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A History of Latin America and the Caribbean

Chapter 5: Uncle Sam's Backyard, Part III

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

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
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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

Ecuador: The Leftover Country


History has not been kind to Ecuador. When the outside world first heard about the place, it immediately became a colony, conquered by the Incas. Because of that, and because Quito was the home base of the emperor Atahualpa, Ecuador inherited the rivalry between Huascar and Atahualpa (see this footnote from Chapter 2), leading to the longstanding territorial dispute between Ecuador and Peru after independence. While Spain ruled, it called Ecuador the Audiencia of Quito, which encompassed not only present-day Ecuador but also southern Colombia, a chunk of northern Peru, and the heart of the Amazon basin. Most of the Amazon basin was lost to Brazil before independence came, and Ecuador signed away another piece, the part between the Caqueta and Amazon Rivers, in return for friendship, alliance, and free navigation with Brazil (the Tobar-Rio Branco Treaty, 1904). Then, as we saw in the parts of this chapter covering Peru, the treaties that drew borders for this part of South America also gave Peru most of the remaining jungle (1922 & 1942), and led to the brief war between Ecuador and Peru in 1941. Today just a piece of the original Ecuador is left, and it is probably the geographical tendency to divide northwestern South America three ways (Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela) that kept Ecuador from disappearing completely.(47) Finally, there is internal rivalry to match the external rivalry, between conservative, Catholic Quito and liberal, secular Guayaquil. Since 1830, there have been nearly a hundred changes in government and twenty constitutions (the latest was just written in 2008).

At the beginning of the period covered by this chapter, Ecuador enjoyed years that were stable and prosperous, at least by Ecuadorean standards. Then in 1895 the conservative president, Luis Cordero Crespo, fell victim to scandals, and military rebellions forced him to resign. The Liberals seized power in Guayaquil and called for their champion, General José Eloy Alfaro Delgado. Three months later, Eloy Alfaro returned (he had been in exile for the past decade), and marched triumphantly into Quito. This marked the beginning of three stormy decades (1895-1925) where the Radical Liberal Party--Liberal Party for short--was in charge.

Alfaro is the chief hero of Ecuador's liberals and Marxists, just as Gabriel García Moreno (see Chapter 4) is the chief hero of conservatives. His supporters called him Viejo Luchador (Old Warrior) because he was a rebel at heart, fighting against four previous presidents (García Moreno, Borrero, Veintemilla and Camaño); that's why he was in exile. As soon as he took over, he stripped the Church of the privileges given to it by García Moreno. Over the next thirty years, Roman Catholicism lost its status as the constitutionally mandated state religion, official clerical censorship of reading material stopped, education was secularized, civil marriage and divorce were legalized, the concordat with the Vatican was broken, most of the church's rural properties were seized by the state, and the nation was no longer dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Of course many did not support the official separation of Church and State, and that resulted in a bloody civil war (1895-1900), where clergymen incited the faithful to rise up in rebellion against the "atheistic alfaristas," and in turn they became victims when the alfaristas retaliated. Fighting burned out, though, because of the intervention of a local bishop, Federico González Suárez(48); although he also opposed the government's anti-clerical policies, he felt the clergy had no business getting involved in politics. When he denounced a Conservative force massing in Colombia in 1900, that effectively ended the war.

Alfaro's first term ended in the following year (1901), and two rivals succeeded him as president. He gave no trouble to the first, but in 1906 he led another revolt to depose the second, and seized power again. His second term saw the only other major accomplishment of the Liberal era, the completion of the Guayaquil-Quito railroad in 1908. This project had been started in 1861 by García Moreno, and Alfaro was accused of "delivering the republic to the Yankees," when he signed a contract with North American entrepreneurs to finish it. Then he considered a proposal to let the United States build a naval base in the Galapagos, to protect the nearly finished Panama Canal on its Pacific side, but the outcry against this was so great that he had to drop the idea.

The Liberal Party's lack of unity showed in 1911, when Alfaro was overthrown and exiled to Panama, for refusing to hand over power to his hand-picked successor, Emilio Estrada Carmona. But Estrada died of a heart attack four months later, so Alfaro returned to Guayaquil to launch one more rebellion. In January 1912 he was defeated, captured, and taken to Quito on the railroad he had done so much to complete. Three weeks later, a mob led by a group of pro-Catholic soldiers broke into the prison where Alfaro and his colleagues were being held and dragged them through the cobbled streets of the city center. They were all dead when the mob arrived at the city gardens on the north side of Quito, so the bodies were burned on that spot.

Four more presidents held office between 1912 and 1925. We don't need to remember anything about them, because the real rulers of the country during this period were a liberal plutocracy of farmers and bankers, called la argolla (the ring). The most important member of la argolla was the Commercial and Agricultural Bank of Guayaquil, led by Francisco Urbina Jado, and this bank gained its power by loaning vast quantities of money to both the free-spending government and key private individuals. However, their rule was not an improvement over the past politicians and caudillos; the banks printed so much money that they caused runaway inflation. The nation's important cacao industry was also devastated, first by a fungal disease, and then by declining world demand, first because British colonies in Africa were now growing cacao in competition, and then because of the Great Depression. Workers responded to the deteriorating economy with a general strike in Guayaquil in 1922 and a peasant rebellion in the mountains in 1923. In both cases the strikers wanted better wages and working conditions, but both were put down with bloody massacres.

Discontent with the economy and the government reached a boiling point in July 1925, when the military threw out the liberal plutocracy with a bloodless coup. This time they were not led by a caudillo, but by a group called the League of Young Officers. After trying for several months to establish an effective government, the League of Young Officers appointed Isidro Ayora, a dedicated reformer, as president (1926-31). Assuming dictatorial powers, Ayora carried out a series of reforms thought of by the League as well as by himself. To straighten out the economy, he invited an advisory mission from Princeton University, which reorganized several state agencies to make them more efficient, and created the Central Bank of Ecuador. The new bank took away the power of the private banks to issue currency, breaking the strength of la argolla. In 1929 a new constitution was passed that included a wide range of social legislation, but it also cut back executive power, in favor of a strong legislature. As was the case with Chile's parliamentary republic, this was not a formula for stability. Meanwhile, the appearance of new populist, socialist and communist parties made more opportunities for chaos--and for violence. When the Great Depression caused widespread unemployment and misery, Ayora was thrown out in another military coup, and few missed him. Between 1931 and 1940, fifteen more chief executives followed Ayora.

One of those chief executives is worth mentioning, José María Velasco Ibarra (1893-1979). The most important figure in Ecuador during the mid-twentieth century, Velasco was president five times between 1934 and 1972, but only once did he serve for a whole term (his third term, 1952-56). When he entered the assembly in 1932, Velasco professed a "total lack of presidential ambitions," but when he got to run as the Conservative candidate one year later, he was such a great orator that he won 80% of the vote, the biggest landslide in Ecuadorean history. However, his first term as president only lasted eleven months; he was overthrown by the military after attempting to assume dictatorial powers by dissolving the assembly and jailing his opponents in that body. He spent the rest of the 1930s in exile; first working in the Santander School of Sevilla, Colombia (which was subsequently named the best school of that country), and later becoming a university professor in Buenos Aires.

The first president of the 1940s, Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río, came from the opposite side of the political spectrum as Velasco; he was the leader of the Liberal Party and a member of the Guayaquil plutocracy. Originally he came to power when his predecessor died in November 1939, but then he stepped down to run in elections in January 1940, probably winning by fraud because everybody believed that Velasco was the real winner, and then he held on for four years through repression. What made him successful was that he was an enthusiastic admirer of the United States; after World War II began, he allowed the US to build a naval base in the Galapagos Islands and an air base on the mainland at Salinas. In return, the Yankees hailed him as "the Apostle of Pan-Americanism," and did enough business with Ecuador to end the economic slump of the past three decades.

However, the US could not help Arroyo in his disastrous 1941 war with Peru. Not only was he unprepared when the Peruvians responded to his attack with an invasion of their own, but he feared so much for his safety that he kept Ecuador's best troops in Quito, while Peruvians did what they pleased in the south and east. The treaty ending the war, the Rio Protocol, was so unpopular that a bare plurality of the Ecuadorean legislature ratified it.

A coalition called the Democratic Alliance was formed to replace the "president who had been unable to defend the national honor." Arroyo replied that he would stay in office for a full four years, "neither one day more nor one day less." But after another round of inflation turned salaried workers against him, and an uprising in Guayaquil that pitted the military and civilian supporters of Velasco against Arroyo's police, the president resigned in May 1944, three months before his term was due to end. The military told the Democratic Alliance it could pick the next president, and that group invited Velasco to come back from exile and assume the presidency again.

