John Gerassi, The Great Fear in Latin America, 1963, 1965.

Chapter 12

Central America

The six countries that make up Central America -- Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala -- are among the most backward in the whole hemisphere. One is almost totally Indian (Guatemala); another is almost totally white (Costa Rica); the rest are basically mestizo or mixed-blood (Spanish, Indian, and Negro). All six have been ruled by dictators, and most have served as a playground for our Marines; as such, much of their suffering falls within the scope of Chapter 17.

Costa Rica has had a lukewarm Nationalist revolution that, though frustrated, corrupted, and abandoned, nevertheless deserves a separate Chapter 14.

The others have never had even the chance to judge the merits or demerits of true democracy. To their people, mostly illiterate and apolitical, "democracy" means the corruption of the many, whereas "dictatorship" means the corruption of a few.

Before taking a closer look, we must spend a few pages on a fruit. No understanding of Central America is possible without an analysis of -- bananas!

This little crescent-shaped, easily perishable food is the world's most important fruit, as shown by the table on page 168. Since some 40 percent of the world's fresh fruit trade (and consumption) is in bananas, it is clear that their production is of great importance -- all the more so when we learn that bananas, residents of the tropics, do not grow in the United States. We must, therefore, import all [168]

Percentage of Fruit Trade in the World
% Fresh % Total
Fresh Bananas
Oranges and Tangerines
Lemons and Limes
Apple, table
Pears, table
Grapes, table ,
Dried Dates
our needs, and apparently we need bananas more than does any other region:

% of world imported
U.S. and Canada
South America
Africa, Asia, Oceania



The next background fact that we should know is that Latin America is the world's Number One producer:

Central America
South America

68.8% of world total


Almost 70 percent of the world's bananas are grown in Latin America. The world's total production of bananas (what is exported plus what is locally consumed) is about 26 billion pounds. Therefore, at the average retail banana price of $0.17 a pound, Latin America should earn 70 percent of 26,000,000,000 times 17, or more than $3 billion a year. Latin America consumes exactly half of its own production, meaning that if Latin America owned its banana crop, and the bananas were distributed and sold by Latin Americans, about $1.05 billion ($1.5 billion less 30 percent export markup) would be circulating in Latin America.

If the production was owned by the governments, Latin America's profits would be $357 million in local currency (34 percent of $1.05 billion). Furthermore, its gross revenue from exports would be $450 million (70 percent of $1.5 billion going for shipment, jobber and retailer costs), of which $351 million (production costs and shipping to local embarkation points being 22 percent) would be net profits. Crystallizing these figures, we find that if Latin America's governments owned their banana production (but not local distributors or retailers):

$1.5 billion in currency would circulate in Latin America, of which $450 million would be in dollars;

$708 million in hard currency profits would be added to national budgets,

of which $351 million would be in dollars.

Yet Latin America receives an average (1951-1960) of only $192,100,000 yearly. Most of the difference belongs to an octopus corporation, chartered out of Boston, called the United Fruit Company.

Owning almost 2,000,000 acres in six Latin American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Colombia) -- plus thousands of acres in sugarcane, cacao, and oil palm, about 1,500 miles of railroads, some 60 ships, sugar refineries, whole ports (from land and houses to streetcars and lampposts), communication networks (including the Tropical Radio Telegraph Co., which operates throughout Central America) -- United Fruit holds between 30 and 40 percent of the world's banana market, more than 60 percent of United States sales, and 60 percent of the six countries' banana exports; or if Ecuador (where banana competition is stiff) is excluded, 80 percent [170] of the five. Of United's acreage, only about 5.2 percent is farmed; the rest is held in reserve.

United Fruit can be said to dominate Panama completely since the country's bananas account for 70 percent of all exports and since the company's share is 93 percent, that is 93 times 70, or 63 percent of Panama's foreign-exchange earnings. Also, United almost dominates (and is the strongest economic power in) Costa Rica and Honduras, controlling 41 percent and 42 percent of their respective foreign-exchange earnings.

But United Fruit brings into the six countries only about $145 million yearly, on which it pays about $18 million in yearly taxes. Whether the company makes or surpasses the net profit it claims -- $26 million -- is hard to judge, for various reasons: (1) it buys much of its services and material from its own subsidiaries, where prices, costs, and so on, can be juggled to fit the need; (2) it charges itself for local transportation, since it also owns its rail and trolley network (at least one country has accused United Fruit railroads of being the most expensive and the worst rail systems in the world); and (3) it charges itself whatever overseas transportation prices it wants, since it owns its own shipping fleet. (Fleet earnings are taxable where ships are registered, not where the freight is picked up.) But even if one accepts United Fruit's profit reports as accurate, it becomes clear that the company has earned back its investment over and over again, since the company itself claims its foreign investment to be only $159 million.

