General Jorge Ubico y Castañeda (1878-1946) served as president of Guatemala for a 13-year period from 1931 to 1944, a pivotal era for that nation. His presidency formed the basis of the political and economic activity of his nation during the major portion of the 20th century, though his regime remains controversial since its accomplishments were achieved through a harsh and repressive dictatorship.
Jorge Ubico y Castañeda was born in Guatemala City on November 10, 1878, the only son of a wealthy landowner and prominent political figure closely associated with the then president of Guatemala, Justo Rufino Barrios. Indeed, President Barrios served as godfather to Jorge Ubico. Ubico was married to Marta Lainfiesta de Ubico. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Guatemalan army at an early age, Ubico enjoyed a distinguished military career, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel after only nine years as an officer, and the rank of full colonel at the age of 28.
His career included combat experience in the 1906 war between Guatemala and El Salvador and service as Jefe Político (governor) and Comandante de Armas (military commander) of the Guatemalan departments (states) of Alta Verapaz (1907-1909) and Retalhuleu (1911-1919), as well as several years as head of the National Sanitary Commission, which had charge of the campaign to eliminate yellow fever from Guatemala through mosquito control. In these positions he established a reputation as an energetic, efficient, and decisive leader. He served as minister of war from 1921 to 1923 and as first designate to the presidency (first vice president) in 1922, being promoted to general of division, the highest rank in the Guatemalan army, in 1922.
Ubico became president of Guatemala in 1931 following a period of political chaos which included the illness of the incumbent president, an attempted military coup, and intense maneuvering which led to an election in which Ubico emerged as the sole candidate. Hence Ubico assumed office by unanimous election. The origin of the crisis was the global depression of the 1930s which virtually destroyed the Guatemalan economy by depressing the price of coffee, the nation's principal export. Ubico found a balance of exactly $27 in the national treasury.
The new president's initial actions were characterized by dynamism and honesty. He stamped out corruption through harsh methods and thoroughly reorganized the governmental apparatus, operating the regime on a limited, almost stingy, budget. Ubico's impact on the nation was dramatic as he launched a series of immense projects to modernize the nation. He relied on local materials and labor intensive methods, however, often using individuals imprisoned on minor charges as laborers on his construction projects. During his initial nine years in office Ubico literally rebuilt his nation, constructing most of its major public buildings, including the offices of all major national governmental divisions, administration buildings in departmental capitals and cities, and other facilities such as customs houses. His major contribution was a massive road-building effort which provided Guatemala with its first national highway network. Although these were mainly dirt roads, they opened remote areas of the nation to settlement and agriculture, enabling the creation of a national economy.
His efforts also reached into the countryside through the construction of water purification systems and projects which brought electricity to many remote towns which previously had no such services. Ubico's economic program focused on exports and involved attracting foreign investment, though he refused to engage in governmental borrowing from abroad. In addition, the Ubico regime reformed the banking system and stabilized the currency, creating the basis for the revival of the Guatemalan economy. Foreign investment increased Guatemala's economic production, in the process creating new salaried labor and middle classes, but also increased Guatemala's importance in and dependence upon the world economy. The resulting modernization clearly benefitted the domestic landowners, fortifying the position of the wealthy classes.
Ubico's vagrancy law of 1934 abolished the system of debt peonage which, since colonial days, had enabled landowners to hold peasants responsible for loans owed by their parents, making the peasants legally bound to work in virtual slavery until their earnings paid the debts. Ubico's law abolished the debts, but substituted a system by which anyone who was unemployed could be arrested and forced to work at minimal wages. Hence the peasants could still be compelled to work, but the peasants' lives would henceforth be controlled by the national government, not by the local landlords—a fundamental change, but one which did not necessarily eliminate abuses.
Like many of his predecessors in the Guatemalan presidency, Ubico succumbed to the temptation to perpetuate himself in office. Using the rationale that he needed to complete his program, Ubico orchestrated well planned campaigns which led to constitutional amendments extending his term of office in 1936 and in 1942. While the initial extension of his term was popular, the second demonstrated the effectiveness of his political machine.
Throughout his years in power Ubico maintained tight control of the entire nation in his own hands, making virtually all important decisions himself. He closely supervised the actions of all branches of the government and travelled extensively throughout the nation personally inspecting all construction projects. His trips took him to remote villages that had never before been visited by a national president. He also maintained a close surveillance of all aspects of the lives of his nation's citizens with an extensive police and security apparatus that effectively stamped out dissent. Police methods and prison conditions were harsh.
By 1944 the dictator had outlived his time as he had failed to share power with the new societal groups, such as the middle class, that had resulted from the economic development he had fostered. The result was a protest movement led by university students, young urban professionals, and younger army officers. To everyone's surprise Ubico resigned the presidency, relinquishing office peacefully and avoiding a bloodbath. He turned power over to the military commanders who were later overthrown by a second revolution in 1944, leading to an era of social reform in Guatemala.
Controversy continued to swirl about the Ubico era as the intellectuals who supported the revolutionary reforms depicted Ubico as a ruthless tyrant, emphasizing the abuses of his regime and paying scant attention to the dramatic changes he had brought about in Guatemala. Throughout the succeeding decades presidential candidates identified themselves either as supporters or opponents of Ubico. In this sense Ubico continued to dominate his nation politically long after his death, just as he had laid the foundations of modern Guatemala by creating the infrastructure and basic services that brought his nation into the 20th century. Ubico died in exile in New Orleans on June 14, 1946. He remained so controversial that his body was not returned to its final burial in his native land until 1963.
Further Reading on General Jorge Ubico y Castañeda
Ubico's methods and accomplishments are detailed in Kenneth J. Grieb, Guatemalan Caudillo: The Regime of Jorge Ubico, Guatemala, 1931-1944 (1979). A contemporary account is provided in Chester Lloyd Jones, Guatemala: Past and Present (1940).