The first time Velasco was president, he got in trouble with the assembly for talking like a liberal but ruling like a conservative. Now it happened again. When the Democratic Alliance installed Velasco, it also convened a liberal-dominated assembly to write a new constitution. They got done in May 1945, but though Velasco had spent the past year calling for social justice, he rejected the constitution they came up with, dissolved the assembly, and held elections to set up a new one. Sure enough, in 1946 the new assembly finished drafting a far more conservative constitution, and the president approved it this time. Meanwhile, inflation continued unchecked, until three ministers of defense got tired of Velasco neglecting the economy and deposed him (August 1947).

1947-48 saw three ephemeral presidents come and go, and then came a fifteen-year period of uninterrupted constitutional rule (1948-63), the longest Ecuador had seen to this point. The first chief executive elected during this time, Galo Plaza Lasso, was not your typical Ecuadorean president. Although his father, Leónidas Plaza Gutiérrez, had been president of Ecuador twice (1901-05 and 1912-16), Galo Plaza was born in New York City, and attended three universities in the United States. In 1944, former president Arroyo appointed him ambassador to the United States, so by the time he became president, he was an even bigger friend of the Yankees than Arroyo had been. The downside of this is that his US connections made his opponents see him as a US puppet as well. Finally, Galo Plaza was not a career politician, but a gentleman farmer; he liked to spend his weekends on the cattle ranch he owned near Quito.

Galo Plaza came into office full of ideas on how to improve the economy and the government, and he invited foreign experts to come and introduce even more ideas. But the legislature wasn't as eager to try something new, and refused to pass most of the recommended reforms. Still, the economy enjoyed a strong upturn for two reasons, largely outside the Ecuadorean government's control. First, the Korean War raised worldwide demand and prices for commodities. Second--and this one was more important, as Galo Plaza admitted--it was Central America's turn to suffer big crop losses from disease. This time banana plantations were hit, and Ecuador was able to grow enough bananas to replace the Central American ones, becoming a "banana republic" (see footnote #1). During Galo Plaza's term, Ecuadorean banana exports grew tenfold, from $2 million in 1948 to $20 million in 1952.(49)

Galo Plaza's last contribution was his most important; under him Ecuador began to look like a real democracy. The country enjoyed freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly, and the legislature could meet without fear of the president or the military dissolving it. Finally, he completed his term in office, the first president to do so since 1924.

For the election of 1952, Velasco won again. Now calling himself "the National Personification," he used the same strategy as before; he got elected with left-wing support, but once in office, he arrested the backers who might turn against him and ran a right-wing administration. The third time around was the best for him, because the banana boom was good for his presidency, too. Velasco was still a big spender; he built plenty of new bridges, roads and schools, gave jobs and salary increases to his supporters and bought new weapons for the military. Unlike the other times, though, there was enough money to pay for everything, and conservative groups (including the old oligarchy) approved of his way of handling things, so he managed to complete a four-year-term.(50) Velasco was succeeded by Camilo Ponce Enríquez, who also served a complete term (1956-60), though the banana boom ended during this time.

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The Mexican Revolution, Phase 3: Coming Full Circle


Whereas Madero, Huerta and Carranza had failed to bring peace, Álvaro Obregón succeeded, simply because all the survivors were tired of fighting as the 1920s began. Obregón himself once joked that the revolutionary banditry stopped because he had brought all the bandits with him to the capital to keep them out of trouble.

As you might expect, the theme of the 1920s was recovery. Obregón won popular support by continuing to use the revolutionary rhetoric that had been fashionable in the previous decade, but the actual social changes were modest by comparison. For example, he refused to break up the big haciendas, feeling that would ruin the economy, and the peasants who did receive land were not likely to prosper, because they did not get the seeds, tools, and training they needed, or credit to purchase those items. By the end of his presidency, 3 million acres had been given to 624 villages, while 320 million acres remained in private hands. Obregón also allowed the workers and peasants to form unions. But modern-day Mexicans remember Obregón for creating the Ministry of Public Education and appointing José Vasconcelos to run it. Besides promoting literacy and building schools and libraries, Vasconcelos revived the art of mural painting, which had been popular with the Maya and Aztecs. Murals are a more lively art form than European-style paintings, and bringing them back into style helped establish Mexico's cultural identity and pride. Since then the ministry has had far-reaching effects on Mexican culture. A number of Mexican artists (Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Frieda Kahlo), musicians (Carlos Chavez and Silvestre Revueltas), and writers (Martín Luis Guzmán, Mariano Azuela, and Nellie Campobello), all got their opportunity to achieve worldwide fame on account of the Ministry of Public Education.

Before the 1924 election, Obregón endorsed a fellow Sonoran, Plutarco Elías Calles, as his choice for the next president. However, Adolfo de la Huerta, who had been the interim president between Carranza's assassination and Obregón's election, wanted to be a real president now, and felt Obregón was making the same mistake as Carranza by picking his successor. Two thirds of the army agreed with de la Huerta, and they launched an uprising from Veracruz and Jalisco. With some help from the United States(51), Obregón crushed the uprising. De la Huerta fled to the United States, Calles won the election, and Obregón went back to his farm; under the Calles presidency he increased his vast landholdings in northern Mexico and established a monopoly in the growing of garbanzos (chickpeas). The rule of no re-election, which Mexicans had been calling for since the 1870s, had finally been observed in the letter, though not in the spirit.

Calles dominated Mexico for the next ten years. He was more enthusiastic about land reform than Obregón was, and thus redistributed twice as much land, but the main event of his presidency was the "Cristero War" (1926-29). An atheist, Calles saw the Church as the main opponent of the Revolution, and wanted to cut the Church down to size. In 1926 he announced he was going to enforce the part of the constitution that abolished religious education, and passed laws to do just that. The clergy responded by going on strike; for the first time in the four hundred years since Cortez arrived, no masses were celebrated in Mexico.(52) Those who felt the laws of God outrank the laws of men took up arms, and became guerrillas called Cristeros (from their slogan "¡Viva Cristo Rey!" or "Long live Christ the King!"); by 1927 the uprisings they launched had spread to thirteen states. Cristeros burned government schools and killed teachers, and the government retaliated with vicious reprisals; before it was over, 90,000 died on both sides and the US ambassador was brought in to help negotiate a truce.

Álvaro Obregón thought he needed to come back and straighten things out when the term of Calles ended, so he got two amendments added to the constitution to make it possible. The first amendment allowed a former president to run for non-consecutive terms (this was repealed in 1934); the second increased the president's term in office from four years to six. With the constitutional roadblock removed, Obregón ran again and won in 1928, but he did not get to serve a second term. Two weeks after the election, he attended a small victory celebration. A young man at the party showed Obregón a caricature he had drawn of the president-elect. Obregón said it looked good and invited the young man to finish it; instead, the artist drew a gun and fired five shots. The killer was José de León Toral, a Cristero who held Obregón responsible for the ongoing persecution of Catholics.

There were three presidents during the next six-year term (1928-34). Their names are not mentioned here because Calles, now serving as minister of war, remained the real ruler of Mexico. For this reason, Calles was called the Jefe Máximo, the maximum chief of the revolution, and this period of Mexican history is sometimes called the Maximato. In 1929 he decided that the military leaders and politicians that had been in charge since 1920 needed to be organized into a "revolutionary family," so he founded the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), Mexico's most important political party. Despite the name, changes came slowly, for the party's leaders were not as revolutionary as they used to be:

"In both his strength and his weaknesses Calles was typical of the Mexican revolutionary movement. He had once been a teacher in a primary school, but he could scarcely be classified as an educated person; he was a military chieftain rather than an intellectual. He called himself a socialist; but this did not prevent him from becoming himself a wealthy landowner or from allowing his colleagues to develop into capitalists . . . Calles [was an] example of the ease with which the crude and confused idealism of the Mexican Revolution could be transmuted into conscious self-seeking."(53)

The years of the Maximato coincided with the worldwide Great Depression, and as life got tougher, Calles became more repressive. Land reform stopped, because he thought it had been a failure, anti-clerical activity resumed, and the Gold Shirts, a fascist paramilitary group, terrorized Catholic clergymen, communists, Jews and Chinese. In 1929 he had to rig the election to make sure his handpicked candidate for president would win, because José Vasconcelos was also running. Now an enemy of Calles, Vasconcelos fled to the United States after the election.

