History ETDs

Publication Date

Fall 8-18-1975


Between 1840 and 1944, four men ruled Guatemala a total of seventy-five years. The last and one of the most contro­versial of these strong Presidents was Don Jorge Ubico y Castañeda who governed the nation from 1931 until 1944. A member of Guatemala's elite, Ubico enforced political tranquility, promoted administrative probity, substituted the prosecution of vagrancy for debt peonage, and instituted other measures which had been advocated throughout the 1920's. Indeed, without some knowledge of the preceding decades, it is impossible to under­stand Ubico's reign fully.

As a young military officer during the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera, Ubico was appointed jefe político first of Alta Verapaz and then of Retalhuleu. In this capacity, he displayed many traits which would later characterize his rule as Chief Executive: a desire to increase agricultural produc­tion, an insistence on governmental frugality and integrity, a willingness to use the ley fuqa and other extralegal methods to combat crime, and a paternalistic attitude towards the Indians. Moreover, it was in Retalhuleu that Ubico first earned domestic and international acclaim for his work in the yellow fever campaign and against the influenza epidemic of 1918. His labors brought him to the attention of the State Department, which would view Don Jorge favorably from 1918 until almost 1941. His health measures in Retalhuleu also reportedly prompted General Gorgas to exclaim, "What a great President of Guatemala Ubico would make!"

Defeated in the 1922 presidential election, Ubico was given the portfolio of war as a reward for his pivotal role in the 1921 cuartelazo against Carlos Herrera. Don Jorge supported José María Orellana until 1925, crushing Conservative opposition to the regime. This enabled Orellana to consolidate his government and undertake long-overdue financial reforms on which Ubico would later build when he assumed the presidency, Convinced that Orellana planned to remain in office, Ubico's supporters formed Los Cincos, a secret cellular organization to advance Don Jorge's candidacy for President. From this humble beginning would finally emerge, despite government persecution in 1929, the Partido Liberal Proqresista, the only political organization permitted in Guatemala between 1931 and 1944.

Undoubtedly, Ubico's elevation to the presidency in 1931 resulted primarily from the public's discontent with the inef­ficiency and corruption associated with the administration of Lázaro Chacón, who had been elected five years earlier. Chacón's victory over Ubico in the 1926 presidential election reflected the elite's fear that the latter would not be able to control radical university students who had gravitated to his camp.

Convinced that he would have to broaden his base of power, Ubico subsequently enhanced his position by attracting older Liberals who increasingly were dissatisfied with Chacón and thoroughly frightened by the elevation of the Conservatively ­inclined Baudilio Palma. With the military ouster of Palma and the refusal of the United States to recognize General Manuel Orellana, the way was cleared for Ubico's elevation to the Executive office.

Based on Guatemalan journals, newspapers, scholarly and literary works, interviews with former high-ranking officials of Ubico' s government, and State Department despatches, this dissertation details the rise of Jorge Ubico to power and explores the events which subsequently affected the General's conduct as President.

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First Committee Member (Chair)

Edwin Lieuwen

Second Committee Member

Peter J. Bakewell

Third Committee Member


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