Click here for the home page 

The Xenophile Historian

Antigua & Barbuda Argentina Bahamas Barbados Belize Bolivia
Brazil Chile Colombia Costa Rica Cuba Dominica
Dominican Republic Ecuador El Salvador Grenada Guatemala Guyana
Haiti Honduras Jamaica Mexico Nicaragua Panama
Paraguay Peru Puerto Rico St. Kitts & Nevis St. Lucia St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Suriname Trinidad & Tobago Uruguay Venezuela    

A History of Latin America and the Caribbean

Chapter 5: Uncle Sam's Backyard, Part II

1889 to 1959

This chapter is divided into five parts, which cover the following topics:

Part I

The Big Picture
       Latin America's Role in the World Trade Network
       Enter the United States
       A New Kind of Revolution
Cuba Libre!
Costa Rica: King Banana
The War of a Thousand Days
The First US Occupation
Mt. Pelée Kills St. Pierre
The Panama Canal
Peru: The Aristocratic Republic
Venezuela: The Tyrant of the Andes
Colombia: The Conservative Republic
The Mexican Revolution, Phase 1: Conservatives vs. Liberals

Part II

Uruguay's Welfare State
The United States Occupation of Haiti
Argentina: The Radicals In the Saddle
The Mexican Revolution, Phase 2: Moderates vs. Radicals
Independent Cuba: The Early Years
Guatemala: A Cultured Brute and a Napoleon
Brazil: The Old Republic
Honduras: La Republica de los Bananas
Chile: Parliamentary and Presidential Republics
Go to Page Navigator

Part III

Ecuador: The Leftover Country
The Mexican Revolution, Phase 3: Coming Full Circle
The Dominican Dictator
The Chaco War
El Salvador: The Coffee Republic
Uruguay: The Terra Era
The Somoza Dynasty, Act One
Panama: The Bisected Protectorate

Part IV

The Infamous Decade
Getúlio Vargas and the Estado Nôvo
Colombia: "The Revolution On the March"
The Battle of the River Plate
Bolivia: Contending Ideologies
Cuba: Batista's First Reign
Venezuela In Transition
The Rise of Juan Perón
Haiti: Elections and Coups
Peru: APRA vs. the Army
Paraguay: The Rise of the Colorados
Costa Rica: The Unarmed Democracy
"There's No Place Like Uruguay"
The Bolivian National Revolution

Part V

Cuba: The Auténticos and the Second Batistato
Puerto Rico: "Candy-Coated Colonialism?"
The Ten Years of Spring
After the Mahogany Rush
Getúlio Vargas, Back for an Encore
The Perón Decade
La Violencia
Venezuela: Back In the Barracks
A Word on the Guianas
The Cuban Revolution

Uruguay's Welfare State


At the end of the 1880s, Uruguay suddenly departed from normal political behavior in Latin America; the Uruguayans committed themselves to building a country that was both unified and democratic. The key to making this work was universal free education; in Chapter 4 we saw this curriculum introduced by President Pedro José Varela Olivera, in the mid-1870s. Amazingly, the dictator who came after Varela, Lorenzo Latorre, made sure the education program was implemented, though it was strongly opposed by traditional professors and the Church (they preferred old methods of teaching), and the founders of the program reasoned that a well-educated population would prevent dictatorships like Latorre's from taking hold in the future.

With the return of civilian rule in Uruguay, Julio Herrera y Obes was elected president (1890-94). Herrera y Obes belonged to the Colorado Party, and had been an advisor to his military predecessor. However, he also believed that the president had to play a leading role in elections and the makeup of the General Assembly. This policy, called the "directing influence," was resisted by a faction of the Colorado Party led by José Batlle y Ordóñez, son of former president Lorenzo Batlle y Grau. Meanwhile, a financial crisis in 1890 caused the collapse of a key bank, plus a series of bankruptcies which distressed the population.

In 1894, after much internal debate, the General Assembly appointed Juan Idiarte Borda, a member of the inner circle of the outgoing administration, as the next president. Unfortunately, Herrera y Obes and Borda irritated the National Party (Blancos), by letting them govern only three of the four departments promised to them in the 1872 pact between the two parties. In 1897 the Blancos launched an armed uprising, demanding electoral guarantees, secret ballots, and proportional representation; in the middle of it all President Borda was assassinated. The president of the Senate (the upper house of the General Assembly), Juan Lindolfo Cuestas (1897-1903), served first as provisional president, then was elected the official president in 1899. Cuestas quickly signed a peace agreement with the Blancos, increasing the number of departments they controlled to six, and promising to grant the other things they wanted (he did that in 1898). But instead of bringing peace and unity, the agreement really created two countries, one Blanco and one Colorado. To get something done across the whole country, President Cuestas had to send an envoy to the Blanco leader, a caudillo named Aparicio Saravia. This precarious balance only lasted until the end of the Cuestas presidency.

José Batlle y Ordóñez, the first Uruguayan president elected in the twentieth century, served two non-consecutive terms (1903-07, 1911-15). An anti-militarist and a social democrat, he is credited with creating Latin America's first welfare state. To start with, he ended thirty years of co-participation politics. The Blancos revolted again in 1904; after nine months of fierce fighting, Saravia was killed, and those left alive signed the Treaty of Aceguá (1904), to reunite the country. After that, Batlle y Ordóñez's power was undisputed, and he could begin trying the ideas he wrote about in the 1880s and 1890s, when he ran a newspaper called El Dia. The administration of Batlle y Ordóñez also saw the completion of Uruguay's first frigorífico (meat-chilling plant) in 1905, allowing Uruguay to ship frozen beef to Europe and compete with Argentina in that trade. This was followed up with a modernization of Montevideo's port in 1909, making Montevideo as inviting to foreign shipping as Buenos Aires.

Batlle y Ordóñez picked Claudio Williman (1907-11) to be president after his first term was done, and he spent the next four years in Europe, studying that continent's government systems. While Batlle y Ordóñez was away, Williman kept the peace both at home and abroad; he passed electoral laws to increase political representation of minority parties (1907 & 1910), and signed a new border treaty with Brazil to end some disputes going back all the way to the 1850s. Finally, there were two changes in church-state relations; a divorce law was passed in 1907, and religious education in public schools was banned in 1909.

Batlle y Ordóñez returned in 1911, so he could run for president again in that year's elections. Disappointed with both him and Williman, the Blancos refused to participate; their place was taken by two new parties, the pro-Catholic Civic Union of Uruguay (UCU), and the Marxist-inspired Socialist Party of Uruguay (PSU). Batlle y Ordóñez won anyway, and he devoted his second term to applying what he had learned, to make Uruguay more like the most advanced countries in Europe. This meant writing and promoting all kinds of social legislation, things you are likely to recognize if you live in North America or Europe. Items he fought for included an eight-hour workday, old age pensions, unemployment compensation, occupational safety, and the abolition of capital punishment and bullfighting.(29) Of these, only unemployment compensation was passed while he was president; the rest came later.

Batlle y Ordóñez firmly believed that the public services and some key industries had to be state-owned, in order to run them properly and keep them out of foreign hands. To do this, in 1912 the government created the State Electric Power Company, monopolizing electric power generation and distribution; it nationalized the Mortgage Bank of Uruguay; and it founded three industrial institutes for geology and drilling (for coal and hydrocarbon explorations), industrial chemistry, and fisheries. In 1914 it purchased the North Tramway and Railway Company, later to become the State Railways Administration. With this, as with the social legislation, conservatives were outraged, and some called the president insane, but even they had to admit his policies weren't for personal gain; Batlle y Ordóñez sincerely wanted to build a better country.

Finally, Batlle y Ordóñez proposed a reorganization of the executive branch of government. To make future corruption and tyranny more difficult, he wanted to abolish the presidency and replace it with a nine-member council, called the colegiado. He got the idea from the Swiss Federal Council, which has run Switzerland since 1848. This proposal caused a split in the Colorado Party, while the National Party rejected it outright. However, a new constitution, Uruguay's second, was drawn up in 1917. This constitution made many of Batlle's changes the official law of the land, but in a bitter compromise, it allowed both a president and the colegiado, now called the National Council of Administration. Executive power and responsibilities were divided between them; the president appointed the ministers of foreign affairs, war, and interior, while the council ran the ministries dealing with economic, educational, and social programs.

Batlle y Ordóñez left such a mark on the country and the Colorado party, that he remained a powerful influence until his death in 1929. The next two presidents, Feliciano Viera (1915-19) and Baltasar Brum (1919-23), were followers of his, though they diluted his reformist agenda. They were followed by José Serrato (1923-27) and Juan Campisteguy (1927-31), who were conservative by comparison. During the 1920s, both the major and minor parties split into factions over ideological differences, making it hard to pass more social reforms. What did get passed required a coalition of factions: a social security program for government workers (1919, extended to the private sector in 1928), compensation for workplace accidents and a six-day work week (both 1920), and National Refrigerating, a cooperative that paid ranchers a better price for their cattle than the foreign-owned frigoríficos (1928).