When the 1934 election came around, the most popular candidate was Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, the governor of Michoacán. Being a Zapotec Indian with a reputation for honesty and compassion, Cárdenas must have looked like a reincarnation of Benito Juarez. He had become a revolutionary when he was only sixteen, and throughout his career he stayed in touch with the ordinary people of the country. As governor, he had spent almost 50 percent of his state's budget on education, doubling the number of schools. Seeing how the winds were blowing, Calles tried to make Cárdenas a partner by supporting his campaign for president. That nomination guaranteed he would win, but Cárdenas traveled all over the country anyway, explaining to workers and peasants what he planned to do over the next six years. By building such a base of support for himself, after the election he was his own man, not another puppet of the former president. Indeed, when Calles thought Cárdenas was moving too fast and making the labor movement a radical organization, Cárdenas prevented a coup by having the old Jefe Máximo deported to the United States in 1936.(54)

Lázaro Cárdenas may have been the last real revolutionary in Mexico's ruling party.(55) Unlike the politicians who came before and after him, he lived almost as simply as an ascetic, showing no desire to enrich himself. When it came to land reform, he distributed 44 million acres, more than all his predecessors put together. His strongest support came from the labor movement, because he sided with them during the strikes of 1935. In 1937 he nationalized Mexico's railroads, which had been largely foreign-owned up to that point; he also ordered US and British oil companies to give their Mexican employees a substantial raise, and training for possible management positions. The oil companies did not comply, so on March 18, 1938, Cárdenas expelled them from Mexico and seized their property holdings. Although he later compensated the oil companies for what he took, the United States did not buy Mexican petroleum again until the 1970s, when rising oil prices and increasing demand compelled the oil companies to come back. Modern-day Mexicans regard the date on which Cárdenas nationalized the oil properties as their second independence day. They also tend to think of Cárdenas as the best president Mexico ever had; he was the most honest president, anyway.

To better handle future challenges, Cárdenas reorganized the National Revolutionary Party into four major branches: agrarian, labor, military and "popular" (the last was for state employees). During the last two years of his presidency, he seems to have felt he had leaned too far to the left, because he acted more moderate, toning down his reforms and abandoning a few altogether. Most important of all, he realized that the system established could only work if he did not try to be the power behind the throne after leaving office; a Mexican president could rule autocratically, but only as a temporary autocrat. This showed in who was nominated to succeed Cárdenas in 1940; Manuel Ávila Camacho was a devout Catholic, and a conservative rather than a populist.

The Camacho administration marked the beginning of four decades of strong economic growth, uninterrupted until the foreign debt crisis of the 1980s. Unlike Cárdenas, Camacho gave no trouble to his Yankee counterpart, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and when the United States entered World War II, Mexico showed its solidarity by declaring war on the Axis (1942). A Mexican fighter squadron, called the Aztec Eagles, was enrolled in the 58th Fighter Group of the US; it took part in the liberation of the Philippines, during the final year of the war. On the home front, 290,000 Mexicans called Braceros (literally "arms") were allowed to work temporary jobs on American farms, while the American farm hands were off fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

At home, Camacho showed he was no revolutionary by freezing wages, repressing strikes, and passing a law against the "crime of social dissolution." The next president, Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946-52), went so far as to amend the article in the constitution that gave the government subsoil rights, so that it also protected elite landowners. In 1946 the ruling party changed its name from the National Revolutionary Party to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Although this sounds like a contradiction (the purpose of a revolution is to get rid of an institution!), it shows the ongoing trend in the ruling class. The revolutionaries of the early twentieth century were now conservatives, and preserving the gains they had made was now their priority. On that note, we will conclude the narrative on Mexico for this chapter, and move to countries where the social revolution was not yet complete.

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The Dominican Dictator

Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, the six years after the death of Ulises "Lilis" Heureaux experienced four revolutions and five different presidents (1899-1905), as the opponents of Lilis turned against each other. Meanwhile, the foreign debt that had caused the trouble in the first place went unpaid, and France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands sent warships to Santo Domingo to demand payment. This threatened to violate the Monroe Doctrine, so the Dominican Republic became the first place where the US applied the Roosevelt Corollary; in this case, the US would act as Europe's debt collector. In 1905 the United States took over the Dominican Republic's customs, appointing a receiver-general who would keep 55% of the government's revenue to pay off foreign creditors. In this way the debt was reduced from $40 million to $17 million in two years. Then in 1907 a treaty transferred control over customs receivership to the U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs and loaned $20 million to pay the rest of the claims; after this, the Dominican Republic only owed money to the United States. In this way the Americans supervised the country's finances until 1941, when the whole debt was paid off.

Ramon Cáceres, the president from 1907 to 1911, brought political stability and renewed economic growth; he even left a surplus of more than 4 million pesos in the treasury. Unfortunately he was assassinated by his opponents, and a new round of trouble followed, during which the surplus was quickly spent. A military junta ruled for two months, followed by three short-lived presidents. In 1913 Horacio Vásquez, who had been a vice president before the first US intervention, returned from exile in Puerto Rico to lead a new rebellion. This prompted US President Woodrow Wilson to warn the Dominicans that if they did not end hostilities and agree on a new president, the United States would impose one on them. A member of the Red Party and a former president from the previous decade, Juan Isidro Jimenes Pereyra, was elected in October 1914, but the Dominican Congress rejected US demands for more involvement in internal affairs, and tried to impeach Jimenes. Across the border, American troops occupied Haiti in July 1915, and when the minister of war staged a coup in April 1916, the United States had an excuse to occupy the Dominican Republic, too. Marines landed in Santo Domingo, and a US military government was established, which ran the country until 1924.

The American armed forces played a role similar to the role played by the local military in Latin American politics: take over, clean house, and leave. Accordingly, while in charge the military government reorganized the administration, built schools and roads, and established a national police force. Still, Dominicans resented their loss of control over their country, especially when the 1920 Land Registration Act dispossessed thousands of peasants who lacked formal titles to the lands they occupied, while legalizing false titles held by the sugar companies. Many of the dispossessed peasants formed guerrilla bands to fight the occupation, forcing the Marines to rely on increasingly brutal counterinsurgency methods. However, a lack of cooperation between the bands is what really kept the Marines on top, and wildly fluctuating sugar prices drove many of the local sugar planters into bankruptcy, allowing large U.S. companies to take over the sugar industry. In the end it was a new nationalist political organization, the Dominican National Union, and a growing US desire to get out of foreign entanglements that ended the occupation (the 1920s were a time of isolationism in the US, dubbed "normalcy" by President Warren Harding). In 1922 Juan Bautista Vicini, the son of a wealthy Italian immigrant sugar planter, was named provisional president, and the process of U.S. withdrawal began. It was completed two years later, with the passing of a new constitution, and the election of a new government under Horacio Vásquez.

The Vásquez administration was a short-lived bright moment between two dark times, the US occupation and the Trujillo dictatorship. A rise in the price of export commodities meant good years for the economy, Vásquez took care to respect the political and civil rights of the population, and he launched several public works projects to modernize Santo Domingo. However, he wasn't perfect, and it showed in 1927 when he tried to undercut his rival, Federico Velásquez, by having his term in office extended from four to six years. Although Congress approved this move, it was a blatant violation of the constitution, and a signal to others that they didn't have to follow the constitution, either. Later Vásquez also got rid of the article in the constitution that would have kept him from running for re-election.

It was at this point that Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina became the chief power broker in the game. Originally from a humble background, Trujillo had been just a petty criminal, until he joined the National Police in 1918. During the American occupation, upper-class Dominicans refused to collaborate with the American-run National Police, so with them not blocking the way, Trujillo was able to rise rapidly in the ranks. Before his enlistment, he had once served time for rape, but even that didn't stop the Americans from promoting him. When the occupation ended, Trujillo was Chief of the National Police, and at first he used his position to back President Vásquez.

Elections were scheduled for May 1930, when the presidential term ended. However, there were doubts the election would be fair, so in February Rafael Estrella Ureña, a political leader from Santiago, declared a revolution and marched on Santo Domingo. But before he did this, he made a deal with Trujillo; now Trujillo declared his "neutrality" in the situation and kept the troops in their barracks. The ailing Vásquez had to flee the country, and Estrella assumed the provisional presidency. For the elections, Trujillo entered himself as a candidate, and used the troops to harass and intimidate anyone who might run or campaign against him. It probably won't surprise the reader that he won with 95 percent of the vote, or that the votes he got outnumbered the voters.

Rafael Trujillo.
Rafael Trujillo.

For the next thirty-one years (1930-61), Trujillo, also known as El Jefe ("The Boss"), was the absolute ruler of the Dominican Republic. Officially he was president for about 60 percent of the time (1930-38 and 1942-52); for the other periods he filled the office with front men that he controlled totally. He looked a lot like the caudillos of the nineteenth century, but in terms of efficiency, greed and brutality he outdid them all. He enriched himself and his family by pressuring all citizens to join the Dominican Party--the only political party allowed--and required government employees to donate 10% of their paychecks to it. As a sign of things to come, one of his first victims, Virgilio Martinez Reyna, was disposed of even before Trujillo first took office, on June 1, 1930. Martinez had been a high-ranking member of Vásquez's party, and had urged the former vice-president, José Dolores Alfonseca, to get rid of Trujillo before he became too powerful. When the hit men came for Martinez, they shot him in his house and butchered his body with machetes; then for good measure they attacked his pregnant wife, leaving her to bleed to death with two shots in the belly.

