Special report from the explosive half of our hemisphere


The gun rules Nicaragua and Honduras: U. S. aid merely arms the dictators against their own people. Costa Rica has no army at all: here, and only here, the people have a fighting chance to defeat ignorance, poverty and disease

IAN SCLANDERS August 24 1963
Special report from the explosive half of our hemisphere


The gun rules Nicaragua and Honduras: U. S. aid merely arms the dictators against their own people. Costa Rica has no army at all: here, and only here, the people have a fighting chance to defeat ignorance, poverty and disease

IAN SCLANDERS August 24 1963


Special report from the explosive half of our hemisphere

The gun rules Nicaragua and Honduras: U. S. aid merely arms the dictators against their own people. Costa Rica has no army at all: here, and only here, the people have a fighting chance to defeat ignorance, poverty and disease


Maclean’s Washington editor

IN MANAGUA, the drab little capital of Nicaragua, there are soldiers everywhere, packing rifles and submachine guns and strutting arrogantly. And if you stroll in the evening, you have to step over bundles of rags that are human beings with no place to sleep except the sidewalks. The two are connected, for the soldiers keep a bad government in power and the pathetic bundles of rags are a product of that government.

Most Nicaraguans I talked with when i toured Latin America not long ago told me bluntly and bitterly that their grasping rulers are robbing them, holding them in poverty, depriving them of an oppor-

tunity to improve their living standards. But they pointed at the soldiers and shrugged. What could they do? Their army is one of the gangster armies that oppress millions of Latins. Guatemala also has a gangster army. Elsewhere in South America the military caste has inhibited the growth of democracy and it’s no accident that Costa Rica, the one banana republic that managed to eliminate its army, is much better off in almost any way you could mention than any of the countries around it.

Ironically, in these days when the United States has become for so many a symbol of freedom, the Nicaraguan army is equipped with

made-in-U. S. weapons, commanded by a West Point graduate, and clad in uniforms that closely resemble U. S. uniforms. If it fights, it will almost certainly fight Nicaraguans who have been brave enough, or perhaps fool h a r d y enough, to demand a better deal. I hat time may come, for you can sense the currents of revolution flowing beneath the surface.

Meanwhile, like Cuba under Batista and the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, Nicaragua is a classic example of how a tyrant who controls a military lorce can turn a nation particularly a small nation into a private poaching ground.

Nicaraguans speak of their

country, without laughing, as the “Somoza finca,” Somoza being the name of the reigning family and finca the Spanish word for farm or estate. The description fits. For the Somoza brothers, Luis and Anastasio Jr., unless the reports are grossly exaggerated, own thirty percent or more of Nicaragua's total wealth. They are said to have at least five hundred plantations. The Nicaraguan brewery, the sugar mills, the domestic airline and Nicaragua’s single slaughterhouse are among the Somoza monopolies. So is the shipping line that serves Nicaragua.

“And,” one Nicaraguan asserted, "don't forget that they have con-

trol of the state treasury, too.” The Somoza story parallels, in general outline, the story of Trujillo in Dominica. The first important Somoza, Anastasio Sr., started out as a storekeeper. Then Nicaragua, which had borrowed money from European banks, defaulted on the payments and the banks persuaded their governments to threaten to send troops to collect. The United States countered by invoking the Monroe Doctrine, the basic principle of which is that European troops must not be allowed to seize Western Hemisphere territory. The marines were dispatched to Nicaragua, to remain there almost continuously from 1912 to 1933 —

just as they occupied the Dominican republic about the same time.

It happened that Nicaragua had been talking about selling a foreign country the route for a canal that would compete with the U. S.-built Panama Canal. The presence of the U. S. marines stopped that. It happened. too, that the marines, looking to the day when they would be withdrawn, formed a national guard — just as they did in the Dominican Republic.

Somoza Sr. joined the guard as a junior officer, rose rapidly, converted it into his personal army and used it to grab the presidency — precisely as Trujillo did in the Dominican Republic. He arranged

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Dictatorship runs in the Somoza family. So does graft

to have his son Anastasio Jr. enrolled in West Point. Anastasio Jr. no sooner graduated than the father put him in charge of Nicaragua’s army with the rank of general. While Anastasio was at West Point, the other son, Luis, applied himself diligently to a study of the Somoza brand of politics, and when old Somoza was assassinated in 1956 young Luis, still in his early thirties, replaced him as though by right of succession.

Last year, with the U. S. pushing him from behind while dangling an Alliance-for-Progress carrot in front of him, he agreed to vacate the presidency and let Nicaragua have a free election. Just how free this election was is still being debated, for it was supervised by the Somoza faithful, including Anastasio’s army, and the winning candidate, René Schick, was a Somoza friend.

What sort of a country do you get when it's governed by gun and largely for the benefit of one family? You get a country that is sixty-five percent illiterate but does little or nothing about it: no new schools were constructed last year. You get a country where much of the population is riddled with disease but where a hospital supposed to have been completed years ago has not been opened, although it pays the salaries of a medical staff. You get such a high rate of unemployment that, I was informed, most young Nicaraguans feel it’s hardly worthwhile to look for a job. You get jails crammed with political prisoners. You get appalling slums and a tragically high rate of infant mortality. And, presumably, you get graft at all levels.

