Central America

on the World Today

THE six small republics stretching from Mexico’s southern border to the juncture of the Panamanian Isthmus with South America have been lightheartedly described now and then as tiie Balkans of the Western Hemispherc. For the better part of the past year several of the republics, in varying degrees of exhibitionism, have been living up to the nickname.

Guatemala, after experimenting since the late 1940s with an increasingly leftist government, underwent an anti-Communist revolution last summer. Honduras last December was frustrated by constitutional complications and congressional politicking in electing a president. The country now is ruled by an interim administration which, though technically constitutional and reasonably competent, hardly has sufficient popular support to guarantee stability.

In Panama, President José Antonio (Chichi) Remon was shot to death on January 2. A strong and able president, he was the victim of an assassination plot which involved, according to police evidence, a number of leaders of Panama politics and social life.

Finally, the second week of the year saw the outbreak in Costa Rica of an armed movement against liberal President José (Pope) Figueres. The military venture, which included strafing by airplanes, bombing of open cities and towns with explosives and incendiaries, and invasionary tactics by organized troops, gave strong indications of having been munitioned and equipped from Dictator Anastasio (Tacho) Somoza’s republic of Nicaragua, next door to Costa Rica.

This view of Nicaraguan aid to the revolt was indorsed within a week by a five-nation fact-finding commission hastily dispatched to the fighting area by the Organization of American States in Washington. The inspecting group refrained from the final step of specifically blaming the Nicaraguan government for fomenting an invasion of a neighbor’s territory. But it did call directly on the government to discontinue intervening in Costa Rica. At the same time, the OAS Council of American Ambassadors in Washington look the unprecedented step of making combat planes available to the Costa Rican government.

Meanwhile, one Central American state sat out the region’s conflicts and tensions: El Salvador, the most thickly populated though geographically the smallest of the republics, was busy harvesting bumper crops and developing new industries from its big hydroelectric dams on the Lempa River.

Murder at the race track

The shooting of Panama’s President Remón had the oil-slick efficiency of murder in a mystery novel. Remón had been chief of state since October 1, 1952. Within that time, he had reduced Panama’s floating debt from $10.7 million to $4.9 million; negotiated a new Panama Canal treaty with the United States greatly to his country’s financial advantage; and secured $1.5 million in loans from the International Bank for agricultural machinery and grain storage facilities. He was launching, with United States technical assistance, a hard-driving program for agricultural and public health development in Panama’s long-neglected hinterland.

When he was chief of the national police he had functioned behind the scenes as strong man of Panama’s domestic politics. He had broken four weak presidents since 1949, three of whom he installed in office. Naturally, he had made enemies. But in his own 1952 election campaign and subsequent administration, he seemingly had overcome old grudges, llis campaign and administration had united five factional parties which had backed the previously deposed statesmen in an overwhelmingly pro-Remón coalition. Only t he “ Arnulfistas,” a somewhat hairbrained faction tied to the fortunes of Dr. Arnulfo Arias, a career demagogue whom Remón had ousted in a gun battle at the presidential palace in 1951, remained aloof from the controlling combination.

Remón, moreover, had shunned dictatorial methods and had ruled by constitutional means. He was personally and politically popular, and his popularity was growing. The day after New Year’s — a Sunday — Remon watched his horse, Valley Star, win the tenth race at Panama City. As night fell he was celebrating his victory with a lipple of champagne in the track clubhouse. Careless of his security, he had encouraged his bodyguards to slarl a game of dominoes. A hundred yards from the clubhouse a black sedan stopped suddenly. A man, unnoticed and unidentified, slunk through the shrubbery up under the open clubhouse windows. Came a blast from a submachine gun. Two members of the presidential party fell dead, several were wounded, and the President died on the way to a hospital.

Political plot

At once followed a roundup of nearly a hundred suspects and suspicious characters, including former President Arias. But it took twelve clays after the shootings for the break to come.