For the ordinary Dominican who stayed on Trujillo's good side, life got better. Poverty still existed, but the economy grew, the foreign debt disappeared, and the currency was stable. After a hurricane killed more than 3,000 in Santo Domingo in 1930, Trujillo launched a building program that not only repaired the damage but also improved roads and port facilities, and built airports; illiteracy also declined under an improved school system. Because the Dominicans had no experience with democracy, they did not realize that any government with good intentions could make such improvements, so Trujillo got the credit, of course.

Like most Dominicans Trujillo had some black ancestry, but he hated blacks, especially Haitian blacks, because he saw them as a threat to his rule. This led to the worst event of his reign, the 1937 "Parsley Massacre" of at least 15,000 Haitians caught on the wrong side of the border. Place names along the border were changed from Creole/French to Spanish, the practice of Voodoo was outlawed, quotas were imposed on foreign workers that companies could hire, and a law was passed ordering Haitian workers to go back to Haiti after the sugar harvest. On the other hand, he welcomed Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, not because he liked Jews or disagreed with the policies of Spain and Germany, but because letting them settle in the Dominican Republic increased the white percentage of the population at the expense of the Haitians (remember the "whitening" policy in Cuba).

Trujillo has been called a fascist for the style of his rule, and he did express admiration for fascist governments in Europe, especially Francisco Franco's Spain. However, he declared war on the Axis during World War II (he knew better than to antagonize the United States!), and he did not promote a specific ideology like Nazi Germany did. Indeed, it looks like the only ideology he believed in was himself. Besides filling the country with his statues, and plaques mentioning his achievements, he changed the same of Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo, and renamed a province and the country's highest mountain after himself. He even compared himself with God, by ordering churches to display signs saying, "Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra" ("God in the sky, Trujillo in the Earth"). His three-year-old son Ramfis was given the rank of colonel, and later promoted to general, while his barely-literate wife was declared a writer and philosopher, and nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature.(56)

The United States saw the Dominican Republic as a bastion of stability in an unstable region, and the administrations of Hoover, [Franklin] Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower all tolerated Trujillo because (1.) he always gave US foreign policy his full cooperation, and because (2.) after the Cold War started, he became violently anti-communist (e.g., farmers who asked for pay raises could be called communists and shot on the spot). As time went on, though, he grew more isolated and paranoid. He developed one secret service after another, until there were at least seven categories of intelligence agencies, spying on each other as well as the public. All citizens had to carry identification cards and good-conduct passes from the police. The economy also started to deteriorate because of overspending, especially on a festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the regime (it cost $30 million, one third of that year's national budget), and because investments in the sugar industry did not produce results. This encouraged Trujillo to commit atrocities against foreigners, like the 1956 murder of Jesús María de Galíndez, a Basque exile who had once worked for Trujillo but later denounced Trujillo after he became a professor at Columbia University in New York. By the end of the 1950s, Trujillo's behavior had turned world opinion against him, hastening the end of his regime.(57)

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The Chaco War

Bolivia Paraguay

We have not looked at Bolivia and Paraguay since Chapter 4, because both countries got the stuffing kicked out of them in the nineteenth century. Especially Paraguay, which could not form a long-lasting government to replace the dictators it had previously. The first sign of stability came when one of Paraguay's political parties, the Colorados, seized power in 1880. Though eight presidents served during the next twenty-four years, all of them came from the Colorado party, until they lost a four-month civil war and had to hand over the reins of government to the other party, the Liberals. But under the Liberals, factional feuding, coups and civil war made the situation even more chaotic; they gave Paraguay twenty-two presidents between 1904 and 1940.

Bolivia was better off, but not by much. Although most of Bolivia's presidents at this time were able to complete a four-year term, there were still interruptions where military juntas stepped in. One of them was the "Federal Revolution" of 1899, which saw the Liberal Party overthrow the Conservatives, ending their long rule. The Bolivian Liberals were more stable than their Paraguayan counterparts; in a twenty-one-year span, they had just four presidents, of which the most important was Ismael Montes Gamboa (1904-09 and 1913-17). Each party had different constituencies; the Conservatives got most of their support from silver mine owners and great landowners, while the Liberals represented tin mine owners(58) and Indians. Unlike previous coups, the Federal Revolution saw active Indian involvement, because they had lost much of their communal land up to this point. When the Liberals did not keep their promises to do something about the land grabs, several Indian uprisings and strikes followed, which frightened whites and Mestizos.(59)

Around this time, Bolivia lost its northernmost territory, the country's flat-topped "hat." In 1867 Bolivia's mad dictator, Mariano Melgarejo, told the Brazilians they could have the Acre district, but because it was an unexplored jungle, Brazil ignored it for a generation. Then in the last years of the nineteenth century, world demand for rubber soared, and because any part of the South American jungle was likely to contain rubber trees, Acre suddenly became a place that could generate a lot of money for whoever owned it. Thousands of Brazilians moved in, seeking their fortunes in rubber, and in 1899 they revolted, declaring themselves "the Republic of Acre." Bolivia put down the revolt, and a second one a year later, but then the Brazilians found a veteran soldier, José Plácido de Castro, who proved to be a capable leader. The third time was the charm; the settlers revolted again, Brazil rushed troops into the area, and Bolivia had to back down. In the 1903 Treaty of Petrópolis, Bolivia gave up Acre in exchange for a payment of £2,000,000, and a promise to build a rail link between the Bolivian city of Riberalta and the Brazilian city of Porto Velho; the railroad would provide a way around the rapids on the Madeira River, giving Bolivia access to the Amazon (and from there, the Atlantic). The territory became the Brazilian state of Acre in 1962, and today it is Brazil's main center of rubber production. In 1909 Bolivia signed a treaty with Peru that approved a border adjustment in the Andes; again, Bolivia did not get the better part of the deal.

Bolivia's losses.
This map showing Bolivia's territorial losses was posted in Chapter 4. Here it is again, so you can see the places the text is talking about.

Political abuses and the loss of the Acre territory generated opposition to the Liberals, but instead of rallying behind the Conservative party, it led to the formation of a new group, the Republican Party. In 1920 the Republicans seized the presidency in a bloodless coup, only to split into several factions over the next few years; some minor socialist and Marxist parties appeared, too. At the same time, the Bolivian economy suffered from events the government could not control. There was the partial disruption of trade in the Atlantic during World War I, a drought that ruined crops in 1917 and 1918, declining tin prices over the course of the 1920s, and worst of all, the outside world almost stopped buying tin completely during the great Depression. To get through these tough times, Republican presidents borrowed heavily from the United States, under terms that angered Bolivian nationalists. One loan, for instance, gave the United States control over Bolivia's tax collections in return for $33 million. Finally, Republican governments frustrated workers and students, with weak social legislation and unkept promises. When their presidents gave into the temptation of manipulating elections so they could get re-elected, the military ousted them in coups (1925 and 1930).

The Gran Chaco is arguably the nastiest place in all of Latin America. It is a 250,000-square-mile plain where the Andes, the Pampas and the Amazon jungle meet. Most of it is divided between Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina; Brazil also has a little bit, thanks to the treaty of 1867. The western part of the Gran Chaco is a treeless semidesert; the east has thorny scrub forest and tends to flood when it rains, due to poor drainage. Temperatures as high as 116o F. have been reported here, making it probably the hottest spot in South America. In addition, the area is notorious for diseases, poisonous snakes and stinging insects, especially fire ants. For these reasons, the only people who ever wanted to live there were the Indians; even today there are almost no roads and railways running through the area.(60) Finally, there are almost no resources; the local residents have made a living extracting tannin from quebracho trees and by letting cattle graze on the small amount of grass available. The fact that two modern nations would fight a three-year-war over such a godforsaken piece of real estate shows how irrational people can get.

During the colonial era, Spain considered the Gran Chaco to be part of Bolivia, because it included the foothills of the Andes, but the local Indians were more closely related to the tribe in Paraguay, the Guarani. Unfortunately there had been no defined boundaries in the area when Spain ruled it, so after independence both Bolivia and Paraguay claimed it, though like the Spaniards, neither considered the territory important. That changed when Bolivia lost its seacoast in the War of the Pacific. Now it looked to the rivers feeding the Rio de la Plata as the best route to the sea--the same waterways that Paraguay used. As early as 1885, Bolivia built a port on the upper Paraguay River, near Bahía Negra. Mind you, the two countries did try using diplomacy to defuse the dispute. Between 1879 and 1907, four treaties were passed, each one drawing an official boundary through the Chaco, but none of the lines satisfied everybody. As for Paraguay, it staked its own claim in 1924 by allowing 5,000 Mennonites (immigrants from Russia, the USA and Canada) to found a colony named Filadelfia, in the middle of the disputed territory.(61)

Chaco war zone.
The Gran Chaco, with landmarks.