1930 was a landmark year for Uruguay. It marked the centennial of the country's first constitution, giving everyone an excuse to celebrate. And for those who couldn't get excited about that, the first FIFA World Cup tournament was held in Montevideo; in the final game, Uruguay defeated Argentina 4-2.

Next section on Uruguay.
Top of the page

The United States Occupation of Haiti


At the beginning of the period covered by this chapter, Haitian politics were still unstable. From the fall of Salomon in 1888 until occupation by the United States in 1915, eleven men were president. The longest lasting, Florvil Hyppolite, was in office for six and a half years (1889-96); seven were in office for mere months. Typically, each administration ended with the president killed or forced into exile. In the case of the most competent president, Cincinnatus Leconte, the exit was spectacular; he died in a freak explosion in the National Palace in August 1912.

The United States became interested in Haiti because it saw a new European power get involved there, one that was more aggressive than France, Great Britain or Spain--Germany. By 1910 there was a tiny community of 200 Germans living in Haiti, but they already controlled 80 percent of the country's international commerce; they also owned utilities in Cap Haïtien and Port-au-Prince, the main wharf and a tramway in the capital, and a railroad in the north. Foreign land ownership had been illegal since 1804, but some of the Germans got around this by marrying into important mulatto families, something other whites weren't willing to do at the time. They also financed some of the country's chronic revolutions, by lending money (at high interest rates, of course) to political factions. Figuring that the Germans had gone far enough, in 1910-11 the US State Department backed a consortium of American investors, assembled by the National City Bank of New York, to acquire control of the Banque Nationale d'Haïti, the nation's only bank and the government treasury, before the Germans did likewise.

It was probably inevitable that the United States would intervene, because the Haitians could not put their own house in order, and the Monroe Doctrine kept anyone besides Uncle Sam from doing it for them. A backer of former president Leconte, General Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, took the oath of office in 1915, and because he faced active rebellion, like all the others, a few months later he executed 167 political prisoners on the same day. This outraged the citizens and brought mobs into the streets of Port-au-Prince; one mob caught Guillaume Sam hiding in the French embassy and literally tore him to pieces. Reports of a cheering rabble parading through the capital with body parts of their former president reached Washington, and got an immediate reaction. The next day saw the first US sailors and Marines land at Port-au-Prince; six weeks later they controlled the whole country. Because Haiti's problems were so difficult to solve, the American occupation lasted for nineteen years (1915-34).

The US occupation was self-interested, sometimes brutal, and caused problems that lasted after it ended, but it got much done. The biggest improvements were in infrastructure. Outside the cities, roads had been practically non-existent; now both roads and bridges were built. There was a construction boom within the cities, telephones and clean water were introduced, a campaign against malaria reduced outbreaks of that disease, and sound fiscal management allowed Haiti to make payments on its foreign debt.

Representatives from the United States wielded veto power over all decisions made by Haitian-run organizations, and Marine Corps commanders served as administrators in the provinces. Martial law was declared, and it remained in effect until 1929. The Haitian National Assembly elected one of their number, Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave, as president, after several other candidates refused to serve under the Americans. He signed a treaty that made Haiti an official US protectorate, giving the Americans complete control over Haiti's finances. The treaty also gave the United States responsibility over public health and public works programs, and it established a new Haitian military force, the Gendarmerie d'Haïti (Haitian Constabulary); remember the Gendarmerie, it will be important after the occupation. In 1917 a new constitution was written, largely dictated by officials in the US State Department and US Navy Department; Franklin D. Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the navy, claimed that he wrote the original composition. However, this constitution allowed foreign ownership of land, abolishing the most important Haitian law. When the National Assembly refused to pass the constitution and drafted another one that kept the old law, the commander of the Gendarmerie, Smedley Butler, ordered the National Assembly dissolved. Then a referendum was held on the Roosevelt constitution. Less than 5 percent of the population voted, but it was passed, by a vote of 98,225 to 768. Although the US State Department admitted that "The people casting ballots would be 97% illiterate, ignorant in most cases of what they were voting for," it let the lopsided total stand.

Often forced labor was used on the building projects, which looked a lot like slavery, so in 1918 a major rebellion broke out, involving 40,000 people who had not accepted the occupation. The uprising was so big that it lasted nearly two years and overwhelmed the Gendarmerie, meaning the Marines had to put it down; between 2,000 and 3,000 Haitians were killed. After that the Americans imposed a more orderly society than any the Haitians had known, but they resented the open racism these white foreigners displayed towards them. Among themselves, the Haitians distinguished who was light-skinned and who was dark-skinned, and how much education and culture they might have, while the Americans simply looked down their noses at all of them, reasoning they were not ready for self-government.(30) The fond feelings that developed between Filipinos and Americans during the period when the US ruled the Philippines (1898-1946) would not appear in Haiti.

In 1922 Louis Borno replaced Dartiguenave. There had been no elections since the National Assembly was dissolved in 1917, so Borno had to rule without a legislature. Elections were finally permitted in 1930, and a new legislature was seated. Next, the legislature held several ballots, until it elected Sténio Vincent as the third president since the occupation began.

The Great Depression caused a downfall in the prices of Haiti's exports, and that eliminated the economic gains made during the 1920s. Moreover, after the Depression hit, Americans began to feel that it was costing too much to run Haiti. Because of that, and because of a 1929 incident where Marines killed ten Haitians that were marching to protest the local economy, US President Herbert Hoover appointed two commissions to study the situation. One of the commissions was led by William Cameron Forbes, a former governor of the Philippines, and his main criticism was that Haitians had been kept out of too many positions of authority in the government and the Gendarmerie.(31) After that, the Hoover administration began to wind down the occupation. However, not all of the American troops were withdrawn before Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded Hoover. FDR saw the end of the occupation as part of his Good Neighbor Policy, and he paid a visit to Haiti in July 1934. One month later the last Marines got out.

Next section on Haiti.
Top of the page

Argentina: The Radicals In the Saddle


Argentina was riding high in the 1880s, with an economic growth rate averaging 5 percent a year. The Pampas and Patagonia had been tamed; the Indians, gauchos and caudillos had to make way for modern civilization. Because Argentina is the largest country in the "Southern Cone,"(32) large numbers of European immigrants came here, seeking opportunities like the immigrants going to the United States at the same time. There weren't too many Indians to start with, and the local black community disappeared over the course of the nineteenth century, so immigration gave Argentina a population that is currently 97 percent white, the highest white percentage in Latin America. Europe, especially Great Britain, eagerly bought Argentine products and invested in Argentine businesses; Britain was so active that Henry Ferns, a twentieth-century historian, called Argentina an "informal member of the British Empire."

Even so, trouble was on the way. To pay for all the building in Buenos Aires, the government borrowed and spent like a drunken sailor and printed more money recklessly. Naturally this led to inflation and the devaluation of the peso. Ranchers and farmers liked this development because they got more pesos for the meat and grain they exported, but merchants who imported products from Europe were ruined at the same time.

Just as bad was the unequal distribution of wealth and power. This came from the nature of Argentine society; despite all that had happened since independence, a landowning elite still controlled everything, like Spanish society in the colonial era. Most of the vast Pampas was owned by just 300 families, each one having an estancia of several hundred thousand acres. Thus, the Pampas was closed to immigrants, unless they were willing to work as laborers on somebody else's farm. Nor could the nation's budding industry absorb all the immigrants, so most of them ended up in Buenos Aires, as an unhappy, growing proletariat.

Putting the nation's wealth in a few hands meant power would be concentrated in a few hands as well. In 1866 the rich landowners founded their own exclusive club, the Argentine Rural Society, and from 1880 onward, the government was controlled by the conservative National Autonomist Party (PAN), which ran things largely for the Rural Society's benefit. Julio Roca, the founder of the PAN, wasn't president anymore (see Chapter 4), but he remained such an influence that more often than not, the party did things his way. This arrangement hit a bump when the economy crashed in 1890-91. Businesses stopped making payments; banks closed(33); exports declined until they could no longer pay even the interest on the nation's foreign debt. Agitation from a new opposition party, the Civic Union, compelled the current president, Miguel Juárez Celman, to resign. Fortunately the estancias were producing more and more meat, grain and wool every year, allowing a quick recovery.

Three short-lived presidents, all from the PAN, followed Celman. Then in 1898 Julio Roca, "The Fox," ran again, and got elected to a second term (1898-1904). Needless to say, the opposition wasn't happy to see that the PAN survived the recent depression with no loss of power. In 1892 the Civic Union renamed itself the Radical Civic Union (Radical Party for short)(34); other opponents of the ruling elite founded the Socialist Party in 1895.

For the PAN, the beginning of the end came in 1910, when its candidate, Roque Sáenz Peña Lahitte, was elected president. Sáenz Peña was less conservative than the other PAN members, and the Radicals were now launching armed uprisings, so in 1912 he gave into their demand for clean elections and passed the Sáenz Peña Law, which guaranteed a secret ballot and universal male suffrage. Old Julio Roca would have fought this turn of events, but he was serving abroad as ambassador to Brazil (he died shortly after coming home in 1914). For the first time, the urban masses had the ability to wrest power from the estancieros, and they did it at the next election, in 1916; the Radical candidate, Hipólito Yrigoyen (see the previous footnote), was elected president, and the Radicals would run Argentina for the next fourteen years.

