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Good Neighbors

July 2024
15min read

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.

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.

We set up headquarters in the province’s main port, Puerto Bolivar, a kind of bedraggled, slum Venice of cane shanties standing on stilts in a terrain of crushed oyster shells that was totally under water at high tide and was a mud flat at low tide, with interconnecting causeways, again of crushed oyster shells, providing the streets of the town. From Puerto Bolivar’s deepwater dock, extending out from a stone seawall, ocean freighters had once carried away forests of bananas and mountains of the best cocoa beans in the world, bringing fortunes to absentee landlords who spent most of the year in Paris and London. But in the 1920s a predatory growth, called witchbroom disease because of its resemblance to just such an object, had devastated El Oro’s cocoa plantations.

Here in Puerto Bolivar the two dozen members of our mission lived in shanties of split bamboo that were papered on the interior with the newspapers of years gone by, in the vain hope of keeping out insects. Each morning, on opening my eyes, I could read of a “stupendous conflict” predicted in the coming basketball match between the Lorca Panthers and the Chimboya Lions as of May 9, 1936. (I never did find out who won.) The wall also informed me that, as of August 1938, Adolf Hitler was demanding the Sudetenland. (That outcome I knew.) We kept our clothing not in closets but on laundry lines stretching across our rooms to stop the ever-present scorpions with their paralyzing bite from hiding in shirts, pants, and jackets, and we shook out our shoes carefully each morning for the same reason. Over each cot hung a mosquito bar, a kind of bridal canopy of netting under which we took shelter each night against the malaria mosauito. For all our precautions, at any given moment about a third of our crew of approximately twenty-five was down with dysentery, raging skin rashes, or other tropical complaints.

Our personnel was a medley of government bureaucrats, idealistic amateurs, and “tropical tramps,” as they called themselves, technicians who had worked areas like El Oro all over the world but mainly along the west coast of South America. The problem was that with the United States fighting a global war, it was almost impossible to enlist first-rate engineers, physicians, and even agriculturists in less urgent projects such as ours. It was tougher still to locate the iron pipe, locomotive parts, rails, surgical equipment, pumps, bulldozers, plows, and insecticide that were vital to our El Oro program. And yet the pressure was on—from Washington, from Quito, and from our own rather frantic mission chief, a former Army colonel—to come up with some solid accomplishment or, at the very least, to “make a showing.”

By the summer of 1942 the Japanese flag was flying in the Philippines, the Marshall Islands and Marianas, Hong Kong, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. The Germans in their own sneak attack had seemingly pulverized the Russian armies and were besieging Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. In North Africa, Rommel was driving the British back to Egypt and threatening to knife through the Middle East and join up with the Japanese in India.


Thus it was no time for our little mission to appear anything but confident, knowledgeable, and effective. Instead, a series of disasters befell us.

For instance, there was the eight-kilometer pipeline we promised to install for bringing water from the provincial capital of Machala to Puerto Bolivar, which, standing on its salty, contaminated mud flat, had no fresh water but that which a rusty railroad tank car brought daily. This was a brackish cargo that was then distributed from door to door in old oil cans by retail water sellers. Unfortunately there was no iron pipe to be obtained anywhere in Ecuador, except possibly from Nazi-sympathetic firms, with which we were strictly precluded from doing business by embassy blacklists. Our engineering department decided to use creosoted wood-stave pipe in hopes that it would, in the suppurating tropical soil, at least outlast our stay in the province. But hardly did we get our wooden pipeline into the ground and start water flowing toward Puerto Bolivar than a series of mysterious leaks cut the flow down to an unusable trickle. Again and again the tank car had to chug into Puerto Bolivar with water to be distributed by the oilcan.

After weeks of this we sorrowfully came upon the solution with a tip from a sympathetic local. We had overlooked one critical factor: the dozen or so small businessmen who made their tiny and precarious living by peddling water from door to door in Puerto Bolivar. The water sellers, like the Luddites fighting the machine age in England, were taking strong measures of their own. Night after night they were digging down to sections of our wooden waterline and shooting it full of holes.

We had no recourse but to abandon the waterline. The Axis crowd, all over Ecuador, hurried to make the most of it: “Uncle Sam, the great Colossus of the North. … He can no longer even make water like a normal man. He dribbles … like a poor old goat with prostate trouble.”

Two other incidents followed soon after with even stronger and more embarrassing symbolism. The first involved a prize bull. It had happened some years before that the livestock expert of our mission had brought some prize Holstein cattle from the United States to Venezuela for crossing with Cebu stock resistant to various tropical pests. El Oro’s cattle were poor and emaciated, with glazed eyes, weak legs, and every conceivable illness. What better solution than to introduce a fine, vigorous, young bull descended from the stock that had become tropicalized there in Venezuela?

Accordingly our livestock man flew up to Venezuela and selected a prizewinning voung Holstein-Cebu bull, along with blooded poultry and Duroc-Jersey hogs for shipment through the Panama Canal to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s chief port.

As word got out of the magnificent cargo, El Oro was swept with excitement. The progress of the freighter was followed in the shipping reports and in daily calculations based on the ship’s known speed. Our bull has left Maracaibo. … Our bull has reached Barranquilla. … Our bull is entering the Panama Canal at Colón, reported to be in fine spirits. … Our bull is exiting the Canal, his health perfect. … Our bull is heading toward Colombia. … Our bull is entering Ecuadorian waters. … clearing Esmeraldas. … rounding into the Gulf of Guayaquil. … now heading for Puerto Bolivar.

THE WHOLE TOWN turned out, and much of the province, to cheer the arrival of the bull god and his fellow travelers of the poultry and hog world and see them on their way to the mission’s demonstration farm. There the bull was let loose in a pasture where an assortment of local cows, the best of a rather poor lot, were waiting for him. For days they had been signaling in the way of cows that they were frantic to be freshened.

But whether it was the rigors of the sea voyage, the unattractiveness of the local selection, an excess of ris- ing expectations, or other psychological pressures, our bull showed no inclination to do his duty. Again and again the local cowhands prodded him toward the waiting cows. Again and again he put his head down and galloped to a far corner of the pasture.


Disappointment, bitter disappointment, was only the first of the audience’s reactions. It is the way of Latin Americans to enjoy any misfortune, even at the cost of their own benefit, so long as it contains a downfall and humiliation for the gringo. Thus, the first murmurings of “What a misfortune … what a calamity …” were followed in the next breath with storms of laughter. “Uncle Sam—the colossus of the north! Look what he’s sent us! A hollow bull—that runs from the women! No wonder the Japanese destroyed their fleet at Pearl Harbor! Hitler will soon be sitting in the White House!”

What we definitely did not need on the heels of this episode was what happened soon after at Santa Rosa. One of the more advanced towns of the province, Santa Rosa actually had a grid of pipelines that in the old, prosperous cocoa days had carried water up from the Santa Rosa River into a number of homes. Unhappily, the mechanism for pumping the water up the steep riverbank and into a storage tower had long decayed into solid rust.

Solution: Get a new pump. More easily said than done. A couple of good prospects were located by our engineering department but turned out to be held by blacklisted firms. Week after week a search was made the length and breadth of Ecuador until finally a handsome pump of unimpeachable origins was acquired and hurried to Santa Rosa. Here, finally, was the mission’s first chance to make a spectacular showing.

“Tonight,” declared our engineering department as the day of installation came, “all Santa Rosa will be taking a bath.”

The mayor ordered out the town’s little band of pajamaclad musicians with their drums, bugles, and pipes-ofPan. As the band played and the crowd waited, our chief had a last-moment twinge of apprehension. He asked one of the engineers, “Joe, you ran an advance test, of course?”

“Hell,” was the answer, “it can’t miss. That pump is five horsepower, a cinch to raise a three-inch column of water up thirty feet to the water tower.” With this Joe signaled a mechanic on the tower to open a spigot in the tank so that the reach of the water would become immediately visible as it arrived from the river.

A crank whirled. The ignition caught. The motor purred. Up came a deep, sucking noise, full of promise. Every eye was fixed on the spigot above, waiting for the first blessed drops.

“Now,” the crowd called, “now!” Loudly and greedily the pump went on sucking, but from the spigot nothing came. From the pump burst an explosive belch.

“No problem,” said Joe. With a screwdriver, a wrench, and a mallet, he made a few adjustments. “Now,” he said finally.

But still the spigot refused to yield water.

“Joe,” asked the chief, his mouth to the engineer’s ear, “what’s the power of that contraption?”

“Five horsepower.”

“And the height of the water tower?” “Thirty feet. That pump should be plenty.”

“What did you allow for raising the water from the river?”

“The river?”

“From the river to the pump house.”

Nothing, it turned out. A slight and fatal miscalculation.

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.

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.”

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