What really raised the stakes was the discovery of oil in 1920s, in Bolivia on the western edge of the Chaco. This suggested that more oil might lie under the Chaco itself. Bolivia was going to need pipelines through the Chaco and an oil port on the Paraguay River, to take advantage of the expected oil boom. But Paraguay was in no mood to make territorial concessions, and in 1928 Paraguayan troops wiped out Fort Boquerón, which had just been built by the Bolivians. Some raids and skirmishes followed, but a truce sponsored by the League of Nations kept it from exploding into an all-out war for four years.

Officially the Chaco War began when Paraguay launched an offensive in June 1932, followed by a formal declaration of war on May 10, 1933.(62) At the time, Paraguay's actions must have looked suicidal. Bolivia had a larger army, it was better equipped, and commanded by a German general, Hans von Kundt. But Paraguay's advantages were intangible, and in the long run they mattered more. First, Paraguay had better leadership, under President Eusebio Ayala and Colonel (later General) José Félix Estigarribia. Second, the Paraguayans knew the terrain better. Bolivian soldiers, mostly Indians from the mountains, were definitely out of their element on the steamy plains of the Chaco; their woolen uniforms did not help in the hot climate, either. Third, the Paraguayans were better motivated. Because of Paraguay's poverty, there were only a few soldiers in the army before the war, and less than half of them had guns (the rest were armed with machetes), but when the Bolivians threw back the original Paraguayan advance, overran most of the Chaco and threatened the heart of Paraguay, a national mobilization campaign began, and those who joined fought back with the same fanaticism that Paraguayans had shown in the War of the Triple Alliance.

Paradoxically, even Paraguay's lack of modern weaponry became an asset. Since the country could not afford to buy arms through conventional channels, it sent civilian agents to Europe to buy surplus rifles and mortars, mostly stuff left over from World War I.(63) In the inhospitable, uncivilized environment of the Chaco, such hand-me-down equipment held up better than the up-to-date Bolivian arms, and when it broke down, it was far easier to repair or replace. And after the Paraguayans began to win battles, they could close the arms gap with captured Bolivian equipment. In 1934 General Estigarribia began another offensive; using brilliant tactics, he bypassed Bolivian strongpoints and encircled Bolivian forces larger than his own. By early 1935, he had pushed all the way to the Andean foothills and had troops next to the Bolivian oilfields that had started the conflict. Here the Bolivians fought better, because now they were the ones defending their homeland.

At this point, the two countries reached a stalemate, and both were exhausted, so they agreed to a cease-fire in June 1935, which led to the Treaty of Buenos Aires in 1938. The treaty gave three fourths of the disputed territory to Paraguay, while Bolivia was given a corridor to the Paraguay and Parana Rivers and the use of Puerto Casado as a free port.

Neither side gained much from the war. Paraguay emerged larger, but at a cost of more than 80,000 lives on both sides; whether the gains were worth the casualties is doubtful. The only oil ever found was in territory that belonged to Bolivia both before and after the war; no oil boom materialized. And before the war, Paraguay had promised Bolivian access to its waterways, so they didn't have to fight over that, either. Bolivia's leaders were thoroughly discredited. During the war the military forced the resignation of the civilian president, Daniel Domingo Salamanca Urey, to keep Bolivia from giving up too soon. Then in 1936, less than two weeks before scheduled elections, the left-wing faction of an inept colonel, David Toro Ruilova, staged another coup, removing the next president, Sorzano Tejada, and defeating the rightest forces of the only Bolivian officer who distinguished himself in combat, Colonel Bilbao Rioja. Bolivians remarked, "The command responsible for the loss of the Chaco has received the government for its reward." Popular resentment at the military for losing the war would lead eventually to the Bolivian revolution of 1952.

Even the winners couldn't celebrate for long. In 1936 Ayala and Estigarribia were deposed, imprisoned and exiled to Argentina by hardline Paraguayan officers, who thought the terms of the cease-fire were too easy on Bolivia. However, Estigarribia managed to return and get himself elected president in 1939. Just six months after that, in the caudillo tradition, he declared that "our nation is on the edge of horrible anarchy," dissolved the legislature and suspended the constitution. The new constitution he wrote was a severely authoritarian document that granted him sweeping powers, and it remained in effect until 1967. Before 1940 was over, however, an "act of God" kept Estigarribia from becoming a real dictator; he and his wife died in a plane crash, while visiting the interior of Paraguay.

Next section on Bolivia.
Next section on Paraguay.
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El Salvador: The Coffee Republic

El Salvador

Like other parts of Latin America, El Salvador had a bunch of problems after independence: political turmoil with frequent revolutions, an economy dependent on one export (coffee after 1860), 90 percent of the country's land belonging to an oligarchy called "the Fourteen Families," and the rest of the population in poverty. Whether the economy prospered or suffered depended on world coffee prices each year. The country began to stabilize in the last years of the nineteenth century; from 1913 to 1931, the presidency regularly rotated between the Meléndez and Quiñónez families.

Attempts by the poor majority to do something about the social and economic inequalities were suppressed ruthlessly, especially attempts to unionize the coffee industry. The great landowners had raised private armies in the nineteenth century to deal with troublemaking peasants, and in the 1880s the government recruited a National Police force from their ranks to patrol the countryside. In 1912 a National Guard was established to work with the National Police.

Hopes began to rise after Pío Romero Bosque was elected president in 1927. He came from the Meléndez-Quiñónez "dynasty," but instead of making sure his chosen successor would be elected next time, he allowed the system to be made more democratic. Consequently, the 1931 election was probably the first free election in El Salvador's history.

Arturo Araujo, the winner of the 1931 election, came from the Labor Party, instead of the two previous ruling families or the political party that represented them. However, he had the bad luck of coming into office during the Great Depression. Coffee prices had fallen by 54 percent, making life for the poor and working classes much more difficult than it already was. The government was so cash-strapped that the Finance Minister paid the salaries of the police, but not the army. You can guess what happened next. In December 1931, nine months after Araujo became president, a group of young officers, led by vice president Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, ousted him in a coup.

Only the military was satisfied with the coup. Communists began plotting a peasant rebellion, and the government caught wind of it and arrested most of the plotters. However, on January 22, 1932, an uprising of peasants and Indians erupted anyway, led by Agustín Farabundo Martí Rodríguez (Farabundo Martí for short), a founder of the Central American Socialist Party. They captured several towns and cut off transportation and communications to others, but within three days, the superior training and equipment of the military allowed them to regain control. Then the reprisals began. Whereas the rebels killed less than 100 people, the military slaughtered somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 in what became known as la Matanza (the Massacre). Most of the victims were Indians; for a while the military went after anyone who looked indigenous. Few native traditions survived; i.e., the Indians have worn modern fashions since then, because their own clothing made them targets in 1932. Farabundo Martí was arrested and shot by a firing squad, so to the poor he immediately became a martyr; his name is preserved by the FMLN (Frente Martí Liberación Nacional), a guerrilla movement and political party of the late twentieth century.

You may see this as insult added to injury, but Hernández Martínez went on to become El Salvador's longest-ruling president; he held the office until 1944. He carried out limited reform, like giving women the right to vote, to prevent a repeat of the 1932 uprising. He also continued a very limited land redistribution program that Araujo had started, for the same reason. At other times he resorted to heavy-handed repression, especially against communists; for that reason, during El Salvador's civil war in the 1970s and 80s, a right-wing death squad that killed Christian Democrats and Marxist politicians was named after Hernández Martínez. Finally, Hernández Martínez had some personal quirks that have made him a legend among today's Salvadorans. A believer in reincarnation and spiritualism, he once had strings of colored lights hung around San Salvador, to stop a smallpox epidemic in the capital.

Like some other Latin American dictators, Hernández Martínez was personally attracted to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, but he also knew which of the world's major powers was most likely to rescue him in hard times, so during World War II, he committed El Salvador to the Allied cause without hesitation. This put him on Washington's good side. But despite this and the length of his rule, he had a hard time getting along with the country's oligarchy, because he came from a humble family and because of his eccentric, unpredictable behavior. In 1943, for example, the oligarchy opposed his decision to raise more revenue through an increase in the export tax. The last straw came in 1944, when he attempted to get the legislature to extend the length of his current term in office, instead of just running for re-election when the term ended. All his enemies protested, and Hernández Martínez defeated an attempt to overthrow him, but then a student-led general strike proved to be more than the old general could handle. He resigned and fled to Guatemala; ironically, the El Salvador revolt then spread to Guatemala, where Jorge Ubico, who had also been president since 1931, was likewise forced to resign. In 1966, at the age of eighty-four, Hernández Martínez was stabbed to death by his driver, Cipriano Morales, who happened to be the son of one of his many victims.

