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historical fiction

The Banana Bunch

Maurice Walsh

Harsh Times, by Mario Vargas Llosa, Faber, 288 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571365661

When Winston Churchill arrived in Washington in June 1954 to seek President Eisenhower’s help with the colonial crises mounting across the British empire, he discovered that the Americans were preoccupied with affairs in what they liked to consider their own backyard. The secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was insistent that the British must prevent the United Nations from responding to an appeal by the Central American republic of Guatemala to intervene to stop an invasion by an exile rebel band aided by their neighbours in Nicaragua and Honduras and covertly supported by the US. “I’d never heard of this bloody place Guatemala until I was in my 79th year,” Churchill grumbled disingenuously (Britain was helping with the red smear campaign against the elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz).

The turmoil in Central America was making news worldwide but many clearly sympathised with Churchill’s feigned ignorance. The Irish Times offered a background piece for readers on the attempt to overthrow Arbenz, under the headline “Banana Land in the News Today”. There was every reason to question the Americans’ claim that Arbenz was a communist, an editorial asserted. “He certainly does not look it, but then one never knows.”

Events in Guatemala were followed closely across Latin America, especially by an eighteen-year-old student in Peru called Mario Vargas Llosa. What happened in Guatemala in 1954 would help to shape the politics of the writer and worldwide public figure he would become, earn the CIA an undeserved reputation for competence in covert operations, create a new wave of anti-American sentiment and pave the way for the Cuban revolution. A decade after winning the Nobel Prize for literature, and now in his mid-eighties, Vargas Llosa has explored in his new novel this moment which he believes was a watershed in modern Latin American history.

That Guatemala was known for its bananas was thanks to the United Fruit company – referred to throughout Latin America as “the octopus” ‑ which owned hundreds of thousands of acres of plantation land, ran a radio station and published a daily newspaper, and controlled the railway line from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast from where its ships, “The Great White Fleet”, carried bananas to Europe and the United States. United Fruit was run by Sam Zemurray, a Russian Jew in his seventies who had fled the pogroms in his homeland, arrived penniless in Alabama, and made his fortune selling and then growing bananas until he was known as Sam the Bananaman.

Towards the end of the Second World War Guatemala was under military rule and dominated by a white oligarchic elite who ruled contemptuously over a majority of Indians who had been brutally dispossessed of their land in the nineteenth century to make way for coffee estates and banana plantations. A mere two per cent of the population owned 70 per cent of the land. The war, and the proclamation of the allies’ commitment to democracy, had helped galvanise democratic movements in Latin America and in 1944 an uprising of students and the middle classes in Guatemala, supported by progressive elements of the military, overthrew General Jorge Ubico. A new government introduced labour laws and voting rights for the disenfranchised indigenous population. And in 1951 Jacobo Arbenz, one of the army officers who had helped overthrow Ubico, was elected by a huge majority on a platform of pushing the reforms even further. In his inaugural address Arbenz promised Guatemalans “to convert our country from a dependent nation with a semi-colonial economy into an economically independent country; to convert Guatemala from a country bound by a predominantly feudal economy into a modern capitalist state; and to make this transformation in a way that will raise the standard of living of the great mass of our people to the highest level”.

The centrepiece of Arbenz’s programme was a land reform decree, drawn up in close collaboration with two of the president’s closest advisers, who were also communists. Approved in June 1952, it allowed the state to confiscate and redistribute uncultivated land on the country’s biggest estates. Immediately condemned as a “monstrous act of robbery” by the landed elite it aroused the undisguised hostility of the previously impregnable United Fruit. In 1953 the government seized nearly a quarter of a million acres of uncultivated plantation land and compensated the company according to the value it had declared for tax purposes, twenty times less than the true value of the land. By mid-1954, 1.4 million acres of farmland had been redistributed to nearly 140,000 landless families, along with credit and agricultural advice. The economy was thriving and production of staples had soared.

American diplomats and United Fruit executives worried that Guatemala’s example would have a strong appeal among its neighbours. United Fruit was well connected with the Eisenhower administration: Dulles was a partner in the law firm acting for the company. All the same, Zemurray decided that he needed to challenge the public perception of United Fruit as a feudal overlord. He hired Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, by then known as the father of public relations, and the author of Propaganda, a book extolling the importance of mass manipulation. Bernays was well-known for an advertising campaign that sold Lucky Strike cigarettes to women on the basis that they were good for the throat. In the prologue to his novel, Vargas Llosa imagines the first encounter between Zemurray, “the enormous badly dressed brute with his five o’clock shadow, open collar, faded blazer and work boots” and Bernays, “known for elegant suits, scrupulous diction, Yardley cologne and aristocratic manners”. As with his work for Lucky Strike, Bernays popularised the banana as a healthy snack. More importantly, although he discounted the possibility that Guatemala could become a Soviet satellite, Bernays warned Zemurray that progress towards democracy represented a mortal threat to the company. “The danger isn’t real,” Vargas Llosa has Bernays tell the United Fruit board in Washington on his return from a trip to Guatemala, “but it is convenient for us that people believe it exists, above all in the United States.”

