Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-1954

Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-1954

Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-1954

Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala, 1944-1954


Although most discussions of the Guatemalan "revolution" of 1944-54 focus on international and national politics, Revolution in the Countryside presents a more complex and integrated picture of this decade. Jim Handy examines the rural poor, both Maya and Ladino, as key players who had a decisive impact on the nature of change in Guatemala. He looks at the ways in which ethnic and class relations affected government policy and identifies the conflict generated in the countryside by new economic and social policies.

Handy provides the most detailed discussion yet of the Guatemalan agrarian reform, and he shows how peasant organizations extended its impact by using it to lay claim to land, despite attempts by agrarian officials and the president to apply the law strictly. By focusing on changes in rural communities, and by detailing the coercive measures used to reverse the "revolution in the countryside" following the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz Guzm n, Handy provides a framework for interpreting more recent events in Guatemala, especially the continuing struggle for land and democracy.


Historians are taught to express certainty. We are trained to avoid "maybe" and "perhaps" as our stories unfold, no matter how perilous the leaps from "fact" to "fact" we employ in constructing our tales. I have followed that custom in this study.

This seems an opportune place, however, to admit to uncertainty. This study is the result of years of research. I have attempted to draw a picture of the revolution in specific Guatemalan villages and in that fashion piece together a broader image of the revolution in the countryside. I believe some insights have resulted, but huge gaps remain. I will never truly understand what the revolution meant to any single community. I will never know exactly how social relations changed, how political change affected perceptions of power and authority, or why some Guatemalans chose to use revolutionary institutions to better their economic circumstances and others did not.

Perhaps the area in which my research and the sources have failed me most is in trying to understand how the revolution affected women and gender relations. The sources do provide glimpses: in the few women who won positions in municipal governments, in the antigovernment protests led by market women in Guatemala City and Antigua, in the cases brought by female teachers against school supervisors for sexual harassment, in the active involvement of women teachers in peasant organizations, and in the attempts by the Alianza Femenina to create a credit fund for campesinas. But these glimpses are so rare and scattered that, for the most part, the questions they suggest have not been addressed. They await a different kind of study.

In addressing the questions this study does attempt to answer, I relied on the help and advice of many people. The book started out as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto. My adviser, Dawn Raby, deserves my thanks for her gentle and unobtrusive encouragement at a time when she had every right to be wrapped up in her own concerns. The staff at a number of research facilities have been very helpful and patient over the years, including the U.S. National Archives, the Public Archives of Canada, the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, the Hemerotecas of the Archivo General de Centro América and the Guatemalan National Library . . .

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