From 1932 to 1980, all but one of El Salvador's presidents were military men. Presidential elections, when they were allowed to take place, were seldom fair. Those who came after Hernández Martínez were not as colorful. The first, General Andrés Ignacio Menéndez, called for political liberalization and free elections, but was ousted five months later, so we will never know if he planned to keep his promises. Then came another caretaker, Colonel Osmín Aguirre y Salinas, who held office until the next, General Salvador Castaneda Castro (1945-48), was elected. Castaneda feared the younger, reform-minded officers, and tried to keep them out of trouble by sending them abroad for training, but he couldn't do that with all of the corps, and a group at home, which called itself the Military Youth, eventually ousted him in a coup.

The Military Youth set up a five-man junta, of which two of the members were civilians, and it ruled until 1950. The most popular member, Major Óscar Osorio, resigned from the junta to run in the 1950 presidential elections, as the candidate of the newly formed Revolutionary Party of Democratic Unification (PRUD). He was elected, and the PRUD became El Salvador's version of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. After serving out a complete term, Osorio was succeeded in 1956 by Lieutenant Colonel José María Lemus. Because Lemus also came from the PRUD and got 93 percent of the vote, his election discouraged the notion that El Salvador was about to become a free, multi-party state.

Osorio and Lemus went further in reforms than their predecessors, by emphasizing economic development, public works (especially sanitation and housing), and the diversification of agriculture; they also introduced social security and a health insurance program, and allowed union organization. Lemus added to that a slight loosening of the military's grip, declaring a general amnesty for political prisoners and voiding the most objectionable laws. He was brought down, however, by the bane of all Latin American nations--falling commodity prices (this time the prices of coffee and cotton fell). Demonstrations against Lemus and the regime mounted, especially after Fidel Castro gained control of Cuba in 1959; students were inspired by the Cuban Revolution. Lemus responding by going back to repressive tactics, banning assemblies and detaining dissidents. The military reacted almost reflexively when it saw that the president had lost control, and removed Lemus in a bloodless coup on October 26, 1960. Reform would continue, but the military made sure it would be carefully guided reform.

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Uruguay: The Terra Era


The next president, Gabriel Terra Leivas (1931-38), came to power just as Uruguay started feeling the effects of the worldwide Great Depression. Officially he was a "Batllist," but he had disagreed in the past with Batlle y Ordóñez and his other followers; in fact, when it came to ideology, he had more in common with the current Blanco leader, Dr. Luis Alberto de Herrera, than he did with his Colorado Party colleagues. Anyway, the Depression hurt Uruguay's economy because prices of agricultural products plummeted, and Britain, the biggest customer of Uruguayan products, bought less meat. Because of that, it became harder to pay the country's foreign debt, unemployment shot up, and growing tensions led to clashes, in which police and leftists died.

By early 1933, Terra had come to believe that the lack of strong leadership, caused by the division of executive power, was the reason why the problems of the Depression couldn't be solved. Accordingly, he got the support of Herrera and the most conservative faction of the Colorado Party, and staged a coup on March 31, dissolving both the General Assembly and the National Council of Administration so he could rule by decree. Former President Brum was so shocked by the fall of democracy that he committed suicide the next day. Julio César Grauert, another Colorado leader, was assassinated, other opponents of the new regime were deported, and the press was muzzled. Later in the same year Terra allowed elections to choose the delegates for a constitutional convention; in 1934 he had the new constitution approved by plebiscite, and though he wasn't allowed to run for re-election, he did so anyway, and won a second term. This constitution eliminated the National Council of Administration, so there was only one head of state. It also banned usury, recognized the right to housing and the right to work, and granted women's suffrage. Regarding the cabinet ministers and heads of government-run corporations, two-thirds of them would be run by the majority party, and the other third by the party that came in second place. For the General Assembly, the Senate membership would only come from the two parties with the most votes, while the Chamber of Representatives would have proportional representation.

By renegotiating trade and foreign debt, and by creating "make-work" projects for the unemployed, Terra was able to put Uruguay on the road to recovery. Improving relations with Britain and the United States (Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Uruguay in 1936) helped as well. Also worth noting is that Terra pursued a right-wing foreign policy, compared with his predecessors. Under him, Uruguay broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1935, and Republican Spain in 1936; at same time Uruguay got along well with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (the Germans built a dam on the Rio Negro in 1937).

Terra avoided an assassination attempt in 1935, and an attempt by dissident factions to form a "popular front" against the dictatorship, and so held on until the next elections, in 1938. He could not support a single candidate, because one of those running was his son-in-law's father, Eduardo Blanco Acevedo, and another was his brother-in-law, General Alfredo Baldomir. Baldomir won and served for the next five years (1938-43). However, he wasn't in a hurry to dismantle Terra's dictatorship. Instead he dallied for several months, until a demonstration from organized labor and the National Party got him to promise free elections, freedom of the press, and another constitution.

Next section on Uruguay.
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The Somoza Dynasty, Act One


When we last looked at Nicaragua, the country had been under conservative rule since 1854, except for the period in 1856-57 when William Walker was meddling in Nicaraguan affairs (see Chapter 4). Some coffee was grown as early as 1848, but most of the farming was either cattle ranching or subsistence agriculture; indeed, the ranchers were the Conservative Party's main base of support. After nearly four decades of this, the conservatives split in 1893, allowing the liberals to launch a successful coup. The liberal leader, José Santos Zelaya López, at once began enacting the modernization program that liberals had been wanting to implement for years (more railroads and port facilities, public education, constitutional rights, etc.).

That was the easy part of running Nicaragua. More daring was Zelaya's decision to annex the Mosquito (Atlantic) Coast in 1894. The Indians and blacks living there had been a British protectorate, the Kingdom of Mosquitia, for more than two hundred years (see Chapter 3), and they protested when Nicaraguan soldiers marched into the area. Zelaya's move worked; as mighty as the British Empire was at this point, its citizens did not want to go to war over a distant land that never meant much to them, so they recognized that the coast was now part of Nicaragua. Because of what Zelaya did, Nicaragua called the Mosquito Coast the "Department of Zelaya" until the 1980s.

The conservatives had been pro-US, so Zelaya was anti-US on principle. Therefore, when the United States sent a proposal to build a canal across Nicaragua, he rejected it without too much thought. The Americans shifted their interest to Panama, and when Zelaya realized he might have made a mistake, he tried unsuccessfully to get the British, Germans and Japanese interested in digging a Nicaraguan canal, to compete with the Panama Canal. This marked him, in American eyes, as the enemy of US activity in Central America. Zelaya also had a dream of reviving the united Central American state that had existed in the 1820s and 1830s, hopefully with himself in charge of it, and to promote that cause, he gave support to liberal political parties in other Central American countries (see footnote #43). In 1894 and again in 1907, he sponsored an invasion of Honduras by liberal Honduran exiles, kicking out that country's conservative president. The United States saw this as a potential threat to US interests, especially the fruit companies, and because this was the time when the United States pursued an imperialist foreign policy (remember the Roosevelt Corollary), Americans looked for a way to get rid of Zelaya.

They did not have to look far, because Zelaya had alienated the upper class with his policies. His re-elections in 1902 and 1906 were questionable, too. When a conservative governor, Juan José Estrada, revolted in 1909, 700 US Marines landed on the Atlantic coast at Bluefields, to protect the conservative forces there. Two American mercenaries were captured, charged with laying mines, and executed on Zelaya's orders; Washington broke diplomatic relations with Nicaragua for that. Then the United States put military and diplomatic pressure on Zelaya, until he felt compelled to resign and go into exile. The liberal who succeeded him, José Madriz, lasted only eight months before the rebellion and the Marines forced him to resign as well.

The United States had troops in Nicaragua from 1909 to 1933, the making this the longest of all Latin American/Caribbean occupations. After the downfall of Zelaya and Madriz, all Nicaraguan presidents were conservative until 1929. The most important of them, Adolfo Díaz Recinos, served twice (1911-17 and 1926-29). His priority was to satisfy all the US demands, and he made so many concessions that they provoked a liberal revolt, led by Benjamin Zeledón, in 1912. For a little while it looked like the rebels would win (they bombarded Managua for four hours), but then more US Marines were sent in, and they killed Zeledón in battle. Unlike the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua was allowed to have a native government after that, but nobody doubted it was a puppet regime; US armed forces were the real authority.

Of the 1,100 US troops that saw action in 1912, thirty-seven were killed(64), and once the Díaz regime was secure, all but 100 Marines were withdrawn. More concessions to the United States were made; the most important was the signing of the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty in 1916, which gave the US exclusive rights to a canal in Nicaragua. The Americans no longer had any interest in digging a Nicaraguan canal--the Panama Canal had cost enough, and it was working out fine--so what the treaty really did was make sure no other nation tried to do it. With the Marines backing up the regime, it behaved brutally (e.g., torture, political killings, dragging the bodies of dead rebels through city streets), intimidating most Nicaraguans. However, this also meant the liberal rebellion would not be stamped out completely.

