Good Neighbors

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How he managed his appointment to the American hospital I never found out; possibly he used his cousin’s name and school record as his own. In any case, so outstanding was his work that an admiring nurse fell in love with him and married him.

 

A few years later, while on a trip to his native land, he managed to assuage a bad stomachache for a fellow passenger who was a major oil executive and who insisted Hidalgo join his company’s medical staff. No questions were asked, no credentials were required, because Dr. Hidalgo so obviously knew medicine. He made only one stipulation before joining the oil company’s staff; he must be allowed a two-month leave each year to pursue higher studies in tropical medicine.

Later, a distinguished authority from the Rockefeller Foundation, which monitored all the medical projects of the Office of Inter-American Affairs and received bi-weekly reports in Washington from Dr. Hidalgo, expressed himself as astounded. The reports, he said, showed Dr. Hidalgo to be certainly an expert in tropical medicine. The one anomaly that had caught his attention was a sometimes original and inventive tendency in prescribing medications, “but they were always interesting and could have been effective.” In short, he said, Dr. Hidalgo was a born physician; it was a pity he had not met normal requirements, a pity that now, approaching fifty, he could not get himself into a regulation medical school to receive his M. D.

What to do about Dr. Hidalgo?

After much soul-searching, the FBI and the State Department arrived at a solution both diplomatic and humane. Obviously it would not do to let word get out in Ecuador that the Americans’ medical genius was a fraud. A deal was made with Mr. Hidalgo, now stripped of his beloved title. There would be no publicity in Ecuador. He would not be prosecuted for past offenses in practicing medicine in the United States without a license. The whole matter would be dropped if he would to leave Ecuador for some destination other than the United States and would pledge never again to practice medicine on American soil.

And so, one sweltering afternoon as the SS Relámpago (meaning “flash of lightning”) wheezed and coughed itself away from Puerto Bolivar with Mr. Hidalgo on board, there went the major achievement of our mission.

I myself was reassigned soon after to Washington. The frenetic chief of the mission was replaced by a quiet financial officer who had trained as a Marine sergeant during our long-past occupation of Nicaragua. A new engineer arrived. Some new fiber and fodder crops were introduced to the province. We won World War II and forgot most of our good-neighbor benevolences. Certainly we didn’t go very far anywhere in Latin America in winning the hearts and minds of the nationals. That El Oro somehow survived its miseries and the succession of “presidents of the month” who followed each other into the palace in Quito was due rather to the recovery of the world mar- ket for the province’s excellent bananas and to the rich oil discoveries in the Amazon jungle.

Yet there may have been one real, if microscopic benefit to us, the North Americans. On my return to Washington from the field, I was asked to report to a staff meeting on how much I believed our total good-neighbor program had changed the feelings of Latin Americans toward the United States.

“Considerably,” I reported. “Now, instead of hating us, they merely dislike us.”