumigation and distributed free medicine to combat a yellow fever epidemic, and won the praise of Major General William C. Gorgas, who had done the same in Panama. However, most of his reputation came from his harsh but effective punishment of banditry and smuggling across the Mexican border. He returned to Guatemala City in 1921 to participate in a coup that installed General José Orellana into the presidency, after the sitting president Carlos Herrera y Luna refused to ratify the concessions that Estrada Cabrera had made to the United Fruit Company. Under Orellana he was appointed Secretary of War in 1922, but quit a year later. In 1926, after the death of President Orellana, Ubico ran unsuccessfully for president as the candidate of the Political Progressive Party. He temporarily retired to his farm until the next election.
On December 1930, President Lazaro Chacón was forced to resign after having a stroke. By that time, Guatemala was in the midst of the Great Depression and bankrupt; Chacón's successor, Baudilio Palma, was deposed by a coup de' etat after only four days in office and was replaced by Gral. Manuel María Orellana. The United States opposed the new government and demanded Orellana resign; he was forced to leave presidency in favor of José María Reina Andrade.
The Liberal Party allied with the Progressives to nominate Ubico as Andrade's successor, in an election where Ubico was the only candidate on the ballot. In February 1931 he was elected with 305,841 votes. In his inaugural address, he pledged a "march toward civilization". Once in office, he began a campaign of efficiency which included assuming dictatorial powers.
Adopting a pro-USA stance to promote economic development and recovery from depression, the United Fruit Company under Ubico became the most important company in Guatemala. He considered Guatemala to be the closest ally of the United States in the Caribbean. The company received import duty and real estate tax exemptions from the government and controlled more land than any other individual or group. It also controlled the sole railroad in the country, the sole facilities capable of producing electricity, and the port facilities at Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast.
On 18 September 1934 Efraín Aguilar Fuentes, Juventino Sánchez, Humberto Molina Santiago were executed inside the Guatemala National Penitenciary,[a] Rafael Estrada Guilles and colonel Luis Ortiz Guzmán. All of them had been accused, tortured and executed after being accused of planning a plot to overthrow president Ubico Castañeda.
In his book Paradox garden -El Jardín de las Paradojas, written in 1935, Guatemalan writer Efraín De los Ríos accused Police Chief general Roderico Anzueto Valencia of making up the plot to get rid of the false conspirators. According to De los Ríos, this is what really happened:
In early September 1934, when Ubico announced a popular referendum to determine whether he should extend his presidential term for another six years, lawyer Efraín Aguilar Fuentes -Guatemala Real Estate Property Records director- sternly declined to be in favor of the president. When Ubico summoned him to the presidential office to chastise him, Fuentes coldly replied that he was aware that then Police Chief Anzueto Valencia, had embezzled up to twenty eight properties and that therefore he was not going to support the president. Aguilar Fuentes did not know, however, that Anzueto Valencia was only the name on those property records and that the real owner was Ubico himself.
In the following weeks, Anzueto Valencia made up a list of people involved in a false plot to murder Ubico Castañeda, and among the people in the list he included Aguilar Fuentes. All the people on the list were imprisoned, tortured and forced to confess. Their "confessions" appeared in the semi-official newspaper El Liberal Progresista.
De los Ríos was incarcerated once the government learned about these strong accusations. He remained in the National Penitenciary for most of the rest of Ubico's presidency. .
Ubico considered himself to be "another Napoleon". He admired Napoleon Bonaparte extravagantly and preferred to have his photograph taken in his general's uniform. Although he was much taller and fatter than his hero, Ubico believed that he resembled Bonaparte, and his nickname was "the Little Napoleon of the Tropics". He dressed ostentatiously and surrounded himself with statues and paintings of Napoleon, regularly commenting on the similarities between their appearances. He militarized numerous political and social institutions—including the post office, schools, and symphony orchestras—and placed military officers in charge of many government posts. He frequently traveled around the country performing "inspections" in dress uniform followed by a military escort, a mobile radio station, an official biographer, and cabinet members.