Whether it is true or not that United Fruit uses its position, economic power, and near monopoly holdings to influence, alter, dictate, or frustrate native government economies or policies is not for us to decide. There has been proof of such intervention in the past,1 and Nationalists insist it is still going on today, even to the extent that United Fruit finances revolutions (including the one in Guatemala in 1954) and coup d'etats to ensure "friendly" regimes. True or not, it is shocking enough that United Fruit has the power to so intervene if it wishes -- on its own.

And that United Fruit has at least near-monopoly power is proved by the fact that the United States Department of Justice was moved to sue it for antitrust-law violations [171] (Civil Action 4560, filed July 2, 1954, as amended January 12, 1956). Said the government: "With the exception of land in Ecuador, United owns, leases or otherwise controls 85 percent of the land in the American tropics suitable for banana cultivation."

Early in 1958, the antitrust suit was settled through a "consent decree" (approved by the company on April 16, 1958) that, while not proving United Fruit guilty as charged, did order it to comply with the following (among others):

  1. Divest itself of its stock ownership of the International Railways of Central America by June 30, 1966;
  2. Get rid of part of its producing lands, purchasing arrangements, shipping facilities, and distribution networks by 1970;
  3. Get rid of its Banana Selling Corporation, a Mobile, Alabama, subsidiary;
  4. Desist from engaging in jobbing operations, exclusive sales contracts, entering into collusive agreements with or coercive tactics against competitors, forcing its customers to use specified transportation media, boycotts, transportation monopolies, and so on.

Since then, United Fruit has got rid of more than 40,000 acres of banana land. But under these conditions: land has been rented or sold to local "associate producers" who are helped with United Fruit loans and technicians and to whom United Fruit supplies such services as weekly spraying (at a charge, naturally) on varying types of arrangements, including a fifty-fifty split in profits and an exclusivity-clause contract. In September, 1962, United Fruit announced its intentions of investing about $1,000,000 to raise bananas on 25,000 acres of virgin land in Colombia. The venture was to be in partnership with the Corporation Financiera Colombiana de Desarrollo Industrial, a private company which had negotiated a $6,000,000 loan from the First National Bank of Boston.2 United-CFCDI's plan is to clear the land, then let Colombians use it to raise bananas that must be sold to United Fruit. To United's President Thomas Sunderland, the deal was "the first sizable effort by private enterprise to put into actual practice the objectives of the Alliance for Progress to aid the advance and prosperity of Latin America." In fact, it served to increase United [172] Fruit's influence in Colombia, previously small.

United Fruit's new "arrangements" may not be considered monopolistic according to United States legal concepts, but its hold on the economy of Latin American banana-producing countries has remained unchanged, especially in Central America.

Panama has the least amount of people of any Latin American country -- barely over one million. It has, however, one of its greatest assets -- the Panama Canal.

Unfortunately for the people of Panama, the Canal's existence helps them very little. Work was originally begun on it by a French company, in an agreement with Colombia, in which Panama was then a state. Later, after quite a bit of our shenanigans, Panama rebelled, got United States aid, was recognized as an "independent" country -- and we took over the Canal's construction.

Colombia was paid $25 million as compensation, the French company $40 million for its rights, Panama a booby-prize gift of $10 million. Panama thereupon agreed to grant the Zone, a ribbon that slices the country in two, to the United States for $250,000 a year for ever, which, if not illegal, is immoral. That fee has been upped to $1,930, 000 a year today. We take in about $54,000,000 in tolls every year.

Aside from the numerous moral outrages perpetrated by our Canal Zone authorities, such as classifying our workers as "gold" and anyone else as "silver," and paying the golds twice, thrice, or even five times as much as the silvers for the same work (setting up this discrimination even in Canal post offices where windows were marked "gold" and "silver"), the Canal has brought only hardships to Panamanians.

Until fairly recently fences and guard posts got our extraterritorial status across rather harshly. Most fences are gone today, but the country is still divided by ten miles of "foreign" territory. (Unequal pay scales, incidentally, continue, despite a 1955 Remon-Eisenhower treaty promising the contrary.) Next, the United States constantly interfered in Panama's internal affairs, insisting its government be "well disposed" toward us.