Bernays orchestrated a campaign of disinformation – hugely resonant today – to persuade the American public that Guatemala represented a Soviet foothold in the Americas. Relying on the unquestioning acceptance by the liberal press of Cold War assumptions, he brought journalists to Guatemala to depict how the communists were establishing a base within striking distance of New Orleans. “Red Ruin for Guatemala” was a typical headline in the Reader’s Digest but all the major liberal papers – The New York Times, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor ‑ followed suit. Sam the Bananaman was the subject of a lavish profile in Life magazine. “Maybe we can’t make the people love us,” he conceded, “but we can make ourselves so useful to them that they’ll want us to stay.” Many Central Americans, Life reported, believed that United Fruit had “evolved into the most progressive foreign enterprise in the tropics”, paying high wages, providing schools, hospitals and housing, and paying taxes unasked.

Eisenhower decided to overthrow Arbenz in the summer of 1953 and tasked the CIA with developing Operation Success. The agency chose an obscure army officer, Carlos Castillo Armas, who had gone into exile after a failed coup against Arbenz, to be the liberator of Guatemala. He was, the agency admitted, the best of a bad bunch, but he was ambitious and a fanatical anti-communist, familiar with American ways from his eight months at a US Army staff college in Kansas. He also had the advantage, in an operation that was entirely about perception, of looking like the majority of his fellow countrymen. In the novel, Vargas Llosa has E Howard Hunt, the CIA agent who later played a role in Watergate, enthuse about Castillo Armas because he “looks a bit Indian . . . They’ll love him.”

Mercenaries were trained in Honduras and Nicaragua. Broadcasts were recorded in Florida predicting the imminent demise of Arbenz and then disseminated in Guatemala. Anti-Arbenz groups spread rumours that the government was going to ban Holy Week and force children into re-education centres. In May a plane flew over Guatemala City dropping leaflets and promising that liberation was at hand, with thousands of insurgents on the way to save the country from communism. By the time the first handful of “revolutionaries” crossed the border from Honduras on June 17th, 1954, the population of Guatemala City had been whipped into a state of hysteria. Arbenz, writes Vargas Llosa, became convinced “that there was nothing to be done, that dispelling the lies was having no effect . . . and that the PR campaign launched against him had indelibly shaped reality.” Planes piloted by American mercenaries strafed the capital for a few minutes each day. Initially, the invaders were repelled and after a week the Americans feared they had been beaten. Churchill’s decision to help block UN intervention was crucial to buy some time. Eventually the army panicked, fearful of a full-scale American invasion, and forced Arbenz’s resignation.

Six months previously, a young recently qualified Argentinian doctor, Ernesto Guevara, had arrived in Guatemala on the latest stop of his tour of Latin America; he had travelled from Ecuador to Panama aboard a United Fruit banana boat. He tried unsuccessfully to get a job as a doctor. Short of money, plagued by asthma attacks and behind with his rent, he sold replicas of the Black Christ of Esqipulas in the street. But he liked what he saw. Guatemala, he wrote home, had “a most democratic air” and had become “the most interesting country in America and must be defended by all possible means”. Guevara made friends with refugees from dictatorships in Venezuela, Honduras, Peru and Cuba and Spanish republicans who had called him “Che”. Some of the Cubans were survivors of the well-publicised assault on a provincial army barracks led by Fidel Castro the previous year.

When the invasion began, Guevara joined patrols at night, urging people to darken windows. Initially praising Arbenz for his resolve, he concluded that it was a disastrous failure of nerve not to silence the church and the press and arm the population so that they could defend their government. “Treason continues to be the patrimony of the army,” he wrote to his mother after Arbenz had been overthrown, “and once more proves the aphorism that calls for the liquidation of the army as the true principle of democracy . . .”  After Castillo Armas’s victorious arrival in Guatemala City, accompanied by the ever-vigilant American ambassador, Guevara helped refugees to get to the Argentine embassy and stayed there himself until he left for Mexico, where he was introduced to Fidel Castro.

In 1959 Castro and Guevara marched into Havana to inaugurate the Cuban revolution. Che oversaw the public trials and execution of soldiers from the old regime. In March 1960 Eisenhower sanctioned the CIA to train Cuban exiles in Guatemala to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. The old gang that had plotted the removal of Arbenz were reunited, but the attempt to emulate Operation Success would end in disaster at the Bay of Pigs. That summer, Che Guevara addressed the Latin American youth congress in Havana and greeted Jacobo Arbenz, who had arrived on the latest stop in his peripatetic and melancholic exile. “We should also like to extend a special greeting to Jacobo Arbenz, president of the first Latin American country which fearlessly raised its voice against colonialism.” The Cuban revolutionaries were grateful to Arbenz and Guatemala, Guevara said, “for the example they gave us and for the accurate estimate they enabled us to make of the weakness which that government was unable to overcome. This allows us to go to the root of the matter and to behead those who hold power and their lackeys at a single stoke.”