Though they got off to a good start, the Radicals were a disappointment, failing to deliver on many promised reforms. Yrigoyen won with a plurality of the vote (45%), not a majority, so conservatives continued to dominate Parliament. Because of the resulting gridlock, Yrigoyen submitted 80 draft laws to Parliament, but only 26 were passed; the rejected laws included maximum working hours, an agricultural reform proposal, an income tax on interest, and the creation of a Bank of the Republic. What he did get passed included the Labor Code (which established the right to strike), a minimum wage, and a state-run oil company (YPF). Compared with modern-day "Radicals," Yrigoyen was timid; he and his party were "Radicals" because those who ruled before them had never given any thought to the reforms they were proposing.

Yrigoyen's foreign policy was quite anti-American. Argentina had done so well over the past few decades that many Argentines came to see their country as a United States of South America (remember that the country was called the United Provinces when it first became independent), a counterweight to the United States in North America. Consequently they saw US activity in Latin America as overbearing, especially the interventions in the Caribbean basin. For the same reason, Argentina kept the British as their primary trading partner, long after the United States had assumed that role in neighboring countries (e.g., Brazil). Yrigoyen's presidency began in the middle of World War I, so he organized a Conference of Neutral Powers in Buenos Aires, to oppose the US effort to bring American states into the war; he also supported Sandino's resistance in Nicaragua. Finally, Argentina gave aid to countries that the US said were off-limits; humanitarian assistance went to Austria immediately after the war, and in September 1922, 5 million pesos were sent to the USSR (the United States and most other Western nations wanted nothing to do with the Soviets until the 1930s).

After the war came a wave of anarchist activism, fueled by the latest Europeans to come to Argentina. These anarchists and communists rejected the incremental, progressive approach of the Radicals and wanted immediate action, meaning a revolution. Throughout the 1920s there were incidents involving this movement. The worst incident, called the "Tragic Week," happened at the beginning of 1919, and involved clashes between anarchists and communists on one side, and the police and the Patriotic League (a right-wing extremist movement) on the other; 700 people were killed. Meanwhile, the standard of living improved, but the country suffered high inflation at the same time.

Because of the unrest and inflation, when elections were held in 1922, the Radicals won again, but Yrigoyen was replaced by a rival in the party, Marcelo Torcuato de Alvear. Alvear was an old-fashioned landed aristocrat, from the conservative wing of the party; he disliked Yrigoyen's populism and during his term he concentrated on beating inflation, by cutting spending and raising tariffs. These big differences caused the party to split, into a populist Yrigoyen-led party and a conservative Alvear-led party.

The two "Radical" parties went against each other in the 1928 election, and by promising more jobs and more spending like he did the first time around, Yrigoyen was elected to a second term as president. Alas, the spending spree could not be maintained after the Great Depression began, and Yrigoyen's insistence on following these policies greatly alarmed Argentina's traditional ruling class--and the military. When times were good, the Argentine middle class took the side of the workers in the hope of winning concessions from the landowners; when times were bad, as was the case now, they went with the landowners' solutions for fixing the economy. For that reason, when the armed forces toppled Yrigoyen in a coup on September 6, 1930, few were sad to see him go.

Next section on Argentina.
Top of the page

The Mexican Revolution, Phase 2: Moderates vs. Radicals


Pancho Villa with Emiliano Zapata.
A moment of triumph. In December 1914, Pancho Villa met Emiliano Zapata in Mexico City. This picture was taken at their celebration; Villa is sitting in the presidential throne, while Zapata holds a sombrero on his knee. Zapata also had a turn on the throne, and both joked about how uncomfortable they felt on it. Although they got along great, they could not coordinate their attacks against President Carranza, who would be fighting both of them very soon.

The good feelings among the victors did not last. Even before they had defeated Huerta, Carranza stopped trusting Villa; fearing that Villa would use his arrival in Mexico City to seize the presidency, he did everything he could to make sure Villa did not get there first. The radicals in turn held a convention at the central town of Aguascalientes, which 150 generals attended. Having become a general recently, Obregón went to the convention, but he did not approve of their resolutions; they endorsed Zapata's proposal for continuing the revolution with a massive redistribution of land, and called for Carranza to step down, in favor of a new provisional president. Carranza refused, and at the beginning of 1915 bad words turned into violence. Mexico City changed hands more than once in the first battles, and then, learning that trenches, barbed wire and machine guns were the most important defensive weapons Europeans were using in World War I, Obregón introduced all of them, resulting in a major victory that sent Pancho Villa fleeing back to the northwest (the battle of Celaya, April 1915).(35) By September, Zapata had also been forced back to his home base of Morelos. In October the United States recognized Carranza's government and put an arms embargo on the other factions.

Venustiano Carranza.
Venustiano Carranza.

By the end of 1915, Pancho Villa probably had just 200 men left. Seeing his window of opportunity closing, he added the United States to his list of enemies. He got the false idea that Carranza was going to turn Mexico into a US protectorate, and tried to stop that by launching a raid across the border, at Columbus, New Mexico. It didn't work as anyone planned. Villa killed eighteen Americans in the raid, but this was the Old West, where most Americans were armed, so Villa lost eighty of his own men doing it. In response, ten thousand American soldiers, led by General John J "Black Jack" Pershing, made a counter-raid into northern Mexico.(36)

Uncle Sam & Pancho Villa.
A contemporary cartoon has Uncle Sam muttering "I've had about enough of this," while he jumps the border fence to go after Villa.

Pershing was a veteran of wars in the American West, Cuba and the Philippines, and would soon become the greatest American hero in World War I, but the Mexican venture wasn't his finest moment. The maps he had weren't accurate, and his pursuit of Villa reminded observers of the US cavalry going after Apache raiders, thirty years earlier. Indeed, there is an unverified report that Pershing used Apache scouts that had chased Geronimo over the same ground. Although the Americans chased Villa for most of 1916, and even had reconnaissance planes (the first time the US used airplanes for military purposes), Villa proved to be more elusive than a cucaracha. They never caught Villa, and in January 1917 President Wilson recalled Pershing and the troops; they would be needed in Europe before long. Finally, President Carranza did not react as either Villa or the Americans expected; he denounced this expedition as strongly as the US capture of Veracruz, refused to give the Americans any support, even though they were going after his enemy, and negotiated with Wilson to get the Americans out as quickly as possible. Afterwards, Mexican-US relations remained bad, so Germany made an offer to Mexico, promising to help the Mexicans take back Arizona, New Mexico and Texas from the US if they would enter World War I on Germany's side (the infamous Zimmermann Telegram). President Carranza considered the offer, decided that the Germans couldn't beat the Americans if they didn't control the Atlantic, and rejected it.

As Carranza gained the upper hand against the radicals, he decided it was time to write a new constitution. The constitutional convention opened at Querétaro on December 1, 1916, and began with a draft based on the 1857 constitution. But aside from a brief mention of land distribution and some concessions to the working class, like recognition of the "right to work," there were few social changes between the old constitution and the new one. The political changes gave more power to the president, but only allowed him one term; there also was an independent judiciary, and a more centralized government combined with some guarantees of autonomy for the cities. Álvaro Obregón thought more was needed, to keep those who wanted change from going over to the radicals, and his followers got the constitution amended to include the following: total separation of church and state, an eight-hour work day, the right for workers to organize unions and call strikes, arbitration for labor disputes, and an end to debt peonage for peasants. For land issues it authorized the return of land taken from Indian communities, gave the go-ahead to break up the largest haciendas when necessary, and most important, it declared that all subsoil minerals (like oil) ultimately belonged to the state.

The 1917 constitution is still in effect today, but Carranza did a poor job of enforcing it; only a small amount of land was redistributed, for instance, and in most cases it was either returned to its former owners or given to his favorite generals. Because of that, because the working class remained repressed, and because corruption remained widespread, to outsiders the Carranza administration looked more conservative than liberal. The one area where he observed the constitution faithfully was in foreign policy. The constitution specifically said that Mexico could not be forced to do what other nations said, so he kept Mexico neutral in World War I, and insisted that Mexico would always act independently when conducting foreign policy in the western hemisphere; of course the United States found this attitude annoying.

From 1916 onward the rebels may have been marginalized, but their final defeat did not come quickly. Carranza sent his cruelest general, his cousin Pablo González, to Morelos, and told him to get Zapata by any means necessary. González launched campaign after campaign, squeezing the Zapatista home base out of existence, but because the peasants loved Zapata, he remained at large. When brutality did not work, González resorted to treachery, and caught Zapata with that. One day González accused one of his officers of various crimes, and heaped abuse on the man until he moved him to tears; than he said the accused officer could redeem himself of the charges by pretending to defect to Zapata's side. The officer began corresponding with Zapata, a meeting was arranged between them, and when Zapata showed up, he was ambushed and killed by gunmen (April 10, 1919). Without its leader, the Zapatista movement withered away, but the name "Zapatista" would be revived eighty years later, by rebels in the state of Chiapas with very similar goals.