You get, also, the sort of atmosphere I walked into when I got off the plane at Managua’s airport. All around were soldiers with rifles, and there were hordes of immigration and customs officers — all trying to appear busy but most of them there, obviously, because they were political minions some benefactor had added to the payroll. They were falling over one another and the outcome was that disembarking passengers had to spend an hour or an hour and a half in the steamy, stuffy airport building while their passports and baggage were examined.

It took me a bit more than an hour and a half, for although I had a tourist card I d bought at the Nicaraguan embassy in Washington, the last officer in the line held out his hand and asked lor a dollar and a half — presumably for searching my bags. I didn’t have a dollar and a half — just traveler’s cheques. So, guarded by an armed escort, I wandered from one counter in the airport to another endeavoring to cash a traveler’s cheque. No dice. Nobody seemed to have any cash. In the end a commercial traveler from Mexico, whom I’d met on the plane, rescued me with a loan.

I had earlier begun a swing through several Central American countries

with a visit to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, where peddlers peddle sparrow-sized parrots in the streets, where firewood is sold by the donkeyload, and where the burros, when motor traffic is heavy, have sense enough to take to the sidewalks. I was shown around Tegucigalpa by an amiable guide who assured me: “I'm not poor — I just haven't a job." From looks of Tegucigalpa a lot of its residents were in the same boat. Yet Honwhich had

government until recent years, and during the 1930s and 1940s was under a dictatorship as harsh as that of the Somozas in Nicaragua, at least seems to have hope for the future.

Under President José Ramón Villeda Morales, it is developing a new and professional type of civil service — and the new professional civil servants are starry-eyed about the Alliance for Progress. I talked with a group who had drawn up a two-year seventytwo - million - dollar - investment pro-

gram, sixty percent of it to be financed by Honduras itself and the balance from U. S. aid. This called for, among other things, more roads, more electric power, a two hundred percent increase in the number of telephones, fourteen hundred new classrooms, two thousand new schoolteachers, and the redistribution of more than a hundred thousand acres of farmland. Honduras struck me as being optimistic about its prospects, even though nobody made light of the problems: seventy

percent illiteracy, high susceptibility to tuberculosis, bad drinking water, and, of course, that bane of all Latin America, unemployment.

Peace Corps volunteers from the U. S. are doing a bit about all these things. I met Harriet Morton, a nurse who had been eighteen years in Alaska, and who is now working twelve or fourteen hours a day at a mother-and-baby clinic jointly operated by Honduras and the Peace Corps. I met Dr. Profirió Sánchez, a public health specialist from the University of Minnesota, working at the same clinic and also training badly needed health inspectors. And I saw concrete wash tanks constructed by members of the Peace Corps, whose members give the women who come there to wash clothes lessons in reading and writing, and who hope to have them launch a co-operative laundry.

After the optimism of Tegucigalpa, M a n a g u a seemed oddly spiritless, which may be what happens to a country that remains under a dictatorship for years. The capital of Nicaragua seemed a fitting place to meet the former dictator of a third Central American country, Guatemala — Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, a right-wing general, who had just been turfed out of the presidency by a coup d'etat that installed an even more right - wing colonel, Enrique Peralta Azurdia, in his place. Among the lesser effects of this change of government was that it invalidated my Guatemalan visa overnight, and prevented me from visiting that country; that, in Central America, is how things go.

Now, in Managua, one of the first people I met was the deposed and exiled Ydígoras. I talked with him in the hotel room he occupied with his short, plump, motherly-looking wife and an aged dog which, he said, was both deaf and blind.

I knew from what I’d read that his government had been corrupt and backward, held in office by soldiers and police, though opposed by professional men. 1 knew it had been reported and not denied that he drew a salary of ten thousand dollars a month, plus a fund of a million a year for which he had to account to nobody. And I knew that when students and white-collar workers rioted in Guatemala City in 1962 his army fired on the rioters with machine guns, killing forty and wounding several hundred.

Yet, fondling the dog that lay beside him, he spoke softly and by his own accounting had done nothing but his best for Guatemala, his best to protect democracy against communists and Castroites, whom he fears and hates with a passion other Latin American politicians have described as verging on the psychotic. It was in Guatemala, under Ydigora’s regime, that the Bay of Pigs invasion force was trained.

At one stage of our conversation the general fished out of his pocket a tiny black cloth bag containing two objects the size of marbles. Did I know what they were? I didn't. “They’re seeds of a plant that grows in Guatemala,” he said. “One is a male seed, the other female, and if you carry them you never have hemorrhoids.”

I asked why he had been exiled from Guatemala.

Ydígoras told me he had been a military man for thirty - seven years and had served seven governments, five of which had been toppled by military putsch. “I myself,” he said, “have never been in a coup d'état ■—have always been at the side of law and order.”

