Ten Years of Spring: Citizen Participation in Guatemala’s Land Reform Law


During the mid-1900’s, Guatemala was one of the richest countries in Central America (Trefzger, 2002). This wealth, however, was shared among only two percent of the country’s population (Trefzger, 2002). Guatemala, like the majority of Latin America, faced tremendous inequalities regarding landownership. Over two thirds of the country consisted of campesinos, or peasant farmers, and they were only allotted 14 percent of land (Trefzger, 2002). This had a devastating impact on campesino workers, who suffered poverty, malnutrition, poor health, and a lack of education. (Trefzger, 2002).

The ten years of spring, from 1944 to 1954, is known for its major progressive reforms in Guatemala implemented by two presidents: Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (Handy, 1994). During this time, campesino workers, who mostly consisted of indigenous populations, saw considerable improvements to their living conditions. New laws, such as the Agrarian Land Reform, sought to improve landownership inequalities that caused the poverty of campesino workers.

This paper analyzes the Agrarian Reform Law implemented under the administration of Jacobo Arbenz. More specifically, how involved were campesino workers during the land redistribution process seen during the ten years of spring? Arstein’s (1969) A ladder of Participation as well as Heller and Rao’s (2015) Deliberation and Development will be used as basis to categorize the citizen participation model followed by Arbenz’s presidency. These concepts will also serve to analyze the efficiency of the reform law’s campesino participation. Finally, the sociological imagination (Mills, 2000) and Castell’s (2010) Power of Identity will be used to look into the campesino consciousness, and the reasons behind why campesino workers began organizing in Guatemala.

Theoretical Framework

Forms of Participation

Citizen participation, as stated by Sherry Arnstein (1969), is a categorical term focusing on the redistribution of citizen power within a society. This change in power dynamics allows for more citizens to be included in political and economic processes, inducing social reforms that enable resources to be shared among all groups within a society. That being said, the implementation of participatory programs is not always sufficient to increase citizen involvement. Other factors, such as preexisting power dynamics and government responses, contribute to the overall increase or decrease of participation. Arnstein (1969) recognized these limits and created a typology of eight levels of participation to categorize the extent of citizens’ power and to help in its analysis.

The bottom tiers of Arnstein’s (1969) categorization include Manipulation and Therapy. The ultimate goal of these two levels, as stated by Arnstein, is “to substitute for genuine participation. Their real objective is not to enable people to participate in planning or conducting programs, but to enable powerholders to ‘educate’ or ‘cure’ the participants” (Arnstein, 1969: 4). This is a form of non-participation, where citizens are told what to believe. The next two tiers are Informing and Consultation. When these levels are implemented, citizens may be heard. However, there is not a guarantee that their views will be noticed by powerholders. Placation is a step-up of tokenism, where citizens can advise, but powerholders still retain the ability to decide on who to listen to. The final three levels of participation implement truer forms of citizen power. Partnerships enable citizens to negotiate with traditional powerholders, forming a direct communication line between the two. Finally, Delegated Power and Citizen Control allow unheard citizens to “obtain the majority of decision-making seats, or full managerial power” (Arnstein, 1969: 4). Decision-making is not shared with powerholders but instead given to citizens so they may create the programs and social reforms needed within their society. These eight tiers are important in serving as a platform to study different participation implementations. They allow for efficiency to be categorized.

To evade the lower non-participation and limited participation tiers, Patrick Heller and Vijayendra Rao (2015) argue that deliberation is crucial. As defined in their book, Deliberation and Development, deliberation is “the process by which a group of people can—through discussion and debate—reach an agreement. Ideally, agreement is achieved by both persuading people of a different way of thinking (usually by changing their preferences) and engaging in a process of reasoned compromise” (Heller & Rao, 2015: 1).  The definition provided for “agreement” is essential because of its emphasis on compromise. Heller and Rao (2015) argue that a true agreement only happens when each group of people is persuaded to think like one another. All perspectives can be valued and considered as final decisions on issues are being formulated.

