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The Time of Freedom

The Time of Freedom: Campesino Workers in Guatemala’s October Revolution

Cindy Forster
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    The Time of Freedom
    Book Description:

    "The time of freedom" was the name that plantation workers-campesinos-gave to Guatemala's national revolution of 1944-1954. Cindy Forster reveals the critical role played by the poor in organizing and sustaining this period of reform.Through court records, labor and agrarian ministry archives, and oral histories, Forster demonstrates how labor conflict on the plantations prepared the ground for national reforms that are usually credited to urban politicians. She focuses on two plantation zones that generated exceptional momentum: the coffee belt in the highlands around San Marcos and the United Fruit Company's banana groves near Tiquisate. Although these regions were unlike in size and complexity, language and race, popular culture and work patterns, both erupted with demands for workers' rights and economic justice shortly after the fall of Castañeda in 1944.A welcome balance to the standard "top-down" histories of the revolution, Forster's sophisticated analysis demonstrates how campesinos changed the course of the urban revolution. By establishing the context of grassroots mobilization, she substantially alters the conventional view of the entire revolution, and particularly the reforms enacted under President Albenz.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7394-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction: Guatemala’s “Time of Freedom”
    (pp. 1-11)

    “The time of freedom” was the name that plantation workers gave to Guatemala’s national revolution of 1944 to 1954. The era began with an urban insurrection that brought down the dictatorship of General Jorge Ubico Castañeda. Within weeks the actions of laborers in the coffee and banana groves changed the course of the urban revolution. Across the next six years, under President Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, plantation workers joined up with peasants in the highlands to win a more just society. Agrarian radicalism pushed the revolution to more sweeping definitions of equality than most urban reformers had even imagined. By...

  2. 1. The Meanings of Dictatorship
    (pp. 12-34)

    Some 42,000 square miles of fantastically varied terrain lie within the present-day boundaries of Guatemala. At the far north is the rain forest, called the Petén, which functions as a seed nursery for the Americas. Hunting-and-gathering peoples took advantage of this exceptional biodiversity to reorient their lives around maize production by 1500 B.C.E. Thirteen distinct “races” and nine “subraces” of corn still flourish in the Mayan cultural area, and the region emerged as one of the world’s cradles of urbanization.¹ The Classic Mayan era, from about 250 C.E. to its demise around 900 C.E., represented one of the hemisphere’s most...

  3. 2. “We Were Like Slaves”: Race, Poverty, and Gender in San Marcos
    (pp. 35-73)

    Ubico achieved an almost perfect police state in the service of the plantation economy. The vagrancy law was enforced through a passbook system and compliance was ensured by armed force and the courts, while the army supervised obligatory service on road gangs. The study of San Marcos during the dictatorship recommends itself if for no other reason than to examine how dissent gathered force under such conditions. Small acts of rebellion against Ubico’s forced labor laws were relentless. Working-class defiance took many other forms as well, such as participation in the underground economy. Resistance to coerced labor has much in...

  4. 3. Birth of the Revolution
    (pp. 74-116)

    Guatemala’s national revolution grew out of deep anger against half a century of dictatorship in both the countryside and the city, though the reigning interpretation holds that opposition to General Jorge Ubico was limited to the political struggle of students and the middle class. The record of events suggests a broader and more interesting struggle, certainly in the coffee zone of San Marcos, and also among the working class of the capital, who deepened the initiative of democratic students and military officers. It is likely the revolution would have been crushed had it not been for hundreds of workers who...

  5. 4. Banana Workers and the United Fruit Company in Tiquisate
    (pp. 117-137)

    Banana workers on U.S. plantations in Guatemala were famous for labor unrest during the October Revolution, owing not least to the notoriety of their employer, the United Fruit Company. The Pacific coast plantations of United Fruit sprang up overnight in the late 1930s in the township of Tiquisate. Within weeks of the revolution’s start in 1944, the banana workers of Tiquisate had decided to go out on strike to lay claim to the declarations of justice that were being broadcast from the capital. Over the next ten years, Tiquisate became a locus of sustained and powerful labor activity. Workers there...

  6. 5. Agrarian Radicalism in San Marcos, 1944–1952
    (pp. 138-176)

    When Ubico fell, most of San Marcos celebrated. Rural workers heard the news of revolution and drew the conclusion that the hated obligations of plantation labor were a thing of the past. The entire region was electrified by the events of 1944. In these same months campesinos and plantation workers initiated an avalanche of labor, land, and political struggles. Arévalo won San Marcos with 14,751 votes; his nearest competitor, Adrián Recinos, received 262 in a total of 15,109 ballots cast. Indigenous migrant workers decided they no longer cared to migrate; they simply withdrew from the seasonal labor force. By the...

  7. 6. Local Struggles and Land Reform
    (pp. 177-196)

    May 1, 1952, was celebrated in Tiquisate with the largest rally in memory as a show of popular support for the bitterly contested agrarian reform legislation then mired in Congress. Some 4,000 people gathered, many of them with the land reform bill in their possession. The speakers urged them to study it so they could eventually bring land claims.¹ They already knew its contents because years of debate in the unions and political parties had preceded the reform.² On June 17, 1952, the bill became law and “brigades on agrarian reform went out through the countryside with microphones, a film...

  8. 7. Elite Backlash and Revenge
    (pp. 197-213)

    The destruction of the October Revolution was ten years in the making, a process that weakened the state’s legitimacy long before the United States helped build the opposition and deliver the fatal blow. Local and national elites felt an inchoate fear of the revolution of the poor. Their organizing for a fifth column drew wide support from rural Ladinos, who closed ranks across class lines to stem the power of the agraristas, then visited their revenge upon them when the revolution fell. On the level of ideology, class divisions provided the counterrevolutionaries with their most effective corrosive. The depth of...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 214-222)

    The labor history of Guatemala’s national revolution argues for a more thorough analysis of the role of lower-class actors, as well as smaller nations, in shaping new expressions of social justice in Latin America, which in turn led to new varieties of backlash by the United States in its role as the dominant imperial power. Everywhere the raw material of memory has barely been tapped for regional research in twentieth-century Guatemalan history. One of the banana workers I interviewed closed every thought with the refrain “And that’s all I have to declare, ma’am,” which was disconcerting at first since it...

  10. Appendix A: Interview with Three Coffee Workers
    (pp. 223-224)
  11. Appendix B: Interview with Woman in the Struggle for Land
    (pp. 225-226)
  12. Appendix C: List of Interviews
    (pp. 227-230)