Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Honoring Arbenz in Guatemalan School Curricula: Implications for Social Cohesion



More than 60 years after a U.S.-backed coup against pro-poor, pro-indigenous President Jacobo Arbenz, the Guatemalan government has committed to publicly honor the ousted president.  The Guatemalan government will issue an official apology to Arbenz’ surviving family members, construct an exhibit in the country’s National History Museum and revise its school curricula to treat him as a hero, according to a recent New York Times article.

The Guatemalan government’s decision to include Arbenz in its school curricula is a significant move that institutionalizes the honoring of a powerful indigenous rights advocate. It also formally incorporates the indigenous perspective in a system that has a profound effect on social climate.

Education and social cohesion are inseparably intertwined.  An education system has the power to either mitigate or exacerbate societal problems and even civil conflict through both its structure and content.  Levels of accessibility to education can indicate inclusiveness, while curricula determine values and meanings in a society.  Scholars on this subject go as far as to suggest education systems as a gauge for the relationship between the state and civil society.  A recent study on public-private partnerships in education published by Americas Society is underpinned by the notion that inclusive societies are built upon inclusive education systems.

Guatemalan society is still marked by inequality and social fragmentation after the 36-year civil war and genocide that ensued after Arbenz was overthrown.  Access to schooling, quality of education, and measured performance levels are drastically varied between indigenous and non-indigenous, rural and urban populations.  Among the factors that contribute to this inequality are failures to address the specific needs and challenges of these marginalized populations, and methodologies and content that fail to reflect indigenous and rural perspectives.  While certain state programs and private schools do address multicultural and bilingual education—there is a department devoted to this in the Ministry of Education—the system-wide inclusion of Arbenz and his legacy could incorporate the indigenous perspective in state and societal agenda in a new and profound way.

Inclusion is represented in school systems both in access and content.  Whether and how the indigenous population and their perspectives are addressed in state-determined school curricula directly represents the government’s attitude toward them.  The Guatemalan government has only begun to address multiculturalism in its approach to education in recent decades, and the commitment to a system-wide inclusion of Arbenz has tremendous implications in this capacity.  Teaching about Arbenz and his pro-indigenous policies as relevant and heroic actions in schools represents a significant step toward redefining the meanings and values of a society still showing the scars of civil war and genocide. 

This public effort to right a wrong—to publicly honor a man once publicly disgraced—and to do so in schools, can potentially trigger an evolution of values that acknowledge and respect indigenous rights and help restore Arbenz’ legacy.  It can instill new values in a new generation and foster trust in state associations.  This kind of associational trust is a necessary condition for working toward social cohesion.

The move to honor Arbenz in school curricula will certainly not repair Guatemalan society, but it is has very positive implications for healing and recovery.  The significance is twofold: it shows potential for change in a system that often reflects state-civic relations, and has historically been marked by its marginalization of indigenous peoples. It also shows the potential for instilling new values into the next generation of civic and state leaders. 

Recovery and cohesion in a society that has been through the horrors that Guatemala has seen does not come from one new policy.  Arbenz’ grandson acknowledges in the Times article that justice took a generation to come about.  Beyond justice, healing and recovery may take lifetimes.  But changing a powerful state system—the education system—to honor Arbenz’ legacy and indigenous rights provides hope and potential in this lifetime for the necessary conditions.

Sarah Chakrin is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is a certified Montessori teacher with a Master’s Degree in Global Affairs from New York University.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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