When deliberation is implemented in a government, true democracy is practiced. This is because, as Heller and Rao (2015) stated, deliberative democracy makes the power of policy-making accessible to all citizens. Discussions are used to amplify voices, creating new, malleable solutions that include many perspectives. If free, open communication is central, citizen participation will be properly practiced.

Social movements

The sociological imagination is defined by C. Wright Mills (2000) as the ability for an individual to understand themselves in a larger social and historical scene. By applying oneself to a broader social context, an individual “can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can known his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances” (Mills, 2000: 4). One’s consciousness is raised so that they may better understand their circumstances and the ability they have to change them. Therefore, a strong sociological imagination is crucial for effective citizen participation, so that citizens are aware of their power over the communities in which they live.

When those in control refuse to listen to certain groups of people, those groups may organize themselves to form social movements as a method of participation. Social movements are created when a group of individuals engage in political or social conflicts with the intention of creating change. According to Castells (2010), a collective identity is essential in bringing the group together because identity is “the process of construction meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute, or a related set of cultural attributes, that is given priority over other sources of meaning” (Castells, 2010: 6). Ultimately, identity provides social movements with their purpose. It is what drives individuals to push for change. There are three main identity groups: legitimizing identities, which are the dominant institutions that extend themselves onto others within a society; resistance identities, which are those in a society who have stigma and devalued conditions; and project identities, which are marginalized groups that redefine themselves and their position within a society to transform its overall structure (Castells, 2010). Through the lens of identity, one can discover the core principles and goals of a social movement, and why they may have begun in the first place.

The Case

A Brief History of Land Rights

During the late 1800’s, Latin America was experiencing a shift in landownership. Liberal politicians had begun targeting land controlled by the Catholic church. Subsequently, power over the land was taken by politicians, who sold and commodified it. Indigenous populations in Latin America were adversely affected; the land on which they were living communally was stolen through its privatization, forcing them out of their homes and into poverty.  Vagrancy laws were implemented by politicians to ensure these displaced Indigenous populations sold their labor for unlivable wages. The working conditions were horrendous: neither healthy nor safe. Indigenous populations in Latin America were forced into poverty by the shift in landownership. In addition, the United States established the Monroe Doctrine, which stated its opposition towards European interference in Latin America. The United States promised to protect the Western Hemisphere, but the country instead became the biggest threat to Latin America because of its tendency to intervene.

It was these political conditions, however, that inspired the Guatemalan revolution. During the revolution, the old government was overthrown and replaced by a democracy. Under this democracy, major changes were made in favor of working-class, indigenous Guatemalans. For the first time, their voices were amplified; with that, came improvements to their living conditions.

Ten Years of Spring: Agrarian Radicalism

In 1952, the Decree 900, also known as the Agrarian Reform Law, was passed under the presidency of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (Handy, 1994). This law promised to fix the major misdistribution of land in Guatemala. Douglas Trefzger (2002) concluded that before the Decree was implemented, “Approximately 2 percent of the population controlled 72 percent of Guatemala’s arable land, while 88 percent of the population held only 14 percent of the land” (Trefzger, 2002). This major inequality was rooted in a history of racism and theft, where the communal lands of indigenous people were taken and given to wealthy, white elites. In a country where the majority of its population is agricultural, this had devastating effects. Therefore, the struggle for landownership became a central issue for indigenous populations.

Under the Agrarian Reform Law, over half a million hectares of land were redistributed with the intention of developing the peasant and agricultural economy as well as minimize exploitation (Trefzger, 2002). President Arbenz hoped that the economic boost would make Guatemala a modern capitalist state and economically independent. With the indigenous populations under the control of the land, new methods of cultivation were expected to be created.

Its Effects

Ten years of tremendous reform defined the revolution in Guatemala. According to Around 19 to 24 percent of the Guatemalan campesino population directly benefited from the land redistribution (all of whom were either Maya or ladino, which means mixed with indigenous and European). The two progressive presidents responsible for the country’s reforms were Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (Handy, 1994). While Arevalo was responsible for starting the revolution, it was Arbenz who formed a comprehensive development plan for rural Guatemala (Gleijeses, 1989). Therefore, this paper’s analysis will only focus on Arbenz’s administration, because of the land redistribution that occurred during his presidency.

How much influence did campesinos have over the Agrarian Reform Law? How much authority was given to them? How efficient was the land redistribution process?


Reform Execution

Under the administration of Arbenz, indigenous Guatemalans saw major improvements to their living conditions. This, however, was not exclusively done by Arbenz. In order to execute his plan as efficiently as possible, the president created a series of hierarchical organizations with different responsibilities surrounding the Agrarian Reform Law (Handy, 1994).  The top tier of these organizations consisted of government officials, whose purpose was to oversee and manage specific sectors of the law’s implementation at the national level (Handy, 1994). The name of these organizations were the National Agrarian Department and National Agrarian Council. Because of the nature of these two organizations, the form of participation that took place could be considered informing, which Arstein (1969) defines as “informing citizens of their rights, responsibilities, and options… However, too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information – from officials to citizens – with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation” (Arstein, 1969: 8). Since the focus of these organizations was to implement laws for citizens and to ensure the laws functioned for them, there was very limited space for citizens to provide feedback on how the reform could be improved. Citizens were informed of their rights through national publications (Handy, 1994).

Fortunately, the bottom tier organizations, named the Departmental Agrarian Committee (CAD) and the Local Agrarian Committee (CAL), had a more intimate relationship with the citizens of Guatemala (Handy, 1994). The function of these organizations was to have transparent participation for campesino workers, ensuring that the agrarian land reform was processed from the bottom up. Instead of the Guatemalan government forcefully occupying and redistributing land from elites, the task was left for campesinos, who, through the use of bottom tier organizations, could gain access to land. As stated by Gleijeses (1989), “Any person who thought he was entitled, could petition the CAL for land which he considered eligible for expropriation. The CAL would assess the validity of the request and forward its recommendation to the Departmental Agrarian Committee” (Gleijeses, 1989: 460-461). The purpose of the CAD and CAL was essentially to function as a direct link between campesinos and governmental power. Whenever a campesino desired a plot of land from an elite, they used these local organizations as a method of accessing legal power to expropriate the land. Thus, land redistribution was fully done by campesino workers. The CAD and CAL only interfered with campesino petitions when they were considered invalid or unjustified (Gleijeses, 1989).

This bottom-up method of land redistribution was brilliant. Through the framework analysis of Arstein (1969), the participation implemented by the bottom tier organizations can be defined as delegated power. Delegated power is when “negotiations between citizens and public officials can also result in citizens achieving dominant decision-making authority over a particular plan or program” (Arstein, 1969: 15). Citizens, specifically Guatemalan campesinos, had the ability to choose which sectors of land would be expropriated. The CAD and CAL served to give campesino petitions the governmental power to expropriate land owned by wealthy elites. Although the CAL and CAD had the ultimate authority over whether a campesino’s petition was valid or not, campesinos dominated the decision-making process of land reform in Guatemala.

Deliberation, as defined by Patrick Heller and Vijayendra Rao (2015), between Arbenz’s administration and opposing political parties was common, but ineffective (Handy, 1994). Throughout the ten years of spring, right-winged political parties and wealthy elites tried slowing the changes caused by the Agrarian Reform Law. Arbenz was often taken to court where he was forced to listen to right-winged complaints about the reform (Gleijeses, 1989). Fortunately for Arbenz’s administration, these deliberative meetings were ineffective, as nothing was done to lower right-wing and elite concerns about the Agrarian Reform Law (Gleijeses, 1989). This is because Arbenz’s government knew what they wanted in regards to campesino workers and land rights. Because opposing political parties only wanted to reduce the reform’s power, they were often ignored in deliberative spaces.