While the middle class grew substantially during Ubico's regime, the basic character of the regime remained oligarchical and his regime primarily benefited the landowning class. The country's middle class, resentful of its inclusion from the government, later spearheaded the democratic revolution that removed Ubico from power.
Ubico's rule has been characterized as totalitarian; John Gunther, who visited the country during 1941, described Guatemala as "a country 100 per cent dominated by a single man." Added Gunther: "He [Ubico] has spies and agents everywhere, and knows everyone's private business to an amazing degree. Not a pin drops in Guatemala without his knowing it." Guatemala under Ubico was likened to "a modern jail."
Nevertheless, Ubico was commended by both his defenders and his detractors for his personal integrity and for virtually eliminating corruption in Guatemala; anyone found guilty of corruption was "instantly" and "severely" punished. The so-called Probity Law mandated that all public officials publicly declare their assets before taking office and upon leaving it – and the law was rigorously enforced.
As part of a goodwill worldwide tour promoting the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics, in January of that year the German light cruiser Emden arrived to Guatemala. Its crew travelled by train to Guatemala City where they paraded in front of Ubico Army's staff and general public.
Ubico's repressive policies and arrogant demeanor led to a widespread popular insurrection led by middle-class intellectuals, professionals, and junior army officers. On 1 July 1944 Ubico resigned from office amidst a general strike and nationwide protests. Initially, he had planned to hand over power to the former director of police, General Roderico Anzueto, who he felt he could control. But his advisors recognized that Anzueto's pro-Nazi sympathies had made him very unpopular, and that he would not be able to control the military. Instead, Ubico chose to select a triumvariate of Major General Bueneventura Piñeda, Major General Eduardo Villagrán Ariza, and General Federico Ponce Vaides. The three generals promised to convene the national assembly to hold an election for a provisional president, but when the congress met on 3 July, soldiers held everyone at gunpoint and forced them to vote for General Ponce, rather than the popular civilian candidate Ramón Calderón. Ponce, who had previously retired from military service due to alcoholism, took orders from Ubico and kept many of the officials who had worked in the Ubico administration. The repressive policies of the Ubico administration were continued.
Opposition groups began organizing again, this time joined by many prominent political and military leaders who deemed the Ponce regime unconstitutional. Among the military officers in the opposition were Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán and Major Francisco Javier Arana. Ubico had fired Árbenz from his teaching post at the Escuela Politécnica, and since then Árbenz had been in El Salvador organizing a band of revolutionary exiles. On 19 October 1944 a small group of soldiers and students led by Árbenz and Arana attacked the National Palace, in what later became known as the "October Revolution". Ponce was defeated and driven into exile, and Árbenz, Arana, and a lawyer named Jorge Toriello established a junta and declared that they would hold democratic elections before the end of the year.
The winner of the 1944 elections was a professor named Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo ran under a coalition of leftist parties known as the Partido Acción Revolucionaria ("Revolutionary Action Party", PAR), and won 85% of the vote in elections that are widely considered to have been fair and open. Arévalo implemented social reforms such as minimum wage laws, increased educational funding, near-universal suffrage (excluding illiterate women), and labor reforms; but many of these changes only benefited the upper-middle classes and did little for the peasant agricultural laborers that made up the majority of the population. Although his reforms were relatively moderate, he was widely disliked by the United States government, Catholic Church, large landowners, employers such as United Fruit Company, and Guatemalan military officers, who viewed his government as inefficient, corrupt, and heavily influenced by Communists. At least 25 coup attempts took place during his presidency, mostly led by wealthy conservative military officers. During the 1944 revolution, Arana had demanded that he be appointed as the Chief of Staff in exchange for loyalty to the Arévalo government. However, Arévalo did not trust Arana and installed Árbenz as the minister of defense to act as a check on Arana. Over time, tensions rose between Arana and Arévalo, peaking when Arana was mysteriously killed in a Guatemala City gun battle on 18 July 1949, ultimately leading to a failed revolt that was put down by troops led by Árbenz.
Ubico died in exile in New Orleans on 14 June 1946.
José María Reina Andrade
President of Guatemala
Juan Federico Ponce Vaides