María Cristina Vilanova Castro de Árbenz (San Salvador, 27 April 1915-San José, 5 January 2009) was the First Lady of Guatemala from 1951-1954, as she was married to the Guatemalan President coronel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán.
Vilanova de Arbenz was born in San Salvador in 1915, and his parents belonged to the society elite and were of German ascendance. She got a privileged education in the best European institutions. In a family trip to Guatemala she met colonel Arbenz and they eventually got married there. Vilanova was the first wife of a Guatemalan President to ever attend all of his public functions, and also the first one to perform social work. She has been often compared to Eva Perón given that she was also a feminist and had strong influence in the government during his husband's time in office. She was accused of Communism along her husband and of influencing him while in exile. After her husband died in 1971 in Mexico, Vilanova moved to Costa Rica with her family, where she finally died in 2009.
After resigning due to the coup organized by the United Fruit Company and the Department of State of the United States, the Árbenz Vilanova family remained for 73 days at the Mexican embassy in Guatemala, which was crowded with almost 300 exiles. When they were finally allowed to leave the country, Jacobo Arbenz was publicly humiliated at the airport because the liberationist authorities made the former president strip before the cameras claiming that he was carrying jewelry he had bought for his wife María Cristina Vilanova at Tiffany's in New York City, using funds from the presidency; no jewelry was found but the interrogation lasted for an hour The Arbenz family then initiated a long pilgrimage in exile that would take them first to México, then to Canada, where they went to pick Arabella, and then to Switzerland, via the Netherlands. Jacobo Arbenz completed the forms required by the Swiss government, but the Swiss authorities asked him for the renunciation of his Guatemalan nationality, to prevent the ousted president drove from Switzerland his resistance.
The ousted president did not accept this requirement, as he felt that such gesture would have marked the end of his political career. Furthermore, he could not benefit from political asylum, because Switzerland had not yet ratified the 1951 Agreement of the newly created High Commissioner United Nations for Refugees, which was designed to protect people fleeing from communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Perhaps the fate of the ousted president would have been different if his country of origin would have allowed him in exile: it would also have been the first major political asylum in Latin America character in Switzerland. However, Árbenz and his family were instead the victims of an intense, CIA-orchestrated defamation campaign that lasted from 1954 to the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959. Árbenz's close friend Carlos Manuel Pellecer worked for the CIA, playing a key role in the defamation campaign.
After being spurned by Switzerland, the Árbenz family moved to Paris, and then to Prague. Czechoslovak officials were uncomfortable with his stay, unsure if he would demand payment for the poor quality of arms from the Second World War that they had sold him in 1954. After only three months, he moved again, this time to Moscow, which was a relief from the harsh treatment he got in Czechoslovakia. He tried several times to return to Latin America, and was finally allowed to move to Uruguay in 1957 (Arbenz joined the Communist Party in that year), living in Montevideo from 1957 to 1960. Uruguay had lived with intensity and optimism throughout the Guatemalan revolutionary process, and attended helplessly at the end of the Arbenz government.
For this and for being a hospitable country, it received and hold for a while the two former presidents of the so-called Guatemalan Democratic Spring. Arévalo arrived at Montevideo on several occasions before, establishing himself there between 1958 and early the following year, when he accepted a university position in Venezuela; he enjoyed some freedom and could express himself through newspaper articles. On the other hand, Arbenz and his family, who arrived in mid-1957, had a very different experience: his friendship with the communists, especially with José Manuel Fortuny, and forced passage through Czechoslovakia, the USSR and China, aroused suspicions. When the National Party took power in Uruguay in late 1958, the situation worsened for Arbenz, who eventually went to Cuba.
In 1960, after the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro asked Árbenz to come to Cuba, a suggestion that Árbenz Guzmán readily agreed to. In October 1965, Arabella met Mexican bullfighter Jaime Bravo Arciga, who at that time was at his best moment as a bullfighting figure and was to start a tour of South America; Arabella took advantage of this and fled with him to Colombia. While in Bogotá on October 5, 1965, Arabella tried to convince Bravo Arciga not to continue working as bullfighter, fearing for his life: after an afternoon where Bravo Arciga had been gored he went to a luxurious gentlemen's club in the Colombian capital. Arabella phoned the place pleading to talk to Bravo Arciga, but he ignored her, as he was totally inebriated and in a foul mood after the incident with the bull. She finally came to the place, went to the darkest corner and shot herself. Bravo Arciga was notified of the tragedy and his entourage took care of her body. Arabella's death was a huge blow to the both the bullfighter and Jacobo Arbenz: both would die within five years of her death.
Bravo Arciga contacted Jorge Palmieri via telephone to Mexico, and asked him to take charge of the funeral. Palmieri, who had strong influence in the Mexican government at the time, got to be allowed to bury Arabella in the Pantheon of the National Association of Actors of Mexico, since she had worked in an experimental film a few months earlier. Palmieri also pulled strings to allow Arbenz, his wife and his children James and Leonora to go to Mexico to be present at the funeral. In 2011, with a written agreement, the Guatemalan State recognized its international responsibility for "failing to comply with its obligation to guarantee, respect, and protect the human rights of the victims to a fair trial, to property, to equal protection before the law, and to judicial protection, which are protected in the American Convention on Human Rights and which were violated against former President Juan Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, his wife, María Cristina Vilanova, and his children, Juan Jacobo, María Leonora, and Arabella, all surnamed Arbenz Villanova."