Castillo Armas governed Guatemala under the slogan “God, Fatherland and Freedom” and established a National Committee for the Defence Against Communism to compile a blacklist of Arbenz supporters. Thousands were detained, killed or sent into exile. Illiterate citizens were denied the vote. Suspicious books were burned in public, including titles by Victor Hugo and Dostoevsky. Castillo Armas was entirely beholden to the landed elite and the United States. “Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it,” he told Richard Nixon in 1955. Since he was considered too important to be allowed fail, the US gave him nearly $100 million in aid. But even the CIA noted that military officers were spying on each other and consumed by political intrigue. When Castillo Armas was assassinated in July 1957, apparently by a member of the palace guard with communist sympathies, Eisenhower said his death was “a great loss to our nations and for the whole free world”. Four decades of almost uninterrupted military rule followed, characterised by genocidal massacre and disappearances. “Crime often masqueraded as politics.”

Like many other young Latin American intellectuals in their twenties, Mario Vargas Llosa was consumed by the promise of the Cuban revolution. He took his cue from Sartre and believed literature should change society. In 1968 he thought Che a hero, the author of the “heroic moment of the continent’s liberation”. And even if the continental revolution failed Vargas Llosa believed his guerrilla diary would be “a testament to the most generous and most daring individual adventure ever attempted in Latin America”. Within a few years he had soured on Cuba and its treatment of writers and artists and he began the gradual move rightwards that led to dinners with Margaret Thatcher and his failed campaign to be president of Peru in 1990. He championed freedom and liberalism and venerated Isaiah Berlin.

To some who have followed the arc of his political journey, it must seem puzzling that he has written a book vindicating Jacobo Arbenz. When the novel was originally published in Spanish in 2019, Vargas Llosa appeared in Guatemala City, where Arbenz is still a controversial figure, with the deposed president’s surviving son. The right accused him of being a communist. He admitted that when he began his research he was not sympathetic towards Arbenz but said that his investigations convinced him that he was dealing with a tragic figure and that Guatemala in the 1950s had been a “lighthouse” which could have guided Latin America to a different future from the decades of failed revolutions and military dictatorships. He recasts Arbenz not as the communist pawn which the Americans portrayed him as but as a liberal who would have enabled access for the landless to property and credit to allow them participate in a market economy. And yet, most of the novel is not about Arbenz or his travails in exile, despite his centrality to the story and the potential he offered for fictional speculation, since he died in Mexico a broken man, leaving no memoirs or apologia. He appears sporadically in Harsh Times, barely fleshed out, delivering cerebral reflections on his political aspirations. The writing here is flat and expository: “Arbenz was sure the Agrarian Reform would change the very basis of the economic and social situation in Guatemala, building the foundations for a new society where capitalism and democracy would lead to justice and modernity.”

The prose and the plot only come alive in the core of the novel charting the plot to assassinate Castillo Armas. Unlike Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator who was the subject of one of Vargas Llosa’s most successful novels, The Feast of the Goat, Castillo Armas is not a dictator in the grandiose Latin American mode. Rather than an omnipotent monster he is a venal neurotic, driven paranoid by the intrigue surrounding him. Vargas Llosa’s fascination is with the two hoodlums who conspire to kill Castillo Armas: Johnny Abe Garcia, a horseracing pundit who converted himself into Trujillo’s favoured hitman, (and who had already featured in The Feast of the Goat) and Enrique Trinidad Oliva, the dictator’s head of security. The idea for the novel came from a Dominican friend who told him that there were grounds for believing that Trujillo had been involved in the killing of Castillo Armas: here was a story he could develop novelistically, changing the details without tampering with the historical veracity of the major events. The plot unfolds like an absurd Habsburg farce under jacarandas, acacias and mango trees, delivered with the momentum of The Day of the Jackal, cross-cutting from the point of view of the plotters, to Castillo Armas and his mistress, the enigmatic and amoral Marta Borrero. At all times in the background lurks “Mike”, the elusive CIA agent, backing whoever might serve American interests. The fate of the two conspirators, who themselves become victims of the violence they had spawned, is rendered with suspenseful dread.

“If the United States, instead of overthrowing Arbenz, had supported the reforms,” Vargas Llosa has suggested, “we probably would have had a different Latin American history and precedent. Fidel Castro probably wouldn’t have been radicalised nor would he be a Communist.” The CIA lamented with farcical irony two years after Operation Success that the man they had put in power after destroying Arbenz “had removed the Communists but he has failed thus far to offer peasants and workers a convincing alternative”. Guatemala established a precedent, an entanglement that the United States could never whole free itself from in Latin America, permanently allied to the military, the oligarchy and the church but at the same time hoping that modernisation would produce change. At the beginning of Conversation in the Cathedral, his novel about the Peruvian dictatorship he grew up under, one of Vargas Llosa’s characters wonders “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” In Harsh Times he has posited an answer to that question for the whole of Latin America in the late twentieth century.


Maurice Walsh teaches history at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is working on a book about Graham Greene and the Twentieth Century.



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