Carranza's term as president expired in 1920, and because the constitution did not allow him to run again, he tried to keep some control over the government by getting a friend elected in his place. The candidate he chose was Ignacio Bonillas, an obscure diplomat, but everyone knew that Obregón had been his most loyal follower, and Obregón was more popular for that reason; General Pablo González also ran as a third candidate. Obregón's supporters were repressed and killed; realizing that Carranza would never give up power peacefully, Obregón declared Sonora independent, and announced that the Revolution had resumed. The caudillos of the northwest joined him, and he began to march on Mexico City. Before the rebels reached the capital, González staged a coup, forcing Carranza to flee. The president took five million pesos worth of gold and silver with him, and tried to go to Veracruz to regroup, but the trains were attacked and he had to abandon them for a trek overland. A local chieftain, Rodolfo Herrera, let him stay at his place in the mountains, and on the night of May 21, 1920, Herrera's men shot Carranza and those with him while they slept. With Carranza dead, González dropped out of the race, allowing Obregón to win easily in September. After the election Herrera was put on trial for his part in the assassination, and was acquitted, showing that nobody missed Carranza.

After a raid on Ciudad Juarez failed in 1919, Pancho Villa let it be known that he would get out of the revolution business for the right price. He couldn't negotiate with Carranza, but after Carranza's death he made a deal with the interim president, Adolfo de la Huerta. Besides amnesty, Villa got a 25,000-acre ranch, a pension of 500,000 gold pesos, and his last guerrillas could serve as his bodyguards. With that deal, the civil war phase of the Mexican Revolution ended. Villa did not enjoy retirement for long, though. On July 20, 1923, while visiting a bank in the town of Parral, a group of gunmen, possibly sent by Obregón, fired forty shots at Villa's car, killing him instantly. That left Obregón's strong men from Sonora as the only remaining faction.

Alvaro Obregon.
Álvaro Obregón.

Next section on Mexico.
Top of the page

Independent Cuba: The Early Years


Tomás Estrada Palma, the first president of independent Cuba, found that he had the United States on his side, but he did not have a base of support in Cuba, even among the "better class." Overall his four-year term (1902-06) was successful, but to get the local elite to cooperate with him, he resorted to patronage, graft, fraud, bribes and intimidation. When he was re-elected, again running as the only candidate, liberals claimed electoral fraud, and revolted violently. Palma called on the United States for help, and resigned when they sent in the Marines. A second US occupation followed (1906-09), with William Howard Taft, the former governor of the Philippines and future president of the United States, as the first governor. Two weeks later Taft stepped down, because he had unfinished work elsewhere, and Charles Edward Magoon, the governor of the Panama Canal Zone, served as governor for the rest of the occupation. Magoon restored order by dividing patronage more fairly, so that everyone in the elite got a piece of the political pie; after that, virtually all upper-class Cubans were pro-American.

Disgruntled members of the elite weren't the only ones unhappy with the current government; peasants, workers and blacks ("Afro-Cubans") were neglected by those in charge, and seeing no piece of the pie for them, they had a stronger grievance.(37) Consequently, the 1906 US intervention to help a weak government would not be the last; more interventions happened in 1912, 1917 and 1921.

When Cuba got its own government again, the next four presidents were all former leaders in the Cuba Libre War, and none of them served more than two terms: José Miguel Gómez (1909-12), Mario García Menocal (1913-21), Alfredo Zayas (1921-25) and Gerardo Machado (1925-33). Another veteran, Evaristo Estenoz, founded the Independent Party of Color (PIC) in 1908, to advance the status of black Cubans. That led to a race war in 1912, when the PIC tried to establish a separate black republic in Oriente Province. It appears the rebels were short on weapons, because their main tactic was arson, setting houses and businesses on fire. Consequently the movement was doomed to failure; together US Marines and the Cuban Army put it down with considerable bloodshed.

When Mario García Menocal was re-elected in 1916, liberals fiercely disputed his victory. This led to a battle in February 1917 called the "Chambelona War"; the Conservatives won that as well, allowing García Menocal to have his second term. The next two presidents, Alfredo Zayas and Gerardo Machado, both fought on the liberal side in the conflict. This time the United States limited its intervention to giving supplies to the conservatives, via Guantánamo. However, there were reports at the time of links between Germany and the liberals, so you can call Chambelona a World War I battle, if you care to.

Regarding actual World War I involvement, Cuba declared war on Germany one day after the United States did, on April 7, 1917. Cuba served as a base to fight German U-boats, if they made it to the Caribbean, and a draft law allowed Cuba to raise an army of 25,000 troops, but they were never sent to Europe. Some Cuban pilots, notably Captain Francisco Terry Sanchez and Lieutenant Santiago Campuzano, flew combat missions for France.

World War I also gave Cuba its greatest sugar-related boom and bust (see footnote #3). Austria-Hungary was the main sugar producer in Europe, and that production stopped when World War I began. Within two months, the price of sugar in Europe nearly doubled, allowing Cuba to make tremendous profits by filling that need.(38) Sugar production on the island increased, until Cuba went from having an unemployment problem to having a worker shortage on the plantations. The biggest customers were corporations that used sugar in their products--e.g., Coca-Cola, Hershey, Hires Root Beer--and they bought plantation and sugar mills to ensure they had a supply. Before the war, the price of sugar was 3.75¢ a pound; in May 1920, it peaked at 22.5¢ a pound. But then the European farms recovered, and worldwide demand for Cuban sugar declined, causing prices to fall faster than they had risen; sugar prices were back to their prewar levels by the end of 1920. The resulting depression and political unrest were a harsh lesson in what can happen when a nation has one source of income. When US forces intervened in 1921, Alfredo Zayas remained president, but the person who really ran Cuba for the next two years was the American General Enoch Crowder, and his headquarters was on a battleship, the USS Minnesota.

In 1925 Gerardo Machado y Morales became president. His first two years were good ones; he launched several ambitious projects, such as the Central Highway. Unfortunately, he came to power when sugar prices were still falling, while production continued to rise steadily. When the Great Depression struck, for Cuba it was a continuation of the economic slump that had gone on throughout the 1920s. In addition, Machado had a bad habit of assassinating his opponents; his secret police routinely threw them to the sharks in Havana Harbor. Realizing that his popularity was slipping, Machado outlawed the party of his main rival, Carlos Mendieta, in order to get re-elected in 1928.

Machado's second term, compared with the first term, was a disaster. It saw all the woes of the Great Depression, coupled with growing opposition from all elements of Cuban society; Machado responded to the latter by increasing both repression and censorship. By 1933, he had lost the confidence of the Roosevelt administration to defend US interests, and he lost the army's confidence in his ability to contain revolutionary groups in the population. When both the United States and the army turned against him, he resigned and went into exile. He died in Miami Beach in 1939, and is buried in Miami.

Next section on Cuba.
Top of the page

Guatemala: A Cultured Brute and a Napoleon


With its lakes, volcanoes, rainforest and Mayan ruins, Guatemala has been over the ages a place of great beauty--and great corruption and crime. Guatemala treated its citizens unequally as the twentieth century began, and conditions got worse before they got better. The country was held back by an economy that had not changed much since colonial times; land ownership was still of a feudal nature, and the communities of Maya Indians, who make up more than 40 percent of the population, were largely isolated from one another. Only foreign investors could provide the capital needed to change the situation, and by allowing them in, Guatemala became Latin America's best example of neo-colonialism, virtually owned by two US corporations, the United Fruit Company (UFC) and International Railways of Central America (IRCA). Finally, the caudillo tradition had not yet begun to fade, so Guatemala saw two particularly bad dictatorships in the early twentieth century, under Manuel José Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920) and General Jorge Ubico y Castañeda (1931-44).

Manuel José Estrada Cabrera was Guatemala's first civilian president in more than fifty years, a lawyer before the previous president, José Maria Reyna Barrios, appointed him one of his ministers. When Reyna Barrios was assassinated in 1898, the Cabinet called an emergency meeting to appoint an acting president, but did not invite Cabrera, so he showed up "with pistol drawn" to make sure he got the job. Later in the same year he won the election that had been called, making his position legal.

Cabrera was strongly interested in technological progress and building up the infrastructure, so he wanted more roads and railroads. Before his presidency, for example, there had been more than one attempt to construct a railroad from Guatemala City to the Caribbean port of Puerto Barrios, but funding for the project ran out before the last sixty miles of track were laid. In what would be his most fateful decision, Cabrera turned to the United Fruit Company. The UFC had just gotten started in Guatemala in 1901, when it secured a contract to carry Guatemalan mail and bananas from Puerto Barrios to the United States. To get the railroad completed, Cabrera signed a contract with the UFC in 1904 that gave the company tax-exemptions and land grants.