By August 1925, it looked like the conservative government would be able to take care of itself, so the rest of the US Marines were withdrawn. It didn't work, and violence in the country increased so quickly that the Marines returned in 1926, officially to protect US citizens and property (of course). After more than a decade in the country, the Americans were coming to believe that fighting until they achieved a military victory would take forever, so they now tried to arrange a peaceful settlement between conservatives and liberals. They reached an agreement in 1927, the Espino Negro Accord, and that paved the way for elections in 1929, which were won by the current Liberal Party leader, José María Moncada Tapia. However, real power was still in the hands of the United States. The Marines now began to train and equip a powerful National Guard, so that order would be maintained after the Marines finally went home.

One important liberal rejected the 1927 agreement. This was Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934), the illegitimate son of a wealthy liberal landowner and a servant girl. A charge of attempted murder prompted him to flee the country in 1921, and eventually he found work as a mechanic in Tampico, Mexico. Mexico's revolution was winding down at this time, and while there, Sandino was exposed to radical nationalist and social ideas. He never became a Marxist, but these ideas made him a champion of downtrodden people anywhere, and because he had vivid memories of the 1912 battle that killed Benjamin Zeledón, he wanted most of all that the US troops would leave Nicaragua.

In 1926 Sandino returned, because the statute of limitations had run out on the charges against him, but he got a cool reception from José Moncada, who thought he was an extremist. The liberals refused his requests for weapons and a commission in their army, so he organized his own force, recruiting miners, peasants, workers and Indians. Later he wrote, "I decided to fight, understanding that I was the one called to protest the betrayal of the Fatherland." Lacking experience and twentieth-century equipment, the guerrilla army, henceforth known as the Sandinistas, did badly in its first encounters with the Marines and the Nicaraguan National Guard, but Sandino learned from his mistakes; he learned that guerrillas do better in hit-and-run attacks than in frontal assaults, and that the peasants were his best source of supplies, information and recruits.

Back in the United States, the occupation of Nicaragua had never been popular, and Congress cut off funding after the Great Depression began. One thousand Marines were withdrawn from Nicaragua in 1932, and it was announced that the rest would leave after they supervised the next presidential election. Another liberal was elected, Juan Bautista Sacasa, and the last Marines left on schedule at the beginning of 1933. Sacasa's first decision turned out to be the most important; at the urging of the US ambassador, he appointed Anastasio Somoza García as the new chief of the National Guard. Americans liked Somoza because he had been educated in the United States, and was foreign secretary under former president Moncada; his presence promised to keep Nicaragua stable and friendly. He also was an in-law of the new president, having married Salvadora Debayle, Sacasa's niece.

Next, Sacasa contacted Sandino and proposed a peace conference. Sandino wasn't sure what to do; he had promised to lay down his arms after the Americans left, but he did not trust Somoza, who wanted all the Sandinistas disarmed. When they met in Managua in February 1934, Sandino in turn demanded that the National Guard be disbanded; the president didn't agree to that, but he agreed to give amnesty and unused land to the guerrillas. When the negotiations ended, it looked like a final agreement was in reach. On February 21, 1934, as he was leaving a farewell dinner party, Sandino's car was ambushed by members of the National Guard. They let Sandino's father and the Minister of Agriculture go, but took away the other four men in the car--Sandino, his brother, and two of his generals--and shot them.(65) Somoza, a guest at the party, had ordered the assassination without the president's permission, but Sacasa soon found he could do nothing about it, because Somoza had become stronger than he was.

Over the next two years, Somoza grew bolder, openly defying President Sacasa; meanwhile Sacasa's popularity fell because of the Great Depression, collapsing coffee prices, and allegations of fraud in the 1934 congressional elections. By using the National Guard to purge local officials loyal to the president and replace them with his associates, Somoza cut out the ground from under Sacasa; in June 1936 the National Guard attacked Managua, forcing Sacasa to resign. A pro-Somoza puppet became acting president, and Somoza ran for the top job as the liberal candidate in the 1936 elections.(66) There were some sticky points, due to the constitution, so to comply with them, Somoza postponed the election from June to December, and resigned as director of the National Guard in November. The results of the election were astounding: 112,812 votes for Somoza, 192 votes for his conservative opponent. On January 1, 1937, after being sworn in as president, Somoza resumed control of the National Guard, reconnecting with his power base.

The forty-three-year era when the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua (1936-79) is an example of liberalism mutated into its worst form. Before becoming president, Anastasio Somoza García had campaigned as a liberal, but after he had the power, he replaced the progressive ideology of Zelaya with pure cynicism and selfishness. Family members and friends filled key positions in the government and the military. By changing the rules in the constitution or by using the National Guard, Somoza ruled the country absolutely for the rest of his life; when he wasn't president, he pulled the strings of puppet presidents. Political opposition was only allowed as long as it did not threaten to take over; the National Guard repressed most anti-government demonstrations. The power of the National Guard also grew, until it controlled the national radio and telegraph networks, postal and immigration services, health services, the internal revenue service, and the railroads;

Complete control over the government also meant almost complete control over the economy. After 1940, rising coffee prices brought abundant new profits, and like the key government and military jobs, Somoza's family and friends got most of them. At one point Somoza reportedly remarked that his domestic policy was, "Bucks for my friends, bullets for my enemies." He and his cronies bought or expropriated farms, cattle ranches, coffee plantations, mining interests, and various other companies. Somoza himself acquired land until the real estate he owned was as big as all of El Salvador. And just for good measure, he also controlled all of the banks, the national railroad, the national airlines, a cement factory, textile plants, and electric power companies.

Somoza's foreign policy was simple--do whatever the United States wanted, and reap the benefits. In the early 1930s he admired the accomplishments of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, but he had no problem joining the Allies when the Americans did (Nicaragua declared war on the Axis on December 8, 1941, the same day that the United States declared war on Japan). In return, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said he admired Somoza's dedication to democracy, while not seeing that Somoza wasn't practicing what he preached at home. Some history texts assert that Roosevelt said this in 1939: "He may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch." It isn't clear if he was talking about Somoza, or even if he really said it at all, but it sums up the reason why Washington continued to support Somoza, after it found out he wasn't a champion of freedom after all.(67) US friendship allowed Somoza to get loans and assistance in building a military academy, to train more officers for the National Guard; often graduates of the school spent their senior year at the School of the Americas, the military school that the United States built in Panama.

Somoza's ability to hold onto power ended in the city of León, on September 21, 1956. There a young poet, Rigoberto López Pérez, sneaked into a party attended by the President and shot him in the chest. The assassin was killed on the spot, and Somoza died a few days later, in an American hospital in the Panama Canal Zone. Or as Nicaraguans would say, Somoza was ajusticiado ("brought to justice"). Somoza was succeeded by his two sons; the eldest, Luis Somoza Debayle, became the next president, while the other, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, took over the National Guard. They would keep Nicaragua in the hands of their family for twenty-three more years.

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Panama: The Bisected Protectorate


Panamanians immediately felt buyer's remorse, when they realized what they gave up in return for US support. The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty left Panama a bisected country, and a US protectorate. In November 1904, just one year after the treaty had been signed, President Roosevelt felt the need to send his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, to Panama and negotiate a more moderate agreement. In addition, over the next seventy years, when Panamanian protests grew loud enough, the United States agreed more than once to increase the amount of the annual rent and to improve working conditions for Panamanians employed in the Canal Zone.

This did not mean an end to US involvement in Panama's affairs. Already by 1920, there had been four episodes where US armed forces had intervened. Three of the four interventions happened not because anything belonging to the US was threatened, but because a disgruntled political faction called on the Americans to secure its allegedly infringed rights. Panamanians loudly protested when an occupation force stationed itself for two years in Chiriquí; that province wasn't anywhere near the Canal, and the Panamanians claimed the right to intervene was limited to the Canal Zone and the two cities next to it. A fifth intervention occurred in 1925, in response to rent riots in Panama City.

The United States rejected calls to change its intervention policy until the end of the 1920s, so it was a surprise when Washington chose not to intervene during the corrupt 1928 elections. It was an even bigger surprise when the president elected in 1928, Florencio H. Arosemena, was ousted in a coup three years later, and the US declined to intervene again. As recently as 1928 the US Secretary of State, Frank B. Kellogg, stated that the United States would not accept illegal changes in government, so this was the first successful coup in Panama's history. After Franklin D. Roosevelt announced the Good Neighbor Policy in 1933, and visited Panama in 1934, the United States accepted the principle of nonintervention.

The first Panamanian president after independence, Manuel Amador Guerrero (1904-08), came from the Conservative Party, which was modeled after Colombia's Conservative Party. However, for the next 24 years, except for two acting presidents who each held office for only a few days, all presidents came from the National Liberal Party, also a spinoff from a Colombian party.(68) What's more, all heads of state came from an exclusive oligarchy, to be exact, a gentleman's club, the Union Club of Panama City.