Until 1936 Panama was an official protectorate of the United States. We policed Colon (on the Caribbean sea) [173] and Panama City (the capital, on the Pacific); we had the "right" to appropriate lands and waters at will, and to sell "commissary" goods to anyone.

After 1936 we kept our interference indirect, through diplomatic pressure. We also insisted that a National Police Force be created, and it has controlled politics ever since. Corrupt and arbitrary, it has made "elections" meaningless. The country has had twenty-nine presidents, five of them seated, then unseated, by one police chief, Jose Antonio Remon, who finally decided to become President himself in 1952.

Remon turned out to be a maverick, betraying his self-interested friends. He improved government services, forced public employees to work for their pay, cut down graft, began paying off Panama's debts, and was slowly developing into a lukewarm Nationalist. He was, therefore, assassinated in 1955, and the oligarchy, represented by such names as Arias or Chiari, returned.

The oligarchy, at the time of this writing, is in power through millionaire President Roberto Francisco Chiari; it will still be in power by the time this book is in bookstores, since the "election" of Marco A. Robles, Chiari's handpicked successor, will only have changed the names. This oligarchy has lived off the Canal and supporting businesses (services, retail stores, tourist trade, and so on) without doing one thing for the country. Even in the center of Panama City slums abound. One, called "Hollywood," has neither water nor plumbing nor electricity, not even streets. Both Colon and the capital are poor, dirty, full of bugs, prostitutes, pickpockets, and drug addicts. Naturally, the big banana plantations are owned by United Fruit. Those I saw in Chiriqui Province had slave-age conditions.

In the interior, peasant union organizers are persecuted. Early in August, 1962, a group of peasants seized a strip of land in Pacora Valley, and demanded that a primary school be erected thereon. A few weeks later, landless peasants occupied the valley's larger estates. About that time, too, university students went on strike in support of demands for better living conditions. On August 21st Major Manuel Jose Hurtado led eighteen carabineros into the jungles near Balboa, the beginning of a guerrilla operation. (Hurtado was trained in guerrilla warfare at our Zone's Fort Sherman.) In general, violence occurs much more frequently than is [174] reported in Panama's newspapers (owned by the oligarchy) or in ours.

Until Panamanians get rid of their oligarchical rulers, they will remain poor, illiterate, and unsovereign. Unless we change our Canal policy, however, that will not occur -- peacefully. In fact, most of current violence is actually stimulated by the oligarchy which wants more money from the U.S. for the Canal -- money of course, which never filters down to the people. Thus it is that each of the major riots that have caused clashes between the U.S. and Panama -- the most important of which occurred early in 1964 -- was sparked by Panama's rulers. Naturally, each time blood is spilled, these oligarchs blame the U.S. to their people, and local Nationalists to the U.S. So far we have reacted by giving in to this blackmail, and the Canal has remained a political football, helping to keep the Panamanians down.

No conscientious Latin American, however, considers our position on the Canal morally just. Even Panama's Christian Democrats, who are pro-United States, unhesitatingly insist that the Canal must be nationalized. We have got our investment back ten times over; we could at least offer to sell it back to Panama. Or we could take Panama in ' as an equal partner -- disbanding the Panama Canal Company and withdrawing our Armed Forces. We could always insist, in legal writing, that shipping must never be interfered with (and that the Canal must be operated, defended, and totally controlled by us in case of war). But until the Panama Canal has a different status, one that recognizes Panama's sovereignty, our reputation in Latin America will never be favorable. Perhaps we don't care. If we do, no Alliance for Progress can ever hope to offset actions, and to Latin Americans, our actions in Panama are inexcusable.

Nicaragua, the biggest of the Central American republics, is by far the worst. It is so poor and rundown that one corner of Managua's main square, where Congress, the cathedral, the tourist headquarters, and the oligarchy's club are located, is an empty lot. Along main Roosevelt Avenue are a few stores and a hotel or two, the swankiest of which (the Gran Hotel) is an ugly, hot, wooden monstrosity that, except for its swimming pool, would compare adversely with a dozen Times Square roach dens. [175]

The only impressive buildings are located on top of a hill at the other end of Roosevelt Avenue from main square. There stand two huge palaces: the President's and the National Guard commander's. Around them on one side are officers' quarters, barricades, fortifications, checkpoints, and fences. In back, after a hundred-foot precipice, is a small lake where Managua's womenfolk gather, coming from the far side, to wash their clothes. And between the military installations and the lake, on the only exposed flank, is, appropriately, the United States Embassy complex.

