Good Neighbors

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BECAUSE THE Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, I found myself soon after flying down with a technical mission to the province of El Oro in Ecuador, a province I had never before heard of, in a land of which I knew nothing, except that it straddled the equator, for which it was named.

In a remote way we were deemed to be part of the war effort. We carried with us a program for helping to forestall a Japanese invasion of South America and other possible Axis moves by teaching the nationals (never natives , that hangover from the era of imperialism) to grow tomatoes, improving the bloodlines of their livestock, instituting a public health program, and providing running water.

In the absence of any Allied victories for most of 1942, our duty was to give an impression of benevolence, technological know-how, and efficiency.

For the next year and a half our mission was carried out in a landscape where buzzards walked the streets like pigeons in New York City; where at least two of some ninety varieties of snakes were believed to be nonpoisonous; where once the Incas had mined gold, and now twentyfive cents was the going rate for a day’s work; where just about all forty thousand inhabitants suffered from at least one, sometimes all, of four major diseases for which we tested a sample group (malaria, tuberculosis, syphilis, and intestinal parasitosis); where four out of five children died by age twelve and the average life-span was twenty-nine; and where a top official of the province, appointed to try to cope with such miseries, spent much of his time as the chief smuggler from neighboring and hated Peru, recent victor in a border war, of contraband including pisco, a deadly booze distilled from sugarcane with the jolt of our own native white lightning, which helped inspirit our mission in some bad times.

Here dwelt a sad people in whom was mingled the blood of Inca warriors and the Spanish conquistadors, in a swampy, contaminated landscape from which, incredibly, birds of a marvelously pure whiteness—ibises, herons, aigrettes—rose like leaping ballerinas.

I went to El Oro, located on the southwestern coastal plain of Ecuador, as information officer and associate director of the mission, which was under the orders of Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of Inter-American Affairs. As such we were one very small part of a continent-wide program of social and economic aid that was quickly patched together not only to stave off the feared Japanese invasion but also to counter a considerable penetration of the continent by Axis agents and propagandists, and to promote production of vital war materials like rubber, balsa wood, fibers, oil, and scores of metals.

Publicly the Office of Inter-American Affairs represented itself to Latin America as an altruistic, good neighbor bent on helping to ameliorate the lot of the less fortunate and bring them a new life, and I know that many of us were drawn into such programs for exactly these reasons, as were the Peace Corps volunteers of twenty years later.

Privately, however, in committee hearings it was explained to the congressional watchdogs of the budget that the practical objective was to overcome Latin America’s long-standing hatred of the rich United States and get them to help us win World War II.

One way or another the Office of Inter-American Affairs, in addition to its various out-and-out propaganda programs in print and radio, created a total aid program for Latin America that involved spending hundreds of millions of dollars in twenty-one countries.

What made Ecuador, and the province of El Oro, especially crucial was the geography. This land, which sits exactly on the equator, so that almost everywhere the sun rises each day at precisely 6:00 A.M. and sets at precisely 6:00 P. M. , happens to possess the famed Galápagos Islands, home of monumental turtles and site of the historic visit by the young Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle . The islands stand six hundred and fifty miles due west of the Ecuadorian mainland. Virtually undefended, they looked like an inviting stepping-stone should the Japanese proceed to invade the hemisphere, or at the least like a possible base from which to attack and destroy the Panama Canal.

Therefore, in order to secure Ecuador’s cooperation and bolster its shaky but proAmerican dictator, Carlos Arroyo del Río, an aid program of some $5 million was knocked together within weeks of Pearl Harbor and offered to the country in return for permission to establish U.S. naval and military bases in the Galapagos Islands and at Salinas on the mainland.

 

The El Oro program, to which I was assigned as publicity man on the basis of newspaper experience and a knowledge of Spanish, comprised a number of health and sanitation projects, agricultural training, and public works, all at the bargain price of half a million dollars.