Unusually cultured as tyrants go, Cabrera saw himself modernizing a backward land, the "Teacher and Protector of Guatemalan Youth." As if he wanted to give his people a classical education, he sponsored festivals to Minerva, the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom and knowledge, and had fifty Greek-style temples of Minerva built around the country.(39) His ultimate goal was to make Guatemala a "tropical Athens."

If Cabrera could be cultured, he could also be brutal. One American ambassador returned to the United States after he learned that Cabrera had given orders to poison him. Manuel Barillas, the president from 1886 to 1892, was stabbed to death in Mexico City, again on Cabrera's orders. When workers went on strike against United Fruit, Cabrera sent troops to kill the strikers as ruthlessly as if they were in rebellion against him. And when the people held an election against Cabrera's will, he retaliated by having the president-elect murdered.(40)

By the end of World War I, the US embassy was acting like a branch of the Guatemalan government; Cabrera would ask ambassadors for favors and in return, promise to cooperate with US corporations some more. Relations were close enough that the United State threatened armed intervention if Cabrera was removed by a revolution; because of that, his opponents had to find a way to remove him from office legally and without violence. They got their chance in 1920; at this point just a few generals were still loyal to Cabrera, so it was possible for a bipartisan committee in the national assembly to remove Cabrera on the charge that he had gone insane. To convince Washington that they had done the right thing, the diplomatic corps presented a settlement which included Estrada Cabrera's surrender and assurances that he would be safe.

Over the next eleven years, two acting presidents and two elected presidents followed Cabrera. Each of the elected presidents lasted for five years, and died in office. Guatemala's economy was now totally dependant on the country's banana crop, and much of the land was owned not by wealthy Guatemalan families, but by the UFC and IRCA. Instability in the 1920s, followed by the Great Depression, ensured that the voters would elect another strongman, Jorge Ubico, in 1931.

Ubico had a Napoleonic complex; he talked a lot about how he resembled Napoleon Bonaparte, preferred to have his photograph taken in a general's uniform, and was nicknamed "the Little Napoleon of the Tropics." He had post offices, schools and even symphony orchestras reorganized along military lines, and his favorite pastime was to travel around the country in dress uniform to perform "inspections," accompanied by the entire entourage a head of state is expected to have. Because they lived a traditional lifestyle, Ubico looked down on the Indian population, called them "animal-like," stated that to become "civilized" they needed mandatory military training, and said that training them was like "domesticating donkeys." Overall he was just as tough a ruler as Cabrera was, but more efficient at the same time.

Because the coffee barons suffered badly during the Depression years, Ubico tried to help by guaranteeing them a reliable, cheap source of labor. He abolished debt peonage in 1934, and replaced it with compulsory labor conscriptions. All farmers who owned less than a specified amount of land had to carry cards which said they had worked at least 150 days a year on the plantations; if they failed to comply, they could be jailed or put to work on a road construction gang. Even more outrageous, Ubico helped landlords defend their properties by making it legal for them to "execute" workers as a disciplinary measure.

Meanwhile, with Ubico's encouragement, the UFC poured investment money into the country, buying both land and shares of stock. By the end of the Ubico dictatorship, the UFC controlled more than 40 percent of Guatemala's best land, the previously mentioned railroad, and the port facility of Puerto Barrios.(41) Thus, the government was often compelled to serve the interests of the UFC.

Ubico's repressive policies and arrogant behavior made him look too much like a fascist, while Guatemala, like the rest of Latin America, was on the side of the countries opposing fascism in World War II. A general strike and nationwide protests forced Ubico to resign on July 1, 1944. The general who replaced him, Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, still took orders from Ubico, so three months later Ponce was driven into exile by the October Revolutionaries, a group of military officers, university students, and middle-class workers.

Next section on Guatemala.
Top of the page

Brazil: The Old Republic


The modern world, with its concern for human rights, sees it as an improvement when a monarchy is replaced by a republic. Not in Brazil. After the 1889 coup, a military junta ruled until 1894, when Prudente de Morais was elected as the first civilian president. However, because of ignorance, non-secret ballots, land and literacy requirements, and because women weren't allowed to participate, only 2% of the adult population voted in the first election. All things considered, neither the junta nor the civilian government called "the Old Republic" did as good a job as Emperor Pedro II had done. Still, we saw earlier in this work that Brazilians do everything with less violence than other Latin American countries, so for thirty-six years the government changed hands peacefully and regularly, between coffee-growing and cattle-owning families(42); sometimes we call them the café com leite (coffee with milk) presidents. The government was supposedly a democratic republic, but because the ruling class and the electorate were so small, it was really an oligarchic one.

During this period São Paulo grew to become Brazil's economic center, because industry and the coffee trade were based there, while a major building program turned Rio de Janeiro into one of the world's most beautiful cities. Other trends during the 1890s and the early twentieth century included a large wave of immigration (100,000 to 150,000 a year) to the coastal cities from Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany; and the growth of military power. It is appropriate that today's Brazilian flag, adopted immediately after the republic was declared in 1889, carries the motto "ordem e progresso" (order & progress), for the military has provided exactly that; they often backed conservative institutions in the name of maintaining order, but they were also the ones to introduce a needed change when conservatives were against it.

Brazil's sugar industry had been declining since the 1820s. At first rubber was able to take its place, because as we saw in Chapter 4, Brazil was the only country with rubber trees until Henry Wickham smuggled a cargo of rubber seeds to Britain in 1876. Although the monopoly had been broken, it took many years for the British to grow enough trees to produce a decent amount of latex, and rising demand drove up the price of rubber, so the good times for Brazilian rubber lasted past the turn of the century. Two places that did really well because of the rubber boom were the Amazon cities of Belém and Manaus; e.g., rubber paid for Manaus' spectacular opera house, the Teatro Amazonas, which opened in 1896. The rubber industry peaked in 1912, and then foreign rubber production made Brazil's boom go flat.

In the long run, coffee was a greater success than rubber. As early as 1889, coffee accounted for two-thirds of Brazil's exports. Because it brought in so much money, Brazilians went on planting coffee trees, even after the price of coffee fell in 1896; this led to a glut of coffee that couldn't be sold. In 1902 the São Paulo government banned the planting of coffee trees for five years, and when there was a bumper crop in 1906, São Paulo bought the surplus and sold it off gradually over the next seven years, until the supply was down and demand was up again.

The political arrangement, with federal power in the hands of three states (see the previous footnote) and Rio de Janeiro, was a stable one because the oligarchies of the other states were given almost total freedom of action in local affairs. Presidential candidates were chosen through informal discussions among the state governors, and because only literate men were eligible to vote, each election was a foregone conclusion; no official candidate lost a presidential election.

Of course ordinary folks didn't like being shut out of the system, and the tricks of electoral fraud (letting someone vote more than once, counting votes from dead people, etc.) kept them out. Resentment led to violent opposition from the rural poor, especially in the declining northeast. The first uprisings had messianic leaders, who proclaimed they were defending God, the empire, and traditional values. In 1893 a Catholic visionary, Antônio the Counselor, led a movement of up to 30,000 people at Canudos, in the once-great state of Bahia; they resisted the secular government for four years before the army savagely put them down. In 1911 an uprising among the poor in the southern states of Paraná and Santa Catarina, known as the Contestado, also called for restoring the monarchy. Another Catholic visionary, José Maria, led this movement; though he was killed early on, he was declared a saint, and again it took the army four years to crush the rebellion. Meanwhile in the sertão, the bleak interior of the northeastern states, gangs of desperate armed men raided farms and towns in a campaign of banditry.

Opposition to the café com leite oligarchy went from being a local threat to a national one, when soldiers joined it. This movement is called tenentismo, because it was most popular among the junior officers, or tenentes (lieutenants). They first tried to revolt on the world-famous Copacabana beach. There on July 5, 1922, eighteen tenentes set out from the fort of Copacabana and clashed with government troops. Only two of the tenentes survived, Eduardo Gomes and Siqueira Campos; today the subway station a few blocks from the beach is named after Campos. The early tenentes just resented the lack of promotions, the conditions of their service, and how a few wealthy families controlled everything. But after the Copacabana uprising failed, and others like it in 1924 and 1926, some of the rebel officers developed a leftist ideology; e.g., Luís Carlos Prestes, a unit commander with guerrilla training, went on to become the leader of the Brazilian Communist Party for three decades. In that sense, Brazil's first republican government was brought down by the same thing that brought down the emperor--dissatisfaction in the military.

However, the most critical blow against the Old Republic was struck not by disgruntled soldiers, but by forces nobody in Brazil could control--the world market for coffee, followed by the worldwide Great Depression. Since World War I the price of coffee had been falling; farmers continued to grow more coffee than the market could handle, using methods that were inefficient and out of date. To keep the farmers in business, the government stockpiled surplus coffee, in the hope of selling it later, and let the farmers borrow money against what they could not sell right away. This might have worked, if rising prices/demand allowed the government to sell the stockpile while the accumulated foreign debt was manageable, but before that could happen, the debt devalued currency and caused inflation, hurting everybody in the country. By 1930, one third of Brazil's budget was being used to service the foreign debt.