Aside from these buildings, Managua and the rest of Nicaragua is a filthy, year-long-hot, depressing hovel where only high military officers and a few well-connected oligarchs can escape the misery around them by flocking to the plush air-conditioned country club which, though not a military but a private club, is guarded by soldiers. But then, the whole country is run by soldiers -- for the Somozas.

Papa Somoza, named Anastasio and known as Tacho, was assassinated in 1956 after ruling Nicaragua as his personal slave camp for twenty years. Before he died he accumulated a $200 million grafted fortune that included a sugar mill, cement plant, and cotton gin, sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations, thousands of top farmlands and thousands of cattle, newspapers, the country's only TV station, and radio station, and an airline and steamship company.

After he died, his two sons -- "President" Luis and National Guard Commander General Anastasio ("Tachito") Somoza -- took over the country -- and the looting. The only difference between their behavior and Papa's is that the sons are more cowardly; they exchange rooms and beds in their huge palaces every night.

"President" Luis finally "decided" to allow "free" elections in February 1963 -- so as to get his share of Alliance goodies. The winner, naturally, was the official candidate, Rene Schick. A long-time Somoza pal and often a Somoza cabinet minister, Schick will nevertheless not reign with full Somoza trust: Tachito retains control of the National Guard, that is, remains the true ruler of Nicaragua.

Officially, however, the regime is now being referred to as a Democracy, and we can be expected to keep our dollars going in, as the Somozas predict. It does not seem to matter to us that the election was meaningless, that [176] only candidates approved by the Somozas were allowed to run, and that their leading opponent, Conservative Fernando Agiiero, had withdrawn before election day because of the obvious fix. Agiiero had another reason to withdraw -- fear. Back in July 1962, for example, when he returned from the United States and was met at the airport by some fifteen thousand Conservatives, who then marched peacefully back to town, Somozas' soldiers reacted by spraying them with bullets. In Nicaragua, even Conservatives had to learn the hard way that democratic process means Somozan success.3

Honduras is quaint -- that's all. Tegucigalpa, the capital, with 120,000 people, even has a pink chateau for a presidential palace. The city is built on Mount El Picacho and some picturesque streets, lined with stuccoed houses painted in gay colors, are stepped -- somewhat a handicap to the scooterbug. The city, like the countryside, is clean. Communications are almost nonexistent. Huge empty spaces separate small Indian farming centers, some of which we discovered had not heard of World War II, much less of the first -- or the possibility of a third.

United Fruit has done its best work in Honduras, building schools, experimental farms, and clinics. It also has taken over the choicest lands and coasts the country has to offer. It owns Puerto Cortes through which more than half of Honduras' trade passes (I wonder how Massachusetts residents would feel if Texas' King Ranch owned Boston?) and the port of Tela. Competitor Standard Fruit Company owns another port, La Ceiba.

Most people in Honduras are peaceful. The main exceptions are the land barons who often shoot down disobedient or complaining peons in cold blood ("They're armed, aren't [177] they?" one told me; "they could use their machetes."), and the army officers who see their function in life as the seizing of the government for themselves or for their oligarchical patrons.

Honduras has seen ten constitutions drafted and ignored, and a whole flock of dictators, succeeding themselves in rapid order through military coups. Until late 1963, it was ruled by a "democrat," President Ramon Villeda Morales, who talked well and recognized that Honduras is "the country of the four 70's -- 70 percent illiteracy, 70 percent illegitimacy, 70 percent rural populations, 70 percent avoidable deaths." Villeda Morales did wonders for democracy: his was one of the most corrupt regimes in Honduras' history. But a few days before elections to choose his successor came off, the Conservatives pushed the military to throw out Villeda, and the country is now ruled by a bunch of corrupt non-democrats instead of corrupt democrats.

El Salvador is the tiniest country in Latin America: its 2,700,000 people are squeezed 320 to the square mile. Its gold holdings are fair -- $30 million. Its balance of trade is favorable -- $133 million exports in 1959 versus $100 million imports. Its economy is stable -- the colon has remained frozen at 2.5 to the dollar for years. But there the positive statistics end.

The country has been run by a handful of coffee and banking families (called the Big 14) ever since the Spaniards left 140 years ago. Wages are incredibly low (top agricultural salary is $0.60 a day), unemployment high (30,000 in the capital, San Salvador, alone). More than half the population is illiterate. El Salvador and Uruguay have about the same number of people, and though the former's living conditions produce more illness than the latter's, El Salvador has one-third the hospitals, one-fourth the hospital beds, and one-seventh the doctors.

