Juan José Arévalo Bermejo (10 September 1904 – 8 October 1990) was a professor of philosophy who became Guatemala's first democratically elected president in 1945. He was elected following a popular uprising against the United States-backed dictator Jorge Ubico that began the Guatemalan Revolution. He remained in office until 1951, surviving 25 coup attempts. He did not contest the election of 1951, instead choosing to hand over power to Jacobo Árbenz. As president, he enacted several social reform policies, including an increase in the minimum wage and a series of literacy programs. He also oversaw the drafting of a new constitution in 1945.
Arévalo served as President from 15 March 1945 to 15 March 1951. Arévalo's administration was marked by unprecedented relatively free political life during his six-year term. Arévalo, an educator and philosopher, understood the need for advancement in individuals, communities, and nations by practical means. Before his presidency, Arévalo had been an exiled university professor. He returned to Guatemala to help in the reconstruction efforts of the new post-Ubíco government, especially in the areas of social security and drafting of a new Constitution. His philosophy of "spiritual socialism," referred to as Arevalísmo, may be considered less an economic system than a movement toward the liberation of the imagination of oppressed Latin America. In the post-World War II period, internationalist players such as the United States regarded Arevalísmo socialism as Communism, and therefore cause for unease and alarm, which garnered support from neighboring satellite caudillos such as Anastasio Somoza García.
Many foreign estates were confiscated and redistributed to peasants, landowners were required to provide adequate housing for their workers, new schools, hospitals, and houses were built, and a new minimum wage was introduced.
In Guatemala's cities, newly enfranchised labor unions accompanied reformist labor law that greatly benefitted the urban lower and middle classes. Several parties and trade unions formed, and the enfranchisement of a large proportion of the population were significant legacies of his term. These benefits did not spread to the rural agrarian areas where hacendado traditions, termed latifundia, remained patrician, unyielding, and harsh. Whilst the government made some effort to improve campesino peasants' civil rights, rural conditions in Guatemala could not be improved without large-scale agrarian reform, proposed as mediated and fairly compensated land redistribution. Failure in achieving this platform was a weakness for Arévalo's administration, which his successor attempted to confront and to remedy.
Arévalo was succeeded by Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who continued the agrarian reform approach of Arévalo's government. Arévalo freely yielded succession to his presidency in 1951 to Jacobo Árbenz in the second democratic election in Guatemala's republican history. Following Árbenz's expulsion in 1954, open democracy would not return to a destabilized Guatemala for three decades. Arévalo went into voluntary exile in Mexico as a university professor and writer. On 27 March 1963 he returned to his country to announce his candidacy for the November presidential elections. Dictator Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes—who, despite the firm opposition of the Kennedy administration had pledged to oversee a free and open election in which Arévalo would participate—flew into exile to Nicaragua after he was deposed in a coup on 31 March 1963. Enrique Peralta Azurdia then seized power, and Arévalo fled the country again.
Arévalo served as the Guatemalan ambassador to Chile (1969–1970, France (1970–1972), and Israel (1978–1981).
He is the author of a scathing allegorical short story "The Shark and the Sardines," published in 1956. In 1963 he published a sequel entitled "Anti-Communism in Latin America".
Categorized as a dedicated democrat and nationalist, Juan José Arévalo defined his political philosophy as “spiritual socialism”. The ideology was directed towards the moral development of Guatemalans with the intent to, “...liberate man psychologically”. Arévalo, the revolution’s intellectual pillar, positioned his theoretical doctrine as integral to the construction of a progressive and peaceful Guatemalan society. Governments are capable of initiating the formation of an ideal society by allowing citizens the freedom to pursue their own opinions, property and way of life. The revolution's first president asserted that safeguarding the free will of citizens generates popular support for governmental institutions, which ensure the security of the individual and collective equally.
Arevalismo did emphasize the importance of civil freedoms as the essential groundwork for human development, but the political principle maintained that, “Individual liberty must be exercised within the limits of social order”. Democracy, according to Arévalo, was a social structure that required the restriction of civil rights in the event individual liberties conflict with national security and the will of the majority. The limit on civil rights appears contradictory to the notion of a Guatemalan government that expresses the free will of the people. However, the ambiguity is associated with Arévalo's dismissal of classical liberalism as an applicable guideline for Guatemalan governments. Arévalo's rejection of Western oriented liberal individualism and apparent socialist inclinations led conservative sectors of the press to denounce the revolutionary president as a communist.
Arévalo opposed classical Marxism's materialist tendency and affirmed that, “Communism is contrary to human nature, for it is contrary to the psychology of man”. Spiritual socialism’s anti-communist stance was apparent through Arévalo's suppression of various communist influenced initiatives operating in Guatemala. The president exiled several communist activists, declined to legalize the Communist Party of Guatemala, removed government officials with ties to the communist newspaper and shut down the Marxist instruction facility known as Escuela Claridad. Regardless of the aforementioned measures, Arévalo endured nearly 30 attempted coups from members of the Guatemalan military due to his perceived empathy for communists.
The character of the 1944 revolution, envisioned by Arévalo, was based on the development of a modern social democratic society. A conversion from the remaining presence of feudalistic arrangements to a democratic socialist system was an aspiration of the revolutionary Guatemalan government. Arévalo's political philosophy stressed the importance of government intervention in the realm of economic and social interests as necessary to sustain the desires of the majority's free will. Deviating from Marxism, Arévalo valued property rights with the aim to subordinate them to benefit Guatemala as a whole if required. Overall, Arévalo sought to improve the social environment of the working majority through a reform of the capitalist mode of production. As a result, Arévalo was disliked by the Catholic church and the military, and faced at least 25 unsuccessful coup attempts during his presidency.
Arevalismo was considered a popular movement opposed to firm authoritarian rule with the overarching objective to free Guatemala from its dependent status to the developed states.
Arévalo was married at the time of his presidency to Elisa Martínez. He had a relationship with Alaíde Foppa, by whom he had a son, Julio Solórzano Foppa. At the time of his death, he was married to Margarita de Leon and had five children.
Juan Federico Ponce
|President of Guatemala
Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán