GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 20 (Reuter) - Thousands of Guatemalans flocked to the capital's cemetery on Friday for the burial of the remains of a former Guatemalan president whose leftist government was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1954.
The burial of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz brought together friends and family, Mayan Indians and students who walked through the streets of Guatemala City to a city cemetery in a rare show of unity.
The only point of discord was the arrival at the cemetery of Defence Minister General Marco Antonio Gonzalez, who stayed in his car after crowds booed and screamed "army of assassins get out of the country.''
In marked contrast to Arbenz's departure from Guatemala when soldiers stripped him to his underwear at the capital's international airport before sending him into exile, his body was received at the military airport Thursday with full presidential honours by the defence minister.
On Friday, people fought to carry Arbenz's coffin and in the packed cemetry climbed on tombs to catch a glimpse of the burial and hear his Salvadoran widow, Maria Vilanova, speak.
Others threw red carnations at the coffin shouting: "Jacobo, Jacobo.''
Some elderly Guatemalans broke down in tears as they recalled the reformist regime led by Arbenz and the years of brutal military repression after his government fell. Arbenz, who died in Mexico City in 1971, was Guatemala's last leftist president.
His remains were exhumed in El Salvador, where Vilanova lives and flown here as part of efforts by the state-run San Carlos University to promote reconciliation in Guatemala, which has been bitterly divided by a 34-year civil war.
The son of a Swiss pharmacist who had emigrated to Guatemala, Arbenz was among a group of Army officers who overthrew Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944. He became president in 1950, incurring the anger of U.S. banana companies and American politicians with his pledges to boost labour organisations and redistribute land to peasants.
"People remember Arbenz with affection, he had good intentions but unfortunately given the Cold War environment he didn't have a chance,'' said Guatemalan businessman Federico Cruz, who came to the cemetery with his elderly parents.
Earlier in the day thousands of Guatemalans, including some army officers, visited a room in the National Palace to file past the coffin and pay their respects to Arbenz.
"All I know is that there was no persecution during his government, afterwards people began dying,'' said journalist Mario Sandoval Figueroa, 77, his voice choked with emotion.
Nationalist sentiment was running high as Guatemalans recalled the role played by the Central Intelligence Agency in orchestrating the 1954 coup.
"Yankee imperialism brought him down,'' Figueroa said.
Since then, more than 100,000 people, most of them indigenous peasants, have died in Latin America's longest civil war and an additional 40,000 have disappeared, the majority at the hands of right-wing death squads.