That was when the Great Depression struck, and arguably it hurt Brazil worse than the United States. The foreign market for Brazilian coffee disappeared, no more money could be borrowed from abroad, and many powerful coffee farmers were ruined. And because this crisis began right before the 1930 elections, the café com leite alliance came unraveled. The outgoing president, Washington Luís, came from São Paulo, and he picked another Paulista, Júlio Prestes, to be his successor, when everyone expected him to play by the rules and pick someone from Minas Gerais. Half of the Minas Gerais oligarchy refused to support this choice; instead they joined forces with the cattle barons of Rio Grande do Sul, formed a coalition called the Liberal Alliance, and nominated the southernmost state's governor, Getúlio Dornelles Vargas, as their candidate. But in this contest, the São Paulo oligarchy won 57-39 and Prestes was elected.

The Liberal Alliance refused to accept this result; tensions rose, the vice presidential candidate of Vargas was assassinated, and there were tenentes uprisings in several cities. Outright rebellion broke out in Rio Grande do Sul on October 3, 1930, and quickly spread to two more states, Minas Gerais and Paraiba. Three weeks later the national armed forces decided it needed to take matters into its own hands; they had installed the republic in 1889, and now they would take it out. The military deposed President Luís, and instead of letting Prestes begin his term in office, they made Getúlio Vargas the "provisional" president. Note that I put quotation marks around "provisional"; Vargas would rule Brazil for nineteen of the next twenty-four years (1930-45 and 1950-54).

Getulio Vargas.
Getúlio Vargas. Source: Americas South and North.

Next section on Brazil.
Top of the page

Honduras: La Republica de los Bananas


Some Latin American countries got their act together in the period covered by this chapter. Honduras was not one of them. Since independence, Honduras has gone through nearly 300 internal rebellions, civil wars, and changes of government--more than half of them after 1900.(43) It is easy to figure out why. The country has always had a low population compared with its neighbors, meaning there is not much infrastructure or social/political integration. Moreover, there is no outstanding resource like gold or oil to attract many settlers or businesses; in Chapter 4 we noted that some mining took place, but only one company made much of a profit from it. Therefore Hondurans made ends meet with an agriculture-based economy, so when American fruit companies showed up on the scene at the beginning of the twentieth century, they would change Honduras more dramatically than any other Central American nation. Not only did the banana plantations bring a profit, they also got Honduras entangled with foreign interests and governments. To protect the assets of the fruit companies, the United States landed troops in Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924 and 1925.

In the part of this chapter on Costa Rica, we covered how the United Fruit Company, the biggest player in this game, got started. In the same year as the UFC's founding (1899), three Italian brothers named Luca, Felix, and Joseph Vaccaro founded Vaccaro Brothers & Co--later called the Standard Fruit Company--and they began exporting bananas from the northern coast of Honduras to their headquarters in New Orleans. In 1902 Samuel Zemurray, a Russian immigrant, founded the Hubbard-Zemurray company, renamed the Cuyamel Fruit Company in 1911. The UFC bought out Cuyamel in 1929, and Zemurray became the new company president in 1933.(44) Today these companies still dominate the Honduran economy, and compete for as much of the world banana market as possible, albeit under different names (United is now Chiquita, while Standard is now Dole). This table shows how important bananas were to Honduras:

Date Percentage of Honduran exports
1892 11%
1903 42%
1913 66%
1929 80%

By 1929, one third of the world's bananas were grown in Honduras, so at that point, it was the ultimate "banana republic."

As the banana companies grew rich and powerful, they were tempted to get involved in Honduran politics, by backing one of the participating parties. One of the first examples, in 1910, involved Samuel Zemurray. With a loan of $2,000, Zemurray bought five thousand acres of Honduran land for plantations, only to find that the current president, Miguel Davila, would not grant him the tax, land, and transportation concessions that he expected to go with the land. Davila preferred doing business with the Vaccaro brothers, so Zemurray decided to organize and finance a revolution against him. For that purpose, he sent one small ship, carrying one box of arms, from New Orleans to the port of Trujillo. It doesn't sound like much, but it was enough; in March 1911 Davila was replaced by General Manuel Bonilla, and Bonilla proceeded to give the generous concessions that Davila had rejected.(45) And this wasn't the only incident; the banana industry has been named in other political, environmental, labor and bribery scandals, over the course of the past century.

Manuel Bonilla died a year after his second term began, and was succeeded by his vice president, Francisco Bertrand Barahona. Bertrand's term was peaceful, compared with those of previous administrations; the biggest incident came in 1917, when the Cuyamel Fruit Company extended rail lines into Guatemala, causing a border dispute between Guatemala and Honduras. This period also saw the first organized labor movements in Honduras--and the first major strikes. In 1917 workers went on strike against the Cuyamel Fruit Company, and the Honduran military suppressed the strikers. The next year saw a strike against the Standard Fruit Company at La Ceiba, and in 1920, a general strike on the northern coast became such a serious problem that the United States sent advisors--and a warship--while the Honduran government arrested the strike leaders. When Standard Fruit offered a pay raise that increased the standard wage to $1.75 per day, the strike petered out. However, there would be more banana-related labor troubles in the future.

Meanwhile in Tegucigalpa, when Bertrand's term ended in 1919, he tried to choose his successor, rather than let the uncertainties of a free election decide who got that job. This was an unpopular move, and General Rafael López Gutiérrez, the commander of the armed forces and governor of Tegucigalpa, took the lead in opposing it. The conflict became an international affair when López Gutiérrez solicited support from the liberal government of Guatemala and the conservative government of Nicaragua, while Bertrand solicited support from El Salvador. To keep war from breaking out, the United States reluctantly offered to act as a mediator, while hinting to Bertrand that if he refused the offer, military intervention might follow; Bertrand simply resigned and left the country.

After two interim governments, considerable negotiation and some confusion, elections were held in 1920, but López Gutiérrez, determined to become the next president, manipulated the elections to come out the winner. He held the presidency until 1924, and his term was an extremely unstable time; seventeen uprisings or attempted coups took place. In addition, a financial advisor from the US spent a year in Honduras, and his investigations showed that the country badly needed fiscal reform; the continued uprisings, for example, caused the military to spend more than twice as much as the budget had allocated for defense. However, the López Gutiérrez administration rejected his recommendations. The situation got so bad that in August 1922, the presidents of Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador met on an American warship, the U.S.S. Tacoma, and under the watchful eye of the US ambassadors to their nations, they promised to keep their territories from being used to promote revolutions against each other. This led to a conference between them in Washington at the end of the year, and the signing of a general peace treaty in 1923.

Thanks to US pressure, the presidential election of October 1923 was free, for a change. The once-divided National Party of Honduras held together behind one candidate, General Tiburcio Carías Andino, but this time the Liberals split between two candidates. Of the three, Carias came out ahead of the others in votes, but nobody got a majority. The election was thrown to the legislature, and they failed to make a decision by the end of the year, so in January 1924, López Gutiérrez announced he would stay in office until new elections were held, but he did not give a date for the elections. Carias declared himself president, and launched an armed rebellion. The United States sent ships and Marines, but they could not prevent widespread looting and arson; one unit of troops went to Tegucigalpa, to protect US citizens there. Before they arrived, López Gutiérrez died of diabetes, leaving his cabinet running the capital, while several rebel groups controlled most of the countryside.

Again the United States stepped in to negotiate a solution. A temporary government representing all parties was put together, elections were promised as soon as possible, and neither the acting president nor the leader of any revolutionary group was allowed to run in the elections. It took an embargo on US arms and loans to Honduras, and promises from all three surrounding countries to keep the terms of the 1923 treaty and honor the election results, to make sure the elections were free and proceeded on schedule. For the elections, the National Party of Honduras nominated a civilian, Miguel Paz Barahona, while the Liberals, after failing to agree on a candidate, refused to nominate anyone, so Paz Barahona won with 99 percent of the vote.

Under Paz Barahona's presidency (1925-29), everything finally seemed to go right. There was only one uprising, and it was a minor one. The banana companies continued to grow, and so did the labor unions. Even the financial situation improved, due to an agreement with British bondholders that cancelled four-fifths of the national debt. Most amazing of all was the 1928 election, which pitted Tiburcio Carías Andino against a Liberal, Vicente Mejía Colindres. Mejía Colindres won with 62,000 votes, and Carias, who had gotten 47,000, accepted the results, so this was the first time anyone could remember when one party peacefully handed over power to another.

Though he got off to a great start, Mejía Colindres would not enjoy a successful presidency, for it coincided with the Great Depression. Banana exports fell rapidly after 1930, deflation caused the fruit companies to pay less for what they did buy from the plantations, thousands of workers lost their jobs, and those who kept their jobs endured pay cuts. Strikes broke out in response, and the government did not hesitate to put them down with troops. At one particularly low point, the president had to borrow $250,000 from the fruit companies to pay the army's wages. However, in a remarkable turn of events, democracy survived in Honduras, while it crashed and burned in countries with a stronger democratic tradition during the Depression years (e.g., Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay). Carias ran again as the national party candidate in the next election, won without having to fight the Liberals to assume office, and began the longest-lived presidency in Honduran history (1933-49).