He said that he had two strong forces against him, communists on the Left and landlords on the Right. "After three years of fighting for it, I put in the first income tax law, so fighter planes went up and shot at the military barracks. This was organized and paid for by the landlords, who were also very angry at me because I said to congress that it had to approve a land reform law.”

Ydígoras sounded like an ill-treated reformer and I think that's how he sees himself in spite of his record. Listening to him I found myself wondering whether some Latin American countries aren't torn in so many different directions by so many different elements that the man in power doesn’t know what to do. Because Ydígoras said before we parted that "our armies (in Latin America) have no power to go into a real war, just power to go against their own government, their own people.”

A nasty habit of arbitration

With this 1 thoroughly agree. What I saw of Latin America in thousands of miles of travel convinced me that armies are among the chief causes of its troubles. In some countries they are unquestionably the instrument of tyranny and cling to the pretense of being independent protectors of national welfare. In others they have a nasty habit of being self - appointed political arbiters; they assume that a uniform endows them with the wisdom to determine what sort of government the people should have. They regard themselves as above civilian control. And, historically, most of the so-called revolutions in Latin America have been spats between rival military factions.

Nicaragua’s neighbor to the south, Costa Rica, which is the most prosperous, most literate, most enlightened and most attractive country in Central America, would not, I strongly suspect, be all that it is if it hadn't riel itself of its army.

It might, for that matter, be a dictatorship like Guatemala or Nicaragua, had it not been for fiery José Figueres. In 1948, when Otilio Ulate defeated Rafael Calderon Guardia in a presidential election, Calderon persuaded the army to prevent Ulate from taking office. Figueres, a young farmer and economist who had studied in the U. S., recruited a band of fifteen men and challenged Calderon and the military. In no time, patriots by the thousands had joined Figueres, the army was crushed (though not without a loss of two thousand lives) and Calderon and his aides had fled to Nicaragua as exiles. Figueres himself assumed the presidency temporarily and drafted a constitution under which the army was abolished. He then stepped down in favor of Ulate, the legally elected president, although he was later to be elected president himself.

Since 1949 Costa Rica has had no

soldiers, no tanks, no military aircraft, no navy — just a few hundred civil guards. The officers of the guards are appointed from civilian life and Carlos Vargas Géne, editor of Costa Rica s La Nación, told me they are lawyers, physicians, teachers and druggists, ninety-nine percent of whom have never fired a shot. They serve four years, no longer. And what used to be the big military fortress in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, is now a tourist attraction, having been converted into a museum.

After Tegucigalpa and Managua, San José seems to be in another and better world. There are no menacinglooking soldiers at the airport. And while the houses on the road into San José from the airport are modest, some of them very small, all of them are brightly painted and neat, and most of them have flower gardens. The slums, so conspicuous at Tegucigalpa aitd Managua, are missing. In the centre of the city, I saw pleasant squares, a fine opera house and a lot of new construction. People went out of their way to be courteous.

Could other places in Central America become like Costa Rica simply by firing their armies? Perhaps, but this would take time. Costa Rica started with the advantage of being a farming colony where everybody had to work hard to earn a living, not a colonv with treasures for conquerors and pirates to plunder. “The wives and daughters of the settlers couldn't all go to church on Sunday — there weren't enough skirts to go around,” Carlos Vargas told me. Because all were poor in those early days, all were equal, and there was a real democracy. This was preserved by a compulsory education law passed ninety-six years ago. “Every son and daughter had to go to school,” Vargas explained. “The rich planter’s son, and the daughter of the maid in the planter's house, for six years attended the same school, had the same teachers, the same companions. The friendships of school days continued through life and influenced the democratic character of the people.” Vargas worries because, since 1950, private schools have been started for the children of the well-todo. He thinks this may create class distinctions that did not exist in Costa Rica before.

Costa Rica has a per capita annual income of $375, by far the highest in Central America, and buys more soap

and tooth paste than the rest of Central America put together. But Vargas wonders what the population explosion is doing to his country’s hard-won prosperity. The population, now approaching a million and a half, is increasing about five percent a year — the highest rate anywhere.

Ex-President José Figueres wonders about this increase, too, and notes unhappily that it coincides with a decrease in the demand for and prices of Latin American exports.

“The Alliance for Progress,” Figueres told me, “is almost too late — a great effort but a belated one. I’m afraid we may see a tendency to establish dictatorships again: the classical way to postpone dealing with problems.” Figueres said that conditions in Latin America won't be corrected until there is a fairer distribution of wealth among nations. “We are swapping ten to twenty hours of work in Latin America for one hour of work in the United States,” he

asserted, referring to the exchange of products like coffee, cotton, cocoa and sugar, at low prices, for high-priced factory products.

But, if even tidy and charming little Costa Rica has troubles these days, it has fewer troubles than its neighbors because it is without shocking extremes of wealth and poverty, and has more education, more social consciousness, no tyrannical oligarchy, no human rag bundles sleeping on the sidewalks — and no army. ★