This pattern was broken by Harmodio Arias Madrid, one of the acting presidents mentioned above. Unlike the others, he came from a poor Mestizo family, and had gotten national attention by writing a book that attacked the Monroe Doctrine. In 1932 he founded the National Revolutionary Party, a populist, anti-Yankee movement, and got elected to a full four-year term. As president, Arias founded the University of Panama (1935), the oldest and largest university in the country. He also sent a delegation to Washington to negotiate a replacement for the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. The new document, the Hull-Alfaro Treaty, was signed in early 1936; under it, the United States gave up the right of intervention and promised to negotiate the purchase of land for canal-related purposes, instead of just taking it. In a related agreement, the United States pledged to build a trans-isthmian highway between Panama City and Colón, to go with the Canal and the railroad.

The United States and Panama got along well after the Hull-Alfaro Treaty was ratified, until Dr. Arnulfo Arias Madrid was elected president in 1940. The brother of Harmodio Arias Madrid, Arnulfo Arias was less willing to work out a deal with the US. He introduced a new constitution to give himself a longer term in office, and tried to expel non-Hispanics from the country; this meant not-only North Americans but also Chinese, Asian Indians, Jews, and West Indians who spoke any language besides Spanish. Worst of all, from the point of view at the time, he seemed to favor the Axis countries in World War II. Even his brother Harmodio grew concerned, and urged the US embassy to get rid of him. Thus, he and the Americans were relieved when the national Police deposed Arias in a coup, while he was traveling abroad in October 1941. The politicians of the national Liberal Party came back, and in 1946 another new constitution was passed that basically repealed the one of 1941, because it brought back all the concepts and institutions that the government had previously.

During the war years, the United States got permission to establish several military bases in Panama. After the war the United States wanted to keep the bases indefinitely, while Panama demanded they be handed over. They agreed to a draft treaty that allowed US forces to stay in thirteen bases outside the Canal Zone for twenty more years, but when the National Assembly considered its ratification, an armed mob of 10,000 armed Panamanians protested loudly, persuading the Assembly to vote unanimously against it. This was the first sign that US-Panama relations would not be as harmonious as they were before.

The postwar years also saw the military challenge the civilian elite for control of the country. Between 1948 and 1952 the nation's kingmaker was the commander of the National Police, José Antonio Remón Cantera. The five presidents during these years were installed and removed by him; the most important of these was Arnulfo Arias, who Remón kept from taking office after winning the 1948 election, was allowed in anyway a year later, and deposed in 1951. At the same time Remón gave the National Police a pay raise and improved equipment; in 1953 it was renamed the National Guard. Panama's original army had been disbanded by the United States in 1904, so Remón saw this as a step toward creating a new army.

In 1952 Remón decided that the armed forces, whatever the name, needed its own political party, so he organized the National Patriotic Coalition (CPN) and ran successfully as its first candidate for president. Once in office, he promoted social reform, agricultural and industrial programs, in an effort to reduce Panama's dependence on the Canal and US businesses in the Canal Zone. But before he could finish what he started, Remón was machine-gunned to death at the racetrack outside Panama City (1955). The vice president, José Ramón Guizado, was accused of the crime, removed from office and jailed, but he was never tried, and today nobody knows who really ordered the assassination or why. Nevertheless, the CPN remained in control of the government for the rest of the 1950s.

A third treaty concerning administration of the Canal, the Treaty of Mutual Understanding and Cooperation, was signed less than three weeks after Remón's death. This treaty increased US payments to the Panamanian government once more, promised a cutback of nonessential activities in the Canal Zone, and ordered equal pay for Canal Zone employees, whether they were American or Panamanian. In return, Panama gave back the bases the Americans had been forced out of, a few years earlier. However, the 1955 treaty wasn't enough to appease the nationalists. They were encouraged by the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, figuring that if the Egyptians could nationalize the Suez Canal, maybe the Panamanians could do the same thing with theirs. When US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles responded by declaring that the Panama Canal could not be nationalized because the United States possessed "rights of sovereignty" over it, that only worsened how the Panmanians felt. The last years of the 1950s saw anti-American riots and threats that Panamanians would stage a "peaceful invasion" of the Canal Zone. The US responded by calling its troops to keep them out, and erected a fence on the Canal Zone's border; US citizens in the Canal Zone boycotted Panamanian merchants, who depended heavily on Yankee customers.

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


47. Within Ecuador there are four geographical zones: the Pacific coast, the part of the Andes that crosses the equator, what's left of the eastern jungle (now called Oriente), and the Galapagos Islands. The Galapagos are the only territory Ecuador gained after independence, but they were previously uninhabited, far smaller than the land that was lost, and interesting critters (finches, iguanas and giant tortoises) are the only resource of the archipelago, so they don't really count as compensation.

48. Federico González Suárez went on to become Archbishop of Quito in 1905. What's interesting to us is that he was also an historian. Most of what we know about the Ecuadorean Church before 1900 comes from a series of books he wrote about the history of Ecuador. The books are considered masterpieces because of the amount of research that went into them, and because the author showed a remarkable lack of bias; he did not try to hide past Church abuses.

49. Even natural disasters could not stop the banana boom; e.g., a 1949 earthquake, centered on the eastern slopes of the Andes, killed 5,050 people.

50. But Velasco wasn't too friendly with the United States. At this time, Ecuador claimed that all resources in the Pacific within two hundred nautical miles of the country's shore belonged to Ecuador alone. The United States did not recognize this claim, so in 1955 Ecuadorean officials seized two fishing boats carrying the United States flag, and charged them with fishing inside the 200-mile limit. This marked the beginning of a "tuna war" that would last for a generation.

51. US aid wasn't a sure thing. The United States thought Obregón was a radical, and did not recognize his government until he signed the Treaty of Bucareli (1923), in which he promised not to seize the Mexican holdings of American oil companies.

52. The strike lasted for three years, but didn't work as well as the clergy wanted. Churches remained open for any of the faithful who wanted to pray, and the Indians went there to burn candles and hold dances to local saints, so the priests weren't missed much. Even the wife of Calles sneaked a priest into her home to say a secret mass.

53. Parkes, Henry Bamford, A History of Mexico, London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, third edition, 1962, pg. 324.

54. There is a report that when Calles was arrested, he was caught reading a Spanish-language edition of Mein Kampf, showing that he had become a reactionary. I wonder if Vasconcelos was surprised when they met in the US?

55. His like-minded son, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, ran for president in 1988, but from an opposition party. Still, he came very close to beating Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the official party candidate.

56. This is the first time I know of where somebody tried to get a Nobel Prize without doing anything to earn it. And it was the last time, until Barack Obama pulled it off by winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

57. A plot by Trujillo to assassinate Costa Rican President José Figueres Ferrer, one of his enemies, was discovered in 1957. In 1960 he nearly succeeded in killing another head of state, Venezuela's Rómulo Betancourt; we'll cover that in the next chapter.

58. Tin wasn't very profitable until the 1890s, when a railroad was built to Oruro, the main tin production center. The rising importance of tin, and the decline of the Potosi silver mines, is shown by the change in Bolivia's capital. For most of the nineteenth century, the capital was at Sucre, which is conveniently near Potosi. Then in 1898, the president and the legislature moved to La Paz, because La Paz is a more modern city, and closer to Oruro. However, the supreme court stayed in Sucre, so Bolivia has two capitals today; the archbishop of the Bolivian Catholic Church is still in Sucre, too.

59. The biggest uprisings were the Aymara Rebellion of 1921, and the Chayanta Rebellion of 1927; both mobilized thousands of Indian peasants. While the Liberals were in power they doubled the number of people who could vote, but because the Indians were still excluded, that only meant an increase from 2.5% to 5% of the population.

60. Chaco is a Quechua word meaning "hunting ground." Apparently the Incas did not settle there because they thought the land was only good for hunting.

61. The territory in question was north of the Pilcomayo River, west of the Paraguay River, and east of the Parapetí River. The southern third of the Gran Chaco, below the Pilcomayo, was already occupied by Argentina, and everybody accepted that.

62. Both sides were encouraged by the allies they found. Chile and Peru supported Bolivia, presumably because if the Bolivians won, they would lose interest in getting the Atacama desert back, while Argentina rooted for Paraguay. And this was the first war I know of that involved oil companies; Standard Oil backed Bolivia, and Shell backed Paraguay.

63. This reminds me of a bad joke. The agents could have answered ads like this one: "For Sale: French military rifle. Mint condition, never fired, only dropped once."

64. By the end of the long occupation, the US Marine death toll would reach 130.

65. Don't forget Sandino, we will see the Sandinistas again in the next chapter.

66. During the Somoza years, the Liberal Party was merged with a conservative faction to form the Nationalist Liberal Party (PLN).

67. Some authors have claimed the statement was directed at the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. Later on the same sentiment would be expressed for pro-US dictators elsewhere, from the Shah of Iran to Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.

68. This is an interesting twist, when you consider that the Conservatives ran Colombia during this same time period.

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