However, it was touch and go for a while. There was a Liberal revolt after Carias was inaugurated, though former President Mejía Colindres had wanted another peaceful transition. On the economic front, low prices were not the only problem the banana industry faced during the Depression years. Honduran plantations were threatened by two diseases, a fungus called Panama disease, and sigatoka, a leaf blight. It took until 1937 to find ways to control the outbreaks, and by then many banana customers had switched to fruits from other nations, like Ecuador.

Carías' priorities were strengthening the armed forces and strengthening his hold on power. Besides better equipment and training for the troops, this meant building the Military Aviation School for the brand-new air force, commanded by a United States colonel. By opposing strikes and following a conservative economic policy, he won the support of the banana companies. To keep foreigners happy, he made regular payments on the national debt, even during the worst days of the Depression. But even after the country's fortunes improved, Carias slowly increased political restrictions, instead of loosening them. Some opposition leaders were imprisoned, some fled into exile, and some were reportedly chained and put to work in the streets of Tegucigalpa. By the end of the 1930s, the PNH was the only functioning political party left; still, he began a propaganda campaign that declared peace and prosperity were only a sure thing as long as Carias remained in office.

The only obstacle to keep Carias from perpetuating his rule was the constitution, which prohibited re-election. To get around that, he convened a constitutional convention, though a new constitution wasn't really needed.(46) Most of the previous constitution was kept; the main changes were that it was now legal for the president and vice president to run for re-election, and their terms were extended from four to six years. Finally, the incumbent president and vice president would begin new terms once the constitution was passed, meaning they could stay in office until 1943. Still, that wasn't good enough, so in 1939 the legislature granted Carias a bonus term; now his presidency didn't have to end until 1949.

Carías counted the dictators ruling all three of the nations bordering Honduras as his friends: Guatemala's Jorge Ubico, El Salvador's Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, and Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza García. The border dispute between Honduras and Nicaragua (see footnote #43) had not been resolved, so his relationship with Somoza was somewhat remarkable. These friendships became a liability when popular revolts in 1944 toppled Ubico and Hernández Martínez. Carias managed to defeat the plots against him, but when he responded to demonstrations by releasing some prisoners, tensions still grew and the demonstrations continued.

By the time his term ended in 1949, Carias was seventy-two years old. But even with old age and the current unrest, the only reason he retired was because the United States put pressure on him, stating that sixteen years was long enough and he should allow free elections. Carias did announce he would not run, but he pulled strings to make sure that the PNH candidate would be Juan Manuel Gálvez Durón, the Minister of War since 1933. The Liberals nominated Zúñiga Huete, the same candidate who had run against Carias in 1932, but then later decided they had no chance of winning and boycotted the elections, allowing Gálvez to win with almost no opposition.

Gálvez devoted his term to building infrastructure, expanding the road construction and coffee-planting projects that Carias had started. He also paid off the last of the British bonds and continued to give the fruit companies favorable treatment. In other areas, however, Galvez showed more independence than expected. Education received a larger share of the budget, and the legislature passed an income tax law, although enforcement of it was only sporadic. The biggest difference from his predecessor was political; freedom of the press was restored, and opposition parties and labor unions were allowed to organize.

Early in his term Gálvez signed legislation establishing an eight-hour workday and paid holidays for workers. However, this did not prevent a two-month strike in 1954, where the banana workers demanded, and got, a pay increase. About 25,000 banana workers and thousands of sympathizers in textile, mining and other trades participated in the strike, making it one of the most important events in Honduran labor history.

Elections were held in October 1954, and the Liberal presidential candidate, Ramón Villeda Morales, got a plurality of the vote, while the Nationalists were split--the exact opposite of what had happened in 1923. The election was thrown to the legislature again, but before it could decide who won, Gálvez was stricken with heart disease, forcing the vice president, Julio Lozano Díaz, to assume his work. When Gálvez left the country for treatment, Lozano declared himself president, to save the country from chaos, of course. But he was never popular, and also in poor health.

In October 1956 the military seized power in a coup, and installed a three-man junta. They allowed free elections for a constituent assembly in 1957, and this body chose Ramón Villeda Morales to serve a six-year term (1957-63). While Villeda Morales concentrated his efforts on legislation to help the poor (public health, public education, social security and a new labor code), a new constitution was passed in 1957, and it made the head of the armed forces--not the president--the commander-in-chief of the military. This move ensured that the coup of 1956 would not be the last.

Top of the page

Chile: Parliamentary and Presidential Republics


Chile enjoyed good times for most of the period covered in this chapter; except during the civil war of 1891, in which 10,000 people were killed, you could say it was the model Latin American state. Therefore it won't take long to cover Chilean events for the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Like Uruguay, Chile had a well-educated population and a stable, democratic government as this period began. We noted in Chapter 4 that a narrow, mountainous terrain with a shortage of good farmland encourages mining, so Chile earned a good income from copper and a better income from nitrates; after the War of the Pacific, Chile owned nearly all of the nitrate-producing Atacama Desert.

Mining created two new social classes, workers and businessmen; the latter either owned the mines or provided products and services needed for the mines to function. Neither group was as conservative as the landowning oligarchy, so they challenged the political power of this ruling class.

The first politician to realize that changes needed to be made was José Manuel Emiliano Balmaceda Fernández, who became president in 1886. Balmaceda launched major public works projects; he outdid his predecessors in building new schools, colleges, railroads, hospitals, and naval ports. New armaments were purchased for the army, and three cruisers and two torpedo boats were added to the navy. While all this was good for the country, the amount of money spent invited corruption; contracts were given to friends of the president, not to the most competent people. Eventually Congress was opposed to all his actions. To keep Congress from voting on the 1891 budget, Balmaceda abruptly decreed on the first day of the year that the 1890 budget would be used again, with no changes. This was a violation of the constitution, and a majority of the members of Congress declared they no longer recognized his authority; they picked the Naval Commander, Jorge Montt, to head a provisional government. Balmaceda had also alienated the landowning class and the Church, but the army remained loyal to him, thereby setting the stage for the 1891 Chilean Civil War (January-September 1891). The pro-Balmaceda army won the first battles, but this was a time when sea power was of critical importance to any military force (just ask Captain Alfred Mahan); in February the navy captured the port of Iquique, and that became the revolutionaries' headquarters. By April the tide had turned in favor of the revolutionaries, and they launched a full offensive. They conquered the north and were making good headway in the central part of the country, when Balmaceda realized his cause was lost, and took refuge in the Argentine embassy. He stayed there for three weeks, and then shot himself.

The part of Chilean history from 1891 to 1925 is called the parliamentary period. Some call it the "pseudo-parliamentary" period, because in a true parliamentary system, the chief executive (president or prime minister) is elected by the legislature, which did not happen here. However, in an unusual development for any Latin American country, the president's office was largely ceremonial; Congress was the most powerful part of the government. In turn, it was the upper class, owners of large estates and wealthy business people, who controlled Congress.

While this system was stable enough to avoid coups, control the armed forces, respect human rights and expand suffrage, it wasn't necessarily a harmonious one. Cabinets came and went frequently, because Congress, not the president, decided who could be in them; the president's nominations were treated as suggestions. There were also frequent quarrels among the members, that failed to address vital issues. One of the best-known examples was the time when President Ramón Barros Luco (1910-1915) showed he was tired of intervening in labor disputes by saying, "There are only two kinds of problems: those that solve themselves and those that can't be solved."

Chile stayed out of World War I, as we noted earlier, but one of the war's battles was too close for comfort. On November 1, 1914, five German cruisers (the "German East Asia Squadron") met four British cruisers off central Chile, near the city of Coronel. The German commander, Graf Maximilian von Spee, won an easy victory; he sank two British ships, and the only German casualties were three men injured. However, it did not help Germany in the long run; the British responded by sending a large force to track down and destroy the German cruiser squadron. Von Spee followed up his victory by sailing into the Chilean port of Valparaiso, but because international law prohibited the ships of belligerent nations from spending more than 24 hours in the harbors of neutral nations, he quickly left again. Because the ships were running low on ammunition and coal, von Spee sailed around Cape Horn with the intention of returning to Germany; while passing the Falkland Islands, he decided he could could raid the British base at Port Stanley. This time the shoe was on the other foot; Britain had seven cruisers and one obsolete battleship opposing the five German cruisers. In the resulting battle of the Falkland Islands (December 8, 1914), all but one of the German cruisers were sunk, and von Spee was killed, while the British did not lose any ships. Rule Britannia again.

