By 1918, Guatemala had cowered under the oppressive rule of President Manuel Estrada Cabrera for 30 years. While the Indian population tolled in medieval serfdom and squalor, the balding, bulbous-headed tyrant Estrada Cabrera looted the national treasury and raked off all the country’s wealth into personal bank accounts. Small cliques of toadying military and police officials and an elite oligarchy shared the booty. Provincial bosses enforced worship of Estrada Cabrera; his and his mother’s birthdays were made national holidays. The Bostonbased United Fruit Company and other foreign investors were welcome to make lucrative sweetheart deals with the government as long as Estrada Cabrera and his cronies got their cuts. Scattered pockets of opposition, made up of disgruntled military officers and businessmen who labelled themselves Liberals, only coveted Estrada Cabrera’s riches and absolute power.
Similar corrupt, iron-fisted dictatorships lorded over the other Central American nations of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The only area free of tyranny was the colony of British Honduras-the present day nation of Belize, which .flanked Guatemala’s eastern border. Belize’s meager population consisted of fiercely independent logcutters, smugglers and subsistence farmers descended from pirates, slaves, fugitives and Mayan warriors. British colonial officials dreaded postings to this sleepy Caribbean backwater, and dubbed ii ‘the slum of the Empire” Maps printed in Guatemala City persisted in including this Vermont-sized parcel within Guatemala’s national boundaries. Guatemalan demagogue regarded Belize as part of their country’s inheritance from Spain’s colonial empire. Whenever they wished to divert the Guatemalan people’s attention from their own dismal conditions, they would demand the territory’s return or even call for an invasion.
A Rebel Guatemalan Exile’s Fantasy
In times of despair, even the ramblings of the inebriated get a bearing. With divine intervention and healthy doses of good fortune, the secret proposal laying before Heinrich von Eckhardt, the German Minister to Mexico, might reshape the map of Central America. By some unprecedented miracle, it might also somehow relieve beleaguered German troops on the Western Front by diverting American and British resources to the Caribbean. During the desperate summer of 1918, the German Minister bad to consider any proposal that could possibly aid the Fatherland’s faltering war effort.
The secret proposal called for a “revolution in the colony of Belice … ” created by rebel Guatemalan and Honduran forces backed up by German U-boats. After victory in Belice, the secret proposal strategist that German long-range submarines could establish a b~ there to conveniently assault American ships in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. A popular revolt would then spread spontaneously from Guatemala and Honduras into El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, installing new revolutionary governments that would withdraw support from the Allied cause. This was the scenario outlined by the proposal’s author, General Isidro Valdez.
Isidro Valdez, a native of Jalapa, Guatemala, graduated from Guatemalan national military academy, in 1893. He served four years as an instructor at the academy before Guatemala was tom by a violent political struggle. The young officer cast his lot with power-hungry plotters of an ill-conceived coup d’etat. In 1898, Valdez and his fellow revolutionists were driven out of Guatemala by pro-government troops. Guatemala fell under the iron band of dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera and Valdez was branded a traitor.
An exile at the mere age of 23 years old, Valdez dedicated himself to the overthrow of Estrada Cabrera. Yearning for his homeland and, even more so, fueled with an unsated hunger for power, an oversized ego and, quite often, liquor, Valdez took an active role in several attempts to depose the tyrant Estrada Cabrera. While in exile in Mexico, Valdez associated with expatriates from other Central American nations and joined these fellow liberals in their insurgent intrigues. When the turmoil of civil war swept Mexico in 1911, Valdez and many other Central American liberals took up arms with Constitutionalism. Valdez picked a winner this time: after several years of bitter bloodshed, Valdez and his fellow liberal legionnaires found themselves in the prevailing camp of Mexican President Venustiano Carranza.
Through his many years of persistent, aggressive opposition to Estrada Cabrera, Valdez