Since 1954 Salvador's poor have been getting poorer since real wages (cost rises over salary boosts) have dropped 30 percent; hence, they have withdrawn whatever bank deposits they might have had. The rich, on the other hand, have been getting richer, as proved by the fact that bank deposits have gone up from $35 million in 1954 to $42.6 million in 1961. In addition, the amounts invested abroad jumped from $10 million a year in 1954-1959 to more [178] than $25 million since. In the last six years, the Big 14 have about doubled their real worth (without even counting then- local reinvestments, which have tripled).

The Big 14 have ruled El Salvador through military dictators ever since anyone can remember. For four years, until October, 1960, President Colonel Jose Maria Lemus kept opponents in jail, using United States-equipped police to terrorize grumblers. Dictator Lemus came to the United States in March, 1959, was warmly received by President Eisenhower, and was awarded a Manhattan ticker-tape parade. Upon his return, Lemus apparently decided he had been too lenient, and began liquidating critics.

Then, in September, 1960, he outlawed all political rallies. Some five thousand San Salvador students staged a protest. Lemus' police broke it up, jailing scores of students. When students protested again, the police went after them with more brutality, followed some into the university, systematically smashed every office, classroom, and laboratory (one of which had been built with Rockefeller funds). "Every single blackboard was broken," a student told me. Goons also beat Dr. Napoleon Rodriguez Ruiz, the university president, bayoneted students, killed a librarian, and raped dozens of coeds. Finally, when seven thousand more students amassed anew, Lemus ordered his troops to open fire -- point-blank.

Horrified, El Salvador's moderates acted to save their country from further bloodshed, and especially from open rebellion, possibly of a Castroite texture. They deposed Lemus, set up a six-man junta, and promised free elections by 1962. But our State Department refused to recognize the new government. Ambassador Thorsten Kalijarvi, who had never met the three civil members of the junta, returned to Washington a week after the coup and branded the junta, which Castro had not recognized, as pro-Castro. His main argument, apparently, was that the junta had released political prisoners (mostly students) and promised every legal party free participation in the 1962 elections (not, however, the Communist Party, which remained illegal). The evidence was obviously deemed overwhelming; we delayed recognizing the junta until December. By then it was doomed.

The oligarchy, which had regrouped Lemus' militarists, staged a new coup and set up a government of rightist colonels that, when confronted with a new student demonstration, [179] resorted to former practices -- police again dispersed "rioters" with point-blank gunfire. This time there was no hesitation in Washington, no talk of "undemocratic" juntas. The Kennedy administration recognized the new government. In October, 1961, after launching such weak reforms as a seventy-cent-a-day wage minimum and a 33 percent cut in slum rents, the new strong man, Colonel Julio Adalberto Rivera, resigned to organize a "new" political party "to defend the reform program." He called it the National Conciliation Party, and presented candidates to fill every Constituent Assembly seat. There were 800,000 registered voters and seven opposition parties. But the army was in charge of the polls. Result: Rivera's men won all fifty-four seats.

A presidential election was called for April, 1962. This time the seven opposition parties refused to present candidates, charging that fraud was to be perpetrated again. Just a few days before the election, the entire crew of computing-machine operators, who insisted on releasing voting tabulations themselves without presenting them to army supervisors for "correction," were fired. Rivera wanted a good showing -- 500,000 votes -- despite the fact that he was unopposed.

Even with army help, however, he managed only 370,000. Heavily criticized for fraud in the Assembly election, he had finally admitted observers to the polls for the presidential one -- after it was too late to inscribe other candidates. Most observers reported that blank ballots far outnumbered the progovernment ballots. I spoke to six poll watchers, all members of the conservative but fair Christian Democrat movement. "No one was allowed to count the blank ballots," one said, while the others nodded agreement, "but the mutilated ones, which we could spot by their shapes, outnumbered the announced government ballots three to one. I don't believe the 370,000 count."

Rivera is President. The Big 14 are happy; they can go on with their practices. We recognized Rivera, and no report of election fraud was published here.4 AP did report, however, that he "is a strong supporter of Washington's [180] Alliance for Progress." Not for attribution, of course, one high official of our Foreign Service in San Salvador told me: "It's just as if Lemus was back; a smarter Lemus perhaps, but the same clique. Unfortunately, nothing is going to change around here."