While nitrates were the main source of income, the north flourished. Life in the desert ports was artificial and extravagant. Everything there had to be imported: wood, furniture, clothes, jewelry, champagne, cigars, etc. Famous singers came from Europe to perform in the theater at Iquique. But one of the lessons of this narrative is that it is dangerous for a nation's economy to depend on one product (e.g., Brazil did it five times). When World War I began, Germany needed nitrates for explosives and could no longer get them from overseas, so German scientists learned to synthesize ersatz (substitute) nitrates from petroleum that worked just as well as the natural product; what's more, they could also be used as fertilizer. After the war other nations did the same as Germany, so Chile's nitrate market collapsed. Chile suffered another blow when the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Ports like Valparaíso, Antofagasta and Iquique made a profit from the ships that stopped there, on their way around Cape Horn; now that those ships could take the shorter and safer route through the Canal, they no longer came to the ports. Copper mining grew to replace those losses, and over the next few years, North American companies gained control of the copper mines. When World War II began, the demand for copper soared, and because Chilean mines supplied it, Chile earned a nice profit from the war, even though the country was neutral until 1945.

In 1920 the middle and working classes elected a reformist president, Arturo Fortunato Alessandri Palma, who wasn't going to play the games of his predecessors. Promising "evolution to avoid revolution," he formed an alliance among the more liberal members of two major parties, proposed greater political autonomy for the provinces, and taxes to finance better working conditions, health, education and welfare. While this took some power away from the landowning class, he reassured them that social reforms would be limited to the cities. Unfortunately the conservative Congress wasn't convinced, and tried to block his efforts.

The gridlock was broken by fifty-six military officers, who were sick of low pay, the neglect of the armed forces, political infighting, social unrest, and galloping inflation. In September 1924 they created the "military committee" and forced Alessandri to appoint General Luis Altamirano, the Army Inspector General, as head of a new Cabinet. Once in charge, Altamirano went to Congress and demanded the passage of eight laws, including Alessandri's labor code. Congress didn't dare to protest, and passed the laws on the same day. Though Alessandri had gotten what he wanted, he did not like being a pawn of the military, so he resigned on the next day. Congress refused to accept his resignation; instead it declared he was on a six-month leave of absence. Alessandri went to Italy, and the military committee set up a junta to rule the country in his absence.

The "September Junta" only lasted for four months. Fearing a conservative reaction/restoration while the president was away, two colonels, Carlos Ibáñez del Campo and Marmaduke Grove, staged a second coup, installed a "January Junta," and called for Alessandri's return. He came back in March 1925, the rest of his reforms were enacted by decree, and the reforms were put into a new constitution, which was approved by a plebiscite in September. This ended the parliamentary period, by giving the presidency its powers back. Alessandri also created a Central Bank and an income tax, two things conservatives opposed because they preferred laissez-faire capitalism. At the same time he crushed left-wing opposition in the Marusia massacre and the La Coruña massacre. Then he resigned a second time on October 1, 1925.

Counting from the first resignation of Alessandri, there were ten governments in the eight-year-period between 1924 and 1932. Some were civilian, some military; only two presidents were in office for more than a year, Emiliano Figueroa Larraín (December 1925-May 1927) and Carlos Ibáñez (May 1927-July 1931). Stable, constitutional rule returned in 1932 when elections took place and Arturo Alessandri was elected to a second term. This time he completed his term, which ended in 1938. The main event of the second term was an unsuccessful coup near the end, the Seguro Obrero Massacre; this attempt tried to reinstate Carlos Ibáñez as president (Ibáñez was forced to resign and go into exile in 1931, when his economic policies failed to bring recovery from the Great Depression). Alessandri's party, the Radical Party, would be the dominant one in Chilean politics for the next twenty years.

Radical rule ended with the 1952 election, as Carlos Ibáñez returned and ran for president again. Although he was an independent, support from parties on both ends of the political spectrum allowed him to win with 47 percent of the vote. This time around, he was in his seventies and ailing, so most of the job of running the government was left to his cabinet. Getting elected on a promise of sweeping out corruption, his main interest was land reform, because previous reform programs didn't affect the haciendas much, where the landowners had more than their share of political influence by controlling the votes of their tenants and workers. He also cut the annual inflation rate from 83 to 33 percent, and repealed an unpopular law from his predecessor that banned the Communist Party.

The 1958 election introduced new figures and new parties. Salvador Allende, an open Marxist, ran as the Socialist Party candidate. Eduardo Frei Montalva ran as the candidate of the Christian Democrats, a centrist party that promoted both human rights and Catholic values. Meanwhile the older parties (Conservatives, Liberals and Radicals) formed a coalition behind an independent, Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez, the son of former president Arturo Alessandri. The initial result was 31.6% of the vote for Alessandri, 28.9% for Allende, and 20.7% for Frei. Because nobody had gotten a majority, the election was thrown to Congress, which picked Alessandri. Alessandri initially worked, unsurprisingly, on the economy, especially inflation and balancing the budget.

This is the end of Part II. Click here to go to Part III.


29. After Francisco Franco became dictator of Spain, a Spanish diplomat expressed disgust at Uruguayan society. He noted that Uruguay relied on a small professional army, not requiring every able-bodied man to do a term of military service, and that Uruguayans showed no more respect for officers than they did to anybody else. Also offensive to him was the fact that Uruguay had given up the macho sport of bullfighting, and that Catholic teaching was no longer done in the schools. Of course, while Franco ruled, Spain was behind the rest of Europe in social legislation, too. Source: Ernesto la Orden, Uruguay: el Benjamin de España, Madrid, 1949.

30. Still, it is worth noting that all three presidents during the occupation were mulattoes.

31. After this, the Gendarmerie's name was shortened to the Garde d'Haïti, or just the Garde.

32. The part of South America below the Tropic of Capricorn: Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, plus the southernmost part of Brazil (São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul). It got its name from the cone shape of the land, of course. As mentioned in Chapter 4, this area has a temperate climate, not a tropical one, so it attracted European immigrants in droves.

33. The London-based house of Baring collapsed because it had lent millions to Argentina before the crash.

34. One of the founders of the Civic Union/Radical Party was former President Bartolomé Mitre (see Chapter 4). In 1896 Hipólito Yrigoyen became the Radical leader; remember him.

35. Four thousand of Villa's men were killed and six thousand were captured at Celaya. Obregón lost his right arm in the battle, so after that he was known as Manco de Celaya ("the one-armed man of Celaya").

36. Pershing and Villa knew each other already; Pershing had met Villa and Obregón at Fort Bliss, Texas, in 1914. In August 1915, six months before he went on the expedition to catch Villa, Pershing's wife and three daughters died in a fire, and Villa sent him a condolence message.

37. Blacks could also accuse the government of racial discrimination. To give just one example, Magoon's occupation government brought back a policy from the colonial era called "whitening," where nonwhite immigration to Cuba was not permitted, but Spanish immigrants were encouraged to come, by offering to pay their travel expenses and promising jobs in the government after they arrived. The 1907 census showed that the black portion of the population had dropped to less than 30 percent, indicating that the policy was working.

38. To minimize the German U-boat threat to Cuban merchants, much of the sugar was first shipped to Sweden, a neutral nation, before it was delivered to any nation involved in the war.

39. Six of those Minerva temples still stand today. However, the one in Guatemala City became a victim of modern-day sports; it was blown up with dynamite in 1953 to make room for an expansion of the baseball park next door.

40. When I was in college, I read the novel El Señor Presidente (1946), written by Miguel Ángel Asturias, a Nobel Prize-winning author. This story of life under a dictatorship, in a land with no justice, could have happened in any Spanish-speaking country of Latin America during the early twentieth century, and Asturias does not give the name of the tyrant, but we know from other sources he had Estrada Cabrera in mind.

41. The corporate acquisitions were not limited to physical property. By 1950, approximately 80 percent of the country's electricity was generated by Empresa Eléctrica, a company controlled by the American and Foreign Power Company.

42. All of the eleven presidents who served between 1894 and 1930 came from important landowning families in three important states. Six were from the coffee elites of São Paulo, three were from the cattle barons of Minas Gerais, and two were from the cattle barons of Rio Grande do Sul. There were no political parties on a national scale until 1930.

43. The indefinite borders drawn during the colonial era led to a dispute between Honduras and Nicaragua over who owned the north bank of the Coco River. In 1894 Nicaragua's President Zelaya invaded Honduras, captured Tegucigalpa, and installed his own man, José Policarpo Bonilla Vasquez, as president. Policarpo Bonilla returned the favor by founding a Liberal Party in Honduras, and in 1899 he was succeeded by another Liberal, Terencio Sierra Romero. I am mentioning this because it was the first peaceful transition between presidents that Honduras had seen in decades. Between 1899 and 1902, Sierra built railroads along the northern coast to handle the growing banana industry.

44. When Samuel Zemurray moved from Russia to the United States, he was a penniless teenager. At the end of his life, he was the richest man in New Orleans. His rags-to-riches story is an example of the "American dream" at its best . . . and at its worst. You can read his biography here.

45. Manuel Bonilla had been president before, in 1903-07. In his day the liberals had the only organized political party; conservatives had no coherent leadership and were split into several personalist factions. Himself a conservative, Bonilla tried to unite them, and today's National Party of Honduras (PNH) got started here.

46. By the 1930s, thirteen constitutions had been written for Honduras. Three of those thirteen never went into effect, and the most recent one had only been ratified in 1924.

Support this site!

© Copyright 2021 Charles Kimball

Top of the page



A History of Latin America and the Caribbean


Other History Papers

Beyond History