Then, a man arrested on January 5, Rubén Miró, a Panama City lawyer of prominent social connections, reputedly ruinous gambling debts, and wide acquaintance in the underworld through frequent service as “public defender” in the criminal courts, confussed, in a signed declaration presented by the Panama National Guard, that he had carried out the assassinations singlehanded. Pack of the physical deed, Miró’s statement related, lay a complex plot.

Miró declared that he had shot the President at the instigation and with the knowledge of the man who had succeeded to the presidency — Panama’s First Vice President, Josél Ramón Guizado. Guizado, Miró said, had promised him for his pains the post of Minister of Government and Justice — a temptingly lucrative spot in any administration friendly to grafters. Others in the plot, Mirb proclaimed, were Rudolfo Saint Malo and Thomas Nieves Perez, Guizado’s associates in a big local contracting business, and Guizado’s son, José Ramón, Jr.

A flavor of potential Communist involvement in the plot was added by the arrest of two young Panamanians who until recently were cadets at Guatemala’s Military Academy. One of them, José Edgardo Tejada, expelled from Guatemala last summer for trying to launch a military putsch against the incoming anti-Communist administration of President Carlos Castillo Armas, was named by the Panama police as having furnished Miró with the murder gun.

The ensuing crisis rocked the Panamanian government, from top to bottom — especially the top. As soon as the Miró confession became known, the cabinet ordered President Guizado under house arrest. By early next morning, the National Assembly in a pre-dawn session had impeached Guizado, forced his resignation, ordered him jailed for trial on charges of plotting the Remón assassination, and installed Second Vice President Ricardo Arias Espinosa as President.

Arias — neither relative nor political affiliate of Arnulfo Arias — promptly named Alejandro Remón, brother of the murdered President, bead of the Government and Justice Ministry, as evidence of the new regime’s determination to investigate and prosecute the assassination plotters relentlessly. Significant shifts occur red with Arias’s succession among the National Guard — the nation’s police force. The commandant, Bolívar Yallarino, and his principal deputy, Saturnine Flores, went on leave: the first because of blood relationship with several of the alleged plot-members, the latter because of a longstanding friendship with Miró.

Some were inclined to discount the Miró confession, either as having been extorted by the police with thirddegree methods, or as having been made up, so far as Guizado’s purported part was concerned, out of a ruined and desperate playboy’s imagination. This view had at least in its favor the fact that Guizado, a successful but colorless businessman —a graduate of Vanderbilt University, incidentally — had little in his record or personality to suggest an appelite for Renaissance villainies.

Whether the investigation and subsequent trial of the alleged conspirators would resolve the conflicting theories was, of course, uncertain. What did remain apparent was that Panama’s recent, hard-won improvements in stability under Remón would be difficult to restore.

The trouble in Costa Rica

The Costa Rican-Nicaraguan clash came out of long-standing ideological and political conflicts bet ween t he two republics, stepped up considerably by the personal antipathy between their presidents. Dictator Somoza had run Nicaragua as an orthodox LatinAmerican despotism since 1937.

A hard-boiled, occasionally humorous military man trained by the United States Marines during their occupation of the country in the 1920s, Somoza has permitted his subjects no such foolishness as a free press or free elect ions, and few, if any, civil rights. Now and then, in a gesture of personal generosity, he has extended some social and economic benefits to the populace — public health and agricultural improvements, for example, and modest fixed wage increases, But in general he has managed his republic as a private corporation for the benefit of his own family and those of his principal henchmen.

Nicaraguans who do not like this state of affairs have been encouraged to go into exile. Those who have openly protested, or tried to operate an anti-Somoza underground in the homeland, have risked loss of fortune and uncomfortable periods in jail.

Over the southern border in Costa Rica, things are almost exactly the opposite. In a country about the size of West Virginia, 85 per cent of a population of nearly a million are literate, and 80 per cent of the male farm population are landowners. The early settlement was mainly of solid Spanish peasant stock, and there has been little racial mingling in the country’s development. Since the end of the nineteenth century, except for a single decade beginning in the late 1930s, Costa Rica has functioned politically as a free democracy and established a tradition of orderliness and good government rivaled in Latin America only by Uruguay.