Guatemala has had few dictators -- but their reigns have been long. From 1838, when the short-lived United Provinces of Central America disintegrated, to 1865, the boss was an Indian illiterate caudillo named Rafael Carrera, who was very Catholic (and Conservative), signed Latin America's first concordat with the Vatican, intervened in neighboring lands to establish Conservative regimes there, and kept Indians in peonage to the big Creole landowners because "to be against private property is to be against God."

His successor, Liberal Justo Rufino Barrios, an anticlerical, proscribed religious processions, forbade the wearing of clerical habits, confiscated Church property, made civil marriage obligatory, and kept the Indians in peonage to big landowners (now including some German immigrants) because the latter were whiter and "Indians think like priests -- kneeling."

From 1898 to 1920, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who was reelected "unanimously" just about every other month, developed a secret police to track down critics, and kept Indians in peonage by allowing the United Fruit Company, to which he granted huge concessions, to use private armies as "pacifiers." Then, from 1931 to 1944, the next dictator, Jorge Ubico, altered the pattern.

Just as ruthless, bloody, and corrupt as his predecessors, Ubico was also intelligent. Thus, he managed to refill the treasury coffers, balance budgets, restore Guatemala's international credit, and build more roads and hospitals than all his predecessors combined. By decree, he theoretically ended peonage; he posed as the Indians' friend. But in practice he let the landowners and United Fruit continue as they always had. Ubico also pilfered more funds than his predecessors, and discovered more plots against him, hence executed more. He mastered the art of handling men, as the following tale by Guatemalan writer Jorge Garcia Granados illustrates:

In 1934, he [Ubico] uncovered a conspiracy against [181] him. . . . Seventeen men were seized, given a farcical trial in which they were not even permitted defense attorneys, and sentenced them to be shot. Although I had no part in the conspiracy, I wrote Ubico a strong letter charging that the trial was a mockery of the law, and urging him to pardon the condemned.

Ubico replied by sending a squad of police to arrest me in my home, take me to the place of execution, and force me to be an eyewitness to the shooting of the seventeen. Then I was thrown into prison and held in solitary confinement for months, not even permitted to receive news from my family.

Ubico was considered one of our good friends in Central America, and we openly supported him. Nevertheless, he was overthrown by a revolution in 1944. Free elections were called, and in 1945 Juan Jose Arevalo came to power.

Arevalo and his legally elected successor, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (1950-1954), began what is now commonly called the Social Revolution. To Latin Americans everywhere, they were Social Reformers and Nationalists. To our State Department and press, they were Communists and Russian agents "who led the people like sheep." That at least this last point was false has been proved by a United States social scientist5 who based his report on a thorough research project that included a vast number of interviews. His conclusions:

It has been commented that "these people were being led like sheep"; in the writer's opinion, this is not supported. It is clear that the population interviewed was in general interested in some phase of the past [Arbenz] government's activities. ... It may be said that these people were being led in that they did what the Communist wanted; on the other hand, they were doing things which they too wished to do. The Communists were successful in identifying their goals with those of certain portions of the rural population; this can be laid to the cleverness of the Communists, but not necessarily to the "sheep-like" qualities of the population. [182]

No serious historian or sociologist questions the fact that Guatemala needed social change: before Arevalo the right of labor, whether in factories or in fields, including United Fruit plantations, had never been recognized; unions, civil liberties, freedom of speech and press were outlawed; foreign interests had been sacred, their privileges were monopolistic and their tax concessions beyond all considerations of fairness; counting each foreign corporation as a person, 98 percent of Guatemala's cultivated land was owned by exactly 142 people: only one-third of schoolchildren could attend classes -- there weren't any more schools -- and only 10 I percent did.

Arevalo and Arbenz changed these conditions. As long as they pressed forward for education reforms, no one grumbled too much. Free speech and press were established. Then unions were recognized and legalized, and many passed into Leftist control. Perhaps some were Communist; after all, according to our Senate Investigating Subcommittee, there were 1,000 Communists in Guatemala, and these 1,000 must have been doing something.

On June 17, 1952, Arbenz proclaimed a wide-sweeping program (Decree 900) of land reform. It called for the expropriation and redistribution of uncultivated or fallow lands above a basic acreage, specifically exempted all intensively cultivated lands (only 5 percent of over-1,000 hectare farms were then under cultivation), ordered all j absentee-owned property to be redistributed, offered compensation in twenty-year bonds at 3 percent interest assessed according to the declared tax value. Even our own agronomists approved. On page 179 of Latin American Issues, published by the Twentieth Century Fund, one can read: "For all the furor it produced, Decree 900, which had its roots in the constitution of 1945, is a remarkably mild and a fairly sound piece of legislation."