Campesinos and Reform

Not only did the Arbenz’s administration Agrarian Reform Law stimulate participation of Guatemalan campesinos, but it did so in a way that made them aware of their social power and needs. Quoting Gleijeses, “In Fortuny’s words, ‘We proposed the creation of peasant committees in order to lay the groundwork for the eventual radicalization of the peasantry’” (Gleijeses, 1989: 461). The Arbenz administration wanted to raise working-class consciousness and improve the sociological imagination of Guatemalans so that they man radicalize. Because land reform heavily relied on the action of rural Guatemalans, it was necessary for them to understand their circumstances and be radical about them. This was done so they may continue pushing towards social changes. As Mills (2000) states, the sociological imagination enables one to understand the larger historical scene in which they live, and how that influences their lives and those around them. It is crucial for one to have this awareness to understand the context of their reality. For the case of the campesino, their bodies and their land were exploited for the economic benefit of wealthy elites. Under this context, campesino workers would be less likely to submit to exploitative landowners (Gleijeses, 1989).

The stimulation of campesino workers’ sociological imagination under Arbenz’s administration was very effective, so much so that approximately 100,000 families gained land after the reform (exact numbers are unknown) (Gleijeses, 1989). Additionally, to reduce land reform, opposing political parties and elites claimed that the CAL and campesino workers were being violent (Gleijeses, 1989). Although the claim of “violence” was an exaggeration for political purposes (Gleijeses, 1989), this claim suggests that after Arbenz’s reform, campesino mobilizing efforts against landowning elites grew.

Although Arbenz may be credited for propelling land redistribution, it is important to acknowledge that land rights activism preceded his administration; campesino workers have always been at the forefront of this struggle. This is because of their resistance and project identity in relation to Guatemalan society. As Castells (2010) states, resistance identities go against what legitimizing identities consider to be “normal.” For the case of Guatemala, wealthy elites dominate the country. Therefore, they established a system that exploits marginalized communities for the benefit of elites. Subsequently, campesino workers were placed in conditions that caused their resistance identity to transform into a project identity because they began pushing to redefine their position in society through activism and grassroots organizing (Castells, 2010). The Ejército General de los Pobres (EGP), Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA), and the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR) are some indigenous organizations that fought for Guatemalan land rights before the administration of Arbenz (U.S. Gov. Printing Office, 1981). These organizations focused on radicalizing and arming indigenous populations to strengthen the land movement within the country. During the ten years of spring, they brought the land rights struggle to the forefront, causing the implementation of the Agrarian Land Reform (Gleijeses, 1989).


The Agrarian Reform Law was approached through a series of hierarchical organizations. The top tier organizations, the National Agrarian Department and National Agrarian Council, followed what Arstein (1969) would call informing. There was minimal participation at these levels because they served as overseers and managers of the reform law. The bottom tier organizations, CAL and CAD, followed Arstein’s (1969) delegated power. This level created an intimate bond with campesino workers, serving as their direct form of access to government authority and land expropriation. Deliberation between Arbenz’s administration and right-winged political parties occurred, but little changes came from them. This was because right-winged politicians wanted to slow the reform to a halt.

Arbenz’s approach to the Agrarian Reform Law and its delegated power improved the sociological imagination of campesino workers. Through organizations like the CAL and CAD, campesinos became more aware of their social power over the country. This stimulated and sped up the land redistribution process to a rate that improved the lives of thousands of indigenous Guatemalan communities.

Lastly, it is important to remember that land rights have always a central issue for indigenous workers because of their resistance and project identity in relation to Guatemalan society. Grassroots organizations and activist groups, such as the Ejercito General de los Pobres (guerrillas), Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, and the Organization of the People in Arms, have always been and continue to be at the forefront of the struggle for landownership. Indigenous communities in modern-day Central America continue to face major inequalities. Little has been done by Central American governments to improve these conditions. It is important we spread awareness and raise the voices of indigenous people, who continue to push for change.




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Global Models of Citizen Participation Copyright © by Angel Daniel-Morales; Dithi Ganjam; Eileen Kim; and Annie Palacio. All Rights Reserved.

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