Two Costa Rican presidents of the World War II era, Rafael Calderón Guardia and Teodoro Pieado, attempted to import the strong-arm methods of neighboring dictators into the republic. The Communist strategy of outcry against economic abuses and promises of social improvement was used in the Calderón-Picado appeals to the masses.

At the polls in three presidential elections prior to 1947, Communist gunmen stood by the boot hs to see that the votes were cast and counted as the top political chieftains wanted. Costa Rica, indeed, came within a hair’s breadth of becoming the Moscow outpost of the Western Hemisphere several years before Guatemala did.

Background of a feud

This outcome was prevented partly by the fact that the less obvious techniques by which Guatemala was captured had not yet been perfected by the Communist strategists, but even more by the sudden appearance on the scene of a new Costa Rican political leader — Pepe Figueres. An electrical engineering graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Figueres was a successful sisal and colfee planter, and owner of a ropemanufacturing plant.

In 1942, then in his middle thirties, Figueres suddenly broke out in a radio speech protesting against the government’s heavy hand on popular liberties. The speech was never finished. Halfway through it, the regime’s political police broke in on the studio, jailed Figueres in solitary for a few days, and banished him for two years to Mexico. He returned in 1944 to continue his opposition underground.

Then, in 1948, he publicly supported Otilio Ulate, a conservative San José newspaper publisher, for the presidency against Calderón Guardia. Ulate won by a decisive majority. But President Pieado nullified the polls decision by making phony charges of voting “irregularities” and forcibly holding on to his office. Figueres organized a revolt with, as he whimsically described it, “seven shotguns, some fireworks borrowed from a church, and the people.” Within five weeks he had overthrown the Pieado government, and was installed as provisional president.

Ruling through a junta of Costa Rican liberals and the abti-Picado Congress chosen in the 1948 election, he restored order and constitutional liberties, and in November, 1949, turned the government over to Ulate for a four-year term as the country’s duly elected president. Meanwhile, Pieado had fled to Nicaragua, where he established working relations with Somoza and eventually became the dictator’s private secretary.

Figueres, after Ulate’s succession, spent a large part of his time away from Costa Rica, lecturing in the United States and promoting antidictator sentiment among groups interested in Latin America. In 1953 he returned to Costa Rica and was elected president by an overwhelming majority for a term beginning in November, 1953.

The rebels gather in Nicaragua

Policies during the Figueres administration appear to have won decisive mass approval, but have had enough New Deal flavor to alienate a considerable number of influential conservatives, including former President Plate. Hence more than a trickle of irreconcilable enemies of the regime have crossed the border into Nicaragua as voluntary exiles. There they have spent their time and quite a bit of money concocting plots under Dictator Somoza’s chaperonage and fomenting the legend that “Pepe” is a dangerous Communist.

The facts in the record — that Figueres in his provisional term outlawed Communist rallies and party activities, suppressed the leading Communist newspaper in the republic, abolished the strongest Communist union, the Public Works Syndicate, and refused help from Costa Rica’s Communist party boss, Manuel Mora, in his 1948 revolution —— are debonairly ignored by his opponents.

Out of all these enmities grew the revolt which threatened overthrow of democratic government in Costa Rica and threw consternation into the Organization of American States as 1955 opened. Fortunately, consternation produced action.

The OAS dispatched a commission to the scene, consisting of the OAS ambassadors from Brazil, Ecuador, the United States, and Paraguay, and with Luis Quintanilla, Mexican ambassador to OAS, as chairman. These men represented governments sympathetic to the international rights and viewpoints of the Figueres regime.

Intelligent action by the commission made it possible for a perky Central American democracy to survive against a military threat from a strong dictator convinced that a free nation next door makes his neighborhood dangerous.