But, since much of Guatemala's plantation land (including 400,000 acres not under cultivation) belonged to the United Fruit Company, we naturally became concerned. And when Arbenz gave out the company's land to 180,000 peasants, we began seeing Red.

"The Communists have been able to move in easily," I agreed at the time the late, staunchly anti-Communist Columbia University teacher Jesus de Galindez. But, he added, "social-economic reform is absolutely necessary in Guatemala. [183] To condemn it is to help Communism."

We condemned it just the same. Having refused to sell arms to Guatemala since 1948, we intercepted and confiscated a shipment from Switzerland -- a fact reported in Latin America by no United States agency, only by the British service Reuters.6 Then, in 1954, we got the OAS to convene its foreign ministers in Caracas (home of Dictator Perez Jimenez). Secretary of State John Foster Dulles showed up just long enough to bulldoze a declaration censuring Guatemala, and sped home.

Fortified with this declaration, we went to work getting rid of Arbenz. We found another Guatemalan colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas (a graduate of the United States Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas), fed him arms (including six F-47's piloted by US "volunteers") and dollars to set up a rebel force in Honduras and Nicaragua (home of Dictator Anastasio Somoza), and helped him overthrow Arbenz. Armas thereupon became a ruthless dictator, closed down opposition newspapers (which Arbenz had never done), smashed student rallies, tortured and murdered his critics, gave back Arbenz-expropriated lands, allowed plantation owners to cut down wages 30 percent, and awarded friends $1,000,000 a year through legal confidenciales, and millions more through other channels.7

Armas was assassinated in 1957, and elections were scheduled. The moderates won, so the military immediately annulled the election and scheduled a new one. This time the army made sure of the outcome: conservative General Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes became President early in 1958. Husky, informal, and good-natured in appearance, Ydigoras was thereupon billed as a great democrat -- in the United States (thanks mainly to such agile PR men as former Secretary of Interior Oscar Littleton Chapman).

But in Guatemala, as everywhere else in Latin America, he was known for what he was: a dictator who is perhaps not [184] so bloody as the average Latin American strong man but who nevertheless ruled with hoods, goons, and his United States-equipped army. There was little freedom of the press in Guatemala, and persistent critics were inevitably silenced or taught a painful lesson.8 No land reform has been attempted since Arbenz' fall, nor was any tried under Ydigoras, since the land is mostly owned by our 'companies or Ydigoras' pals. When he took over Guatemala, the government still owned 88 coffee fincas; only a handful remains today. Ydigoras, whose official, legal pay was $1,094,000 a year, had been giving the fincas away or selling them cheaply I to friends and political partners. For example, one plantation, 1 which made more than $200,000 a year, went to moviemaker Ramiro Samayoa, a personal friend of Ydigoras. Meanwhile, of course, no serious attempt was undertaken to reduce illiteracy, disease, or poverty.

Unfortunately, the United States is held partly responsible | for these conditions. The reason is that Ydigoras and our I State Department were so tightly linked that most Latin Americans were convinced that the Guatemalan government did not make a single move without first being so | ordered by the United States. Unfortunately, there were some facts to back up this contention.

When Guatemala was rocked by revolt in November, 1960 ; -- a revolt of Guatemalan conservative army officers against Ydigoras -- it wired Washington (via United Fruit-owned [185] Tropical Radio) a series of badly coded messages, which were monitored by a whole flock of Latin American radio operators (including hams as far down as Colombia). The messages were easily decoded and then made public. Message 1,788, sent on November 14th, at 12:50 P.M., ordered the Guatemalan United States ambassador to get OAS help, but ended with this now famous sentence: "Get in touch immediately with [then Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs] Thomas Mann to coordinate your action." Eight hours later, Cable 1,793 told the ambassador to apply for our naval and air support, concluding, "Convenient coordinate immediately with State Department."

Is Guatemala so "sold out" to the United States, asked Latin Americans, that even in a moment of crisis -- a revolution -- it must first get clearance for its acts from the United States? For their answer, Latin Americans unfortunately looked at the results: without waiting for OAS action, the United States dispatched warships to the Guatemalan coast. The revolution was doomed. Latin Americans asked: Was the payoff the Retalhuleu Base? (On January 10, 1961, the New York Times described this base as a training center for Cuban exiles and as a launching pad for their unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba; the Kennedy Administration then admitted it, but Ydigoras denied it to the day he was overthrown.)

Early in 1962, it seemed as if Ydigoras was through. Students, teachers, even Ydigoras-controlled unions were demanding his resignation. There were riots every single day for a month, and Guatemala refused to issue any entrance visas. Then, suddenly, came absolute silence. Not one protest, not one rally, not one public complaint were reported. When I arrived a few days later, the country was completely calm. I asked my contacts to explain. "We have never seen such efficient lightning-fast repressions," they told me, "and we know for certain that the whole government apparatus was taken over by the CIA." I would have doubted such an explanation much more had my contacts in Guatemala, as in all Central America, not been the Christian Democrats. Pro-United States and anti-Castro (though pro-reforms), they stood only to lose from such a tale. True or not, the country had undoubtedly been cowed into total passivity by the time I arrived. When Ydigoras was finally tossed out of office, the tossers, of course, were army officers from [186] the extreme Right. After that the atmosphere had the same quiet thickness common to Nicargua or Paraguay.

Nevertheless, Guatemala impressed me as one of the most charming countries on this continent. Its people are hospitable, its sights overpoweringly attractive, its plazas or main squares picturesque, its buildings old and poor but enchanting. True, half of Guatemala City's 400,000 inhabitants live in swampside slums, and true, many peasants live in mud huts without sanitation while the huge master's home that overlooks them could easily house all the peon families in luxury and still leave a dozen-room wing for the owner. Yet, wherever one travels in Guatemala one finds smiles, even on poverty -- perhaps not smiles of happiness but certainly smiles of hospitality.

In the hazardous mountainous passes on the western side of Lake Atitlan, which is one of the continent's real marvels, Indians would rush up to us every time we stopped our jeep -- not to beg for money, as we were warned, but to help push, thinking we were stuck (the zigzag climb on mud, dirt, or rocks is at sixty degrees, with precipices for shoulders). Around the lake itself, where each town's women wear identically colored bright garments and wave to all newcomers, in the mountain paths from Totonicapan to Huehuetenango or in the jungle trails (called roads) behind Copan; in fact anywhere we journeyed in our vista-packed 2,000-mile trip through Guatemala the only discourteous, inhospitable individual we met was a United States engineer named La Rue who ordered his armed private cops to stop anyone from using a road he had built (from Tres Encuentros to San Cristobal) because the United States company he worked for had not been paid by the government.

So beautiful, so friendly, so enchanting is Guatemala that it seems doubly a crime that it is run so unjustly for the benefit of so few.


1 See Chapter 17.

2 A bank with many close associations with United Fruit.

3 It was to this bastion of democracy that Jos6 Miro Cardona, the leader of the anti-Castro Cuban Revolutionary Council came seeking arms. After four hours with Somoza, Mir6 Cardona told newsmen that he was touring Latin America's "democratic countries to seek arms with which to fight the totalitarian regime of Fidel Castro. We free Cubans will provide the fighters, because direct action to overthrow that regime will come. But we need the material help from the democracies." He had come to the right place.

4 Though the New York Times did report, on September 30, 1962, that a viciously undemocratic "anti-Communist" law had become effective at midnight on the 28th and that "mass arrests" were reported.

5 Stokes Newbold, with the collaboration of June and Manning Nash: A Study of Receptivity to Communism in Rural Guatemala.

6 Guatemala finally got some arms from Czechoslovakia.

7 One friend and beneficiary was Thomas J. Dodd, ex-Representative, now Senator from Connecticut, who was hired to represent (i.e., lobby for) Guatemala in the United States for $50,000 a year -- the same Senator Dodd who in 1962 almost (he refused because he was "too busy") led the Senate investigation on sugar lobbies.

8 One incident is worth detailing. Early in 1960, a frail, pretty, twenty-two-year-old newspaperwoman named Irma Flaquer, who supports her two children, started a column of criticism, Lo que otros callan (What Others Hide), in the capital's afternoon daily La Hora (15,000 circulation). She denounced Ydigoras' corruption and ridiculed his policies; she campaigned against poverty, slums, and alcoholism. At first, the government was reluctant to use strong-arm measures against a girl; so, instead, Information Chief Augusto Mulet Descamps branded her "treasonable" and a "whore." When she persisted, however, she was jumped by one Gloria Castillo, a tough 150-pound political troubleshooter and boss of the pro-Ydigoras market women's union. Saying "the old man is fed up with you," Gloria kicked and punched Irma unconscious, then ripped out chunks of Irma's hair. The Information Ministry passed off the beating as "a street incident."