Guatemala City, October 20. Forty-one years ago, right-wing mercenaries stripped him of the presidency, his clothes and forced him from the country. Yesterday he returned to a hero's welcome.
Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, a hero of the 1944 revolution, was elected president in 1951 with the largest majority in Guatemalan history. But Arbenz's attempts to strengthen national independence, the expropriation (with compensation) of unused land belonging to US transnationals and the inclusion of communists in his government aroused the ire of the US State Department and Central Intelligence Agency.
In June of 1954, CIA planes bombed the capital and US trained and armed troops poured over the border. Days later, Arbenz resigned. Guatermala's ten-year "democratic spring" came to an abrupt end.
In the decades of military repression that followed the coup, Arbenz became a symbol for Guatemalans struggling for democracy and social justice. Although the ousted president died in 1971, his image lived on to inspire hope in a new generation of activists.
Yesterday, the army and government finally permitted "the People's Soldier" to come home. Arbenz's coffin was greeted at the airport with full military honors. Accompanied by hundreds of students, he was transported to the Presidential Palace where a troop of army cadets waited to carry him in. But to the chants of "murderous army out of power," the students carried the coffin straight past the cadets, and before stunned guards could close the gates, streamed into the palace. For perhaps the first time since the fall of Arbenz, students filled the corridors of power.
"The same army that forced Arbenz from the palace, has no right to carry him in again," explained student leaders.
Today, the anniversary of 1944 October revolution, thousands paid homage to Arbenz. Early this morning, supporters of the New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG), self-proclaimed heirs of the revolution, gathered on the outskirts of the capital to march to the Central Plaza where thousands more waited to greet the ex-president.
To the cries of "Jacobo lives, the struggle continues!" and under a rain of blood-red carnations, students carried Arbenz's coffin from the palace - at the request of Arbenz's widow, Maria Vilanova, it would be the people, not soldiers, who brought him to his final resting place.
Led by returned refugees who had marched from their communities to protest the Xaman massacre, a lively crowd of thousands of workers, students, mayas, housewives, office workers, merchants and politicians accompanied Arbenz to the cemetery.
The procession interspersed its homilies to the president with vociferious cries against the army and in favor of retaking the land from the landlords. Every few hundred yards, the procession stopped and a new group of citizens took charge of carrying "the greatest president the country has seen."
The candidates for the FDNG carried the coffin for the final stretch in to the cemetery, and, as thousands sang the national anthem the people's soldier was laid to rest in his homeland.