- Historic Sites
Forty years ago it was Nazis, not communists, we wanted to keep out of Latin America. A veteran of that propaganda war recalls our efforts to bring American values to a bewildered Ecuador.
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
The crowd had already turned into a jeering mob. “Look what the gringos have brought us! A belching machine!”
Again the colossus had fallen. The only solace during that autumn was in November, when our mission’s failures were mitigated by the landing of American troops in North Africa and the eventual join-up with Montgomery’s 8th Army that liquidated Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
The force of that military success even managed to redeem a few failures in other departments of the mission. For instance, the prize tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers that the local farmers had been persuaded to grow were enjoyed only by the hundreds of varieties of insects and fungi that teem in all tropical lands with no cold spell to check them. The local farmers could not have afforded insecticides even if they had been available, which is why Latin American planters normally grow only thick-skinned and hard-shelled crops like cocoa, coffee, oranges, and bananas.
We didn’t go very far anywhere in Latin America in winning the hearts and minds of the nationals.
Finally we did manage to achieve a success—a grand, humanitarian success that came with the long-delayed arrival of our medical officer. Latin-born and Americantrained, he was the living incarnation of the Hippocratic Oath. (I’ll call him Dr. Hidalgo, which was absolutely not his name.)
He stood hardlv taller than five feet, but everything about him was large scale, majestic, imperious, almost Napoleonic except that he was astonishingly benevolent and utterly devoted to his forty thousand suffering patients.
He brought with him half a ton of medical equipment and supplies, such medications and procedures as had never before been seen in El Oro and not often even in Quito. He was trained to deal with such weird and awful tropical diseases as sprue, Loa Loa, onchocerciasis, pinto, ainhum, Oroya fever. He worked on bodies bristling from head to toe with warts, legs swollen by elephantiasis, nodules erupting on the scalp big as golf balls and packed with worms; skin daubed with splashes of green, violet, and crimson; blacks spattered white and whites spattered black; people going mummified like relics from a tomb.
Dr. Hidalgo found, on his arrival, that medical services for the province consisted of six very young, illtrained physicians overwhelmed by a lack of resources and by the shabby “hospitals,” where dogs ran free in the aisles and where the pharmacy consisted of half a dozen dusty bottles stoppered with twists of paper.
First Dr. Hidalgo fired most of the residents, replacing them with more spirited young men from Guayaquil and Quito. Second he taught them a new standard of dedication by personal example. For instance, awakened one night by a frantic peon who reported that his wife had lain in agonizing labor for two days without results, Dr. Hidalgo mounted a mule and rode eight miles to perform a Cesarean that saved both mother and child and launched a legend that went all the way up the Andes to Quito.
Within weeks rich Ecuadorians were arriving in Puerto Bolivar on yachts and speedboats to seek treatment from Dr. Hidalgo, physician to the poor. And ultimately even the president of the Republic named Dr. Hidalgo his personal physician.
At last our mission was making a showing, now we finally had a success. But Dr. Hidalgo’s legend also began to arouse the anger and enmity of most of Ecuador’s medical establishment. It was not surprising, therefore, that when Dr. Hidalgo, as a courtesy, asked to be formally licensed by the medical society to practice in Ecuador, there ensued a series of obstacles and delays. The U.S. ambassador in Quito was asked to intervene on Dr. Hidalgo’s behalf. The president overrode legalities to order the medical society to license Dr. Hidalgo. Still the medical society stalled, and the matter was on the way to becoming an affaire when suddenly, with the arrival one dawn in Puerto Bolivar of an American stranger on the ship from Guayaquil, everything settled down—that is, settled into a strange public silence.
The American, it turned out, was an FBI man from Washington, and the purpose of his visit was a private chat with Dr. Hidalgo in the clean, white, hygienic office which had been created from a decaying cane shanty and on whose walls hung eight certificates of postgraduate study in tropical medicine from schools in London, Hamburg, and Paris. There were also testimonials from a great Midwestern hospital in the United States, which he had joined as an intern and where he had worked his way up to attending physician, and from a Venezuelan oil company where he had started just as modestly and had risen to head a staff of scores of physicians, biologists, technicians, and orderlies.
The only trouble with Dr. Hildago was that he was top-heavy. Yes, he had a host of graduate certificates, a world of practical experience in tropical medicine. But he lacked the underlying M. D. He simply had never formally attended or been graduated from a medical school. It developed that he had started as a “nature healer” in his native country, working with medicinal herbs and plants. (They were not altogether to be despised; curatives like quinine, digitalis, ipecac, and hundreds of others had been discovered by such nature healers over the centuries.) On visits to a cousin studying at a renowned medical school in New York, Dr. Hidalgo sat in on various lectures and absorbed an illicit medical education.