Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Banana and a Cup of Coffee

Thirty years ago, I was in Honduras researching a revolution that helped establish The United Fruit Company as the 800-pound gorilla in Central America for decades to come.   While I had already found a little information along the coast, at the site of the actual banana plantations, most of the information I was now looking for was located in the government archives. 

Researching in Tegucigalpa, the capital city, had its attractions:  lodging, food, and Port Royal beer were all inexpensive.  On the downside, my hotel room came with a free, mandatory sauna, every meal I ate came with bananas, and it became painfully obvious that if a poor country has a financial crises, the first agency to lose its funding is the archives. 

Just getting to Tegucigalpa is an ordeal.  Toncontin Airport has just one runway—one that is woefully too short—and it is nestled in the mountains in such a way that approaching planes have to make an ‘Sturn between peaks on the approach and plant the wheels firmly on the numbers.  This is a trick that not every plane has successfully executed; the last disaster was the crash of an Airbus 320 from El Salvador that ran off the end of the runway.  (Though to be fair, the pilot had ignored the control tower and attempted to land on the wrong end of the runway, with the wind at his back, and only touched down after he had flown past half the already inadequate runway.  Thats not a landing, thats a murder-suicide.)

After I survived the landing, my first hint that things were, perhaps, not going to go as planned was my passage through customs.  No one actually even glanced at my luggage—evidently Honduras is a place from which you smuggle goods out, not into.  Then, when the clerk examined my passport, he asked me a difficult question.
“Is your trip business or pleasure, Señor?” 
This stumped me:  As a grad student, I didnt believe there was any way I was going to make any money off my thesis.  (Now, thirty years later, I can still attest to that fact.)  I wasn’t employed, but I had come to "work" on my project. 
“Pleasure,” I announced, finally.
The customs official looked up from my passport.  “Really?” he asked.  From the surprised look on his face, I got the distinct impression that I was the first person to ever give that answer.  Nevertheless, he stamped my passport and let me officially enter his country.  It was time to do research.
After depositing my bags in my rather decrepit hotel room, I hurried to the American Embassy.  I had a letter of introduction to the embassys cultural attaché officer—someone who I hoped would be able to direct me toward a treasure trove of historical primary documents.  (Preferably something no one else had ever seen—or published—before).  It would be okay with me if the documents were stored in the Ark of the Covenant.
Its not hard to find the US embassy in Tegucigalpa: its the largest building in town, ensconced safely behind massive walls, guarded by Wackenhut Security Guards.  At the hotel, I had learned that due to a drought, the water in the town was only turned on for two hours each morning.  Evidently, this news had not reached the embassy, since as I approached, I came upon a half dozen Honduran women in matching gray uniforms who were washing the embassy sidewalks with garden hoses.  As I was to later discover, this was just one of the reasons the locals hated the embassy.
I had a long wait in the embassy lobby, which provided me with more than enough time to inspect the historical display on “Violence in America During the 1960s”.  Some of the displays featured the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, while others were about race riots in Harlem and Los Angeles.  I have never figured out why the United States decided to showcase this information in an overseas embassy.  Maybe it was to discourage immigration? 
After several hours, I finally made it past the Marines, up an elevator, and into the office of the Third Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer.  The smile vanished from his face as soon as I mentioned that I was doing research into a Honduran revolution, but the smile instantly returned when he learned that I was referring to the Revolution of 1911, and had no interest in any recent revolutionary activity.  I was to see that same sequence of smile-worried frown-smile every time I explained what, then when I was researching. 
After a few minutes of conversation, and carefully scrutinizing my letter of introduction, the embassy officer gave me his only tidbit of research advice.
“Somewhere in this town, I think there is a university,” he said.  “You might want to try their library.”
Warmly thanking the State Department official, I left the embassy, stopping only long enough on the front steps to admire the view of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras—the large campus easily visible in the distance.  (Probably visible from the cultural attaché’s office window).
Over the next ten days, I spent a lot of time at the university, where I discovered two interesting things:  First, I owned a better collection of history books on the revolution in question than the library did.  Second, the brilliantly wise faculty of the History Department had chipped in together and bought a bar across the street from the university.  Now, that's edjumacation. 
It is highly unlikely that the collective faculty of Enema U—in any department—would voluntarily cooperate long enough to purchase a bottle of Boones Farm Strawberry Hill together.
I prowled newspaper offices, government archives, bookstores, libraries, and museums.  Occasionally, I would find something useful, but truthfully, I didn't find much.  I had been far more successful researching this subject in Washington D.C., at the National Archives, or in the archives at Tulane University.  Now that I was actually at the site of revolution…I found almost nothing.
There was one source I really coveted.  I desperately wanted to read the telegrams sent by the Honduran Ambassador in the United States back to the Honduran State Department in Tegucigalpa.  Since the Revolution of 1911 was funded by American businessmen and fought over the objections of both the American State Department and the U.S. Navy, these telegrams had to be full of information that I needed and were more than half the reason I had come to Honduras.
Every morning, I woke early, had a breakfast of strong Honduran coffee and the inevitable fruit plate (read that as "more bananas") and then I would hurry over to the government offices and seek permission to view their files.  It took almost no time at all to learn that the telegrams I wanted to read had been bound into a large leather book and were stored in an office on the second floor.  Each day, I would go to that office, explain my mission, and then patiently wait while a secretary went to check on whether a decision had been reached by someone in authority as to whether I was to be allowed to read those telegrams.
While I waited, I was always politely served more strong black Honduran coffee.  As I sipped my coffee, I could actually see the volume I wanted to study.  For days, the answer was always the same:  'No decision had yet been reached.  Could I come back mañana?'  Yes, I could.  And did...for many days in a row.
The rest of the days was spent in libraries, usually reading fading, yellowed newspapers.  In the evening, the local movie theater had air-conditioning and cheap tickets.  The snack counter had a brisk business selling sugared popcorn and dried banana chips.  Several days went by exactly like this:  coffee, reading, bananas, and Port Royal beer.
Finally, I was running out of both patience and money, and had exhausted every other  source I could think of in Honduras.  There was literally nothing left to read except that blasted bound file of telegrams at the State Department.  By this point, I had gotten to know several of the secretaries in that office rather well.  After all, we had shared many, many cups of coffee together.   About the only thing that ever happened in that office, as far as I could tell, was drinking coffee and answering the phone.
I begged my new friend:  'Could she please get me an appointment with someone who could make a decision?'  I was at the point where I no longer cared if I actually got to see inside the book or not, but would someone make a decision?  The secretary thought she could help.  This may or may not have been influenced by the $20  I slipped her.  If I could wait an hour, she thought I might speak to the Assistant Secretary of State.
I waited.  Considerably longer than an hour later, I was escorted into a large office where two men in white shirts were working on an aging Mr. Coffee machine with a letter opener and a few other assorted office tools.  I was introduced to the one with the letter opener, the Assistant Secretary of State.
Once again, I began my practiced speech about researching an old and forgotten revolution.  Both men glanced up sharply at the word revolution, but as usual, relaxed when they learned that all the participants were long, long dead.  I explained what I wanted to read, where the book was located, and why I wished to see it.  And as I talked, I noticed that the nichrome heating element on the coffee pot was loose and one end was corroded.   As I ended my spiel about the 1911 revolution, I pointed out the busted heating element.  Immediately, the coffee pot was thrust into my hands.
Refusing the proffered letter opener, I used my Swiss Army knife—remember, this was before 9/11 when no one thought anything about someone flying with a modest pocket knife—I scraped a shiny spot on the end of the wire’s terminal and reattached the heating element.
While I worked, the Assistant Secretary of State said, “I don’t think that should be a problem, let me check with the Secretary of State, but Im sure he will have no objections.  Can you check back with me in a few days?”
As he talked, the coffee pot, now reassembled and turned on, began to reheat.  The little hot plate element was obviously getting hot to the touch and the switch was glowing bright red.
I was crestfallen.  Another few days meant staying at least another week in Honduras.  Trying not to appear ungrateful, I explained to the official that all my research was done, that I was running out of both time and money, and pleaded, 'Was there any way that the Secretary could be asked today?' 
Without missing a beat, the assistant secretary turned to the other man and said in Spanish, “What do you think, Carlos?  Can he see the book?”
It took me a full second to realize that the other man, currently with his hand inside a Mr. Coffee, was none other than the Secretary of State for Honduras.  He looked up at me, smiled, and in clear unaccented English said, “Sure, why not?”
Five minutes later, I was reading the book.  I took a couple of photographs, and meticulously copied two telegrams.  Twenty-four hours later, I was back in New Mexico.  (Taking off from that airport is not much fun, either!)
I would love to tell you what the telegrams said, but it would take longer than a simple blog.  It was important stuff, and personally, I think my fascinating thesis should be made into a movie (Ive always thought that Nick Nolte should star!).  Until the movie is produced, Im sure that Inter-Library Loan can get you a copy to read.
It turns out that one of the critical research skills a historian needs is small appliance repair.


  1. Yes, but why the runaround? There are more layers to the onion here: why did they have you keep coming back? Is it a cultural thing (as it sometimes is in Japan) to never outright just say "no"? Why, after repairing the coffee pot did they ask you to come back *yet again* in a few days when they reached a decision?

    You get the sense these guys were cultural trolls, basking in the delight of American disappointment. Or maybe that's it: that American Embassy nonsense of washing the sidewalks confirmed a stereotype that resulted in a kind of open season on American tourists.

    Hmm. Did I just answer my own question?

  2. In the "Land of Mañana", whether one is an American tourist or not is of little consequence--nothing is done "de prisa" (In a hurry).

  3. In Central America, one must be very careful in the matter of making decisions, especially if you are a bureaucrat. Latin American bureaucrats have learned, initially from the Spanish for whom bureaucracy is an art form, but later from seeing their brother bureaucrats strung up, shot and vivisected without anesthesia, that it is best not to make any decisions or hold any opinions you can be held accountable for by the winners of the next revolución. After all, revolucións do come rather more frequently than is strictly comfortable for the Latin American nomenklatura. It's kind of a national sport for politicians.

    Having learned, through the centuries of long dull periods punctuated by short intensely violent uprisings, to avoid taking any sort of responsibility, the bureaucracies of our neighbors to the south have developed an astonishing ability to survive most any political upheaval you might throw at them. Whether the new government is communist (Marxist heavy) or socialist (Marxist light) or capitalist with benefits, one thing remains constant - the bureaucracy. Most of the time, even the department heads aren't replaced by the latest El Supremo when he takes office. It's far too much trouble to clean house and besides, the bureaucrats will work for anybody so long as the paychecks and bribes continue to flow.

    It's a cynical view, but then, how else do you explain that no matter who takes charge of the country after the latest bloodbath (the blood in which the country is bathed seldom being that of the nation's bureaucrats by the way), that nothing basically changes. You even have to still bribe the same people to get things done AFTER the revolution that you did BEFORE the revolution.

    I blame the Spaniards Conquistadors. After all they came from a land where no one ever expected the Spanish Inquisition. Surviving that sort of thing requires that you never take a stand and never make a decision you can be held accountable for (unless, of course your coffee pot is broken and the Secretary of State doesn't know how to fix it).

    Just sayin'

  4. The historical roots of Latin American bureaucracy date back to the first decades of the sixteenth century and the king of Spain. Charles V (already an inbred Hapsburg) found it increasingly difficult to rule an empire thousands of miles away. At a time when news might be a year old when it arrived and a round trip communication might take two years, King Chuck lived in constant fear that a conquistador might decide to set up his own empire.

    In a very real sense, the conquest of the New World was actually two conquests: the conquistadors' conquest of the natives was followed by bureaucratic red tape's conquering and reining in the conquistadors. In this, the chief weapon was the Council of the Indies--an "advisory board" of experts that actually ruled the New World in the name of the king.

    What is an expert? Someone who lives out of town, who has an advanced degree. (Trust me, for the vast majority of you--I'm an expert.) This group certainly qualified: the council was made up mostly of lawyers who had never been to the New World.

    More than just advising the king, they made laws--thousands of them. They deliberately created endless red tape, overlapping jurisdictions, frequent audits and inspections, and created regulations so minutely detailed in their mindless and useless stranglehold on society as to make the IRS and the EPA proud.

    The Council of the Indies deliberately created the bureaucratic traditions still found in Latin America so as to strangle potential independence. They regulated the height of doors and the width of streets, charged fees and levied taxes, and prohibited more business activities than they allowed.

    This council lasted 300 years and by the time it was abolished, the cultural damage was done.

    1. I enjoyed reading your blog dated Saturday, September 5, 2015, titled:
      A Banana and a Cup of Coffee. If you used this example during our HISTORY 395 - Meso-American Culture & History class at NMSU, I don't remember it. How can I read your master's thesis? I apologize that I did think to ask about your master's thesis when I was a Graduate student, SPRING 2015 semester at NMSU-Las Cruces.
      Respectfully to you, Professor Milliorn,
      Stacia Fry

  5. That was worthy of a whole column next week, Mark. I knew there was a reason behind it and I knew the Spanish were to blame, but I didn't know about the Council of the Indies and their relationship to King Chuck. The Hapsburgs I did know were a blot on humanity and the very reason I oppose the return of the hereditary nobility that the progressives in both political parties seem to be enamored of given attempts to install two dynasties over the past two decades. The Dems are going for two Clintons and the Republicans are making a run at a third Bush. They already have the bureaucracy in place that, like you said, would make a 16th century Hapsburg proud! I fear we may require a revolución, and it would probably fail because revolutions tend to forget about the real culprit, the entrenched bureaucrats, and next thing you know, it's The Spanish Inquisition all over again. Why is it we never expect that?