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Mario Vargas Llosa: Tiempos recios (Harsh Times)

While Vargas Llosa’s work has mainly been set in Peru, he has ventured to other countries several times – Brazil, Ireland, Tahiti and the Dominican Republic being obvious examples. This one may be best compared to his La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), set in the Dominican Republic. Though the novel did not deal with the US invasion of that country, Trujillo owed his presidency to that invasion. Indeed, Trujillo and the Dominican Republic play quite a role in this book.

In this novel, we are in Guatemala, where the US intervened to overthrow a democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, for the spurious reason that he was allowing the Soviet Union to be involved in the country (he was not) but, in reality, to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company, which wanted cheap, exploited labour and not to pay taxes, something Arbenz was trying to change.

Vargas Llosa makes the point that Guatemala is little known to the Western world, starting with a quotation from Winston Churchill: I’d never heard of this bloody place Guatemala until I was in my seventy-ninth year. (Vargas Llosa quotes it out of context; it was in fact said by Churchill when he felt it was not worth supporting Guatemala (over the Árbenz affair) if it meant jeopardising Britain’s relationship with the United States.)

The basic story follows the presidency of Jacobo Árbenz, his predecessor, Juan José Arévalo and his two successors, Carlos Castillo Armas and Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes. (There were, in fact, brief military juntas between Árbenz and Castillo Armas and between Castillo Armas and Ydígoras Fuentes, but they were very short-lived.)

The story is not told chronologically but, rather, Vargas Llosa focusses on a few key individuals and follows their role in the story. Indeed, he starts with two men – both US immigrants – Edward L. Bernays and Sam Zemurray – who, he maintains were the two most important people in Guatemala’s history. Zemurray was the founder of the United Fruit Company and Bernays, the man who allegedly invented public relations and who worked for Zemurray.

However, we follow several other stories. Naturally, we follow Árbenz’s own story – his rise through the military ranks, his rebellion against the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico, his time as Minister of Defence and his election as president. He had various aims as a president but the two main ones were agricultural reform and making the United Fruit Company pay taxes. His agricultural reforms aimed at giving the peasants land held by the rich which was not being used. He did not touch productive land.

Not surprisingly, these two decisions provoked huge opposition both in Guatemala (by the rich) and in the US, where Edward Bernays, on behalf of the United Fruit Company, started a PR campaign “proving” that Árbenz was a communist, though, of course, the aim of the campaign was to make sure the United Fruit Company did not pay taxes. They had avoided paying taxes by bribing previous dictators. Bernays’ campaign was wildly successful, influencing the Eisenhower administration and, in particular, the Dulles brothers – John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, and Allen Dulles, Head of the CIA.

They set up Operation PBSuccess, a coup d’état, masterminded by US ambasasdor to Guatemala, John Peurifoy. Peurifoy had been ambassador to Greece,where he had contributed to the defeat of the Communists and is determined to do the same in Guatemala, arriving in the country openly announcing his intent to get rid of Árbenz, which he did. We follow his story and like others whose story we follow, he dies an untimely and violent death, something Vargas Llosa reports on with a certain amount of glee.

There are other historical people we follow. Johnny Abbes García, was chief of Trujillo’s Military Intelligence Service in the Dominican Republic and Trujillo uses him to help subvert Carlos Castillo Armas. Trujillo had initially supported Castillo Armas but turned against him. We will follow Abbes García, as he gets involved in various conspiracies and ends up dying a violent death.

We also follow Castillo Armas (wittily nicknamed CACA, from his initials. It it is, of course, the Spanish for shit). We see his not very successful army career, his opposition to Árbenz, his not very successful invasion of Guatemala, only turned into a success with US support, his time as president and his assassination. Vargas Llosa gives us full details of the assassination, which do not accord with the historical details, at least as given in the Wikipedia article.

Other historical figures we follow are Rafael Trujillo, President of the Dominican Republic, whom we know from Vargas Llosa’s La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), his brother, nicknamed Negro and Enrique Trinidad Oliva (link in Spanish), Head of State Security in Guatemala, who is also involved in various conspiracies.

Perhaps as interesting are three fictitious characters we follow. I assume they are fictitious as I can find no reference to them. The first and perhaps most interesting is Martita Borrero Parra, known asMiss Guatemala (though she wasn’t). She is the daughter of a conservative and Catholic man, whose best friend is a doctor, Efrén García Ardiles, also fictitious. Martita is interested in politics and García Ardiles promises to educate her. However, he also has sex with her (once) when she is fifteen and gets her pregnant. Her father makes the couple marry, disowns his daughter and retreats from public life.

García Ardiles, who has left-wing views, has a hard time of it after the fall of Árbenz but also before, as his wife does not like him and eventually leaves him and their son. Martita has a colourful life. She is the only one of the main characters to survive till the end of the book, when she is interviewed by Vargas Llosa in her house in Virginia. Meanwhile, she has, she claims, had ten husbands, numerous lovers, including various important people in this story, and travelled around. She refuses to say whether she has worked for the CIA but the clear implication is that she has. She remains devoted to the various Latin American dictators and armies and is a keen Republican (including being a supporter of Trump.)

Finally I must mention a man who not only seems to be fictitious but whose name is fictitious: Mike Laporta. He works for the CIA and is also involved in various dirty deeds. Throughout the book, he is known as the gringo who probably was not called Mike.

Vargas Llosa is entirely partisan in this book. He takes the now generally accepted view that Árbenz was planning to move Guatemala from being an essentially feudal state to a modern democracy along US lines. Far from being communist, he was very anti-communist. Guatemala had no political or commercial relationship with the Soviet Union, there was no Soviet citizen in the country and very few communists (far fewer than in the United States) and they had virtually no influence. His main reforms – taxing the United Fruit Company and his agricultural reforms – were entirely valid.

The involvement of the United States, instead of making Guatemala more democratic and putting it on a sounder footing, led to extensive chaos, disruption, violence and a very undemocratic political system, which has more or less continued to this day. Moreover, what happened in Guatemala had a profound influence on other Latin American countries and led to uprisings elsewhere, including Cuba. (Che Guevara was in Guatemala at the time of the coup.)

Vargas Llosa mixes in the historical and the fictitious. However, it is the novelist that prevails. He is not a historian. He enjoys a good conspiracy and there are many in this book, some of them historically verifiable, others less so. However, neither the historical nor the fictitious part take away from his basic view, namely that the intervention of the United States was disastrous for Guatemala, disastrous for Latin America and certainly harmful for the United States.

Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Alfaguara
First English translation in 2021 by Farrar Straus & Giroux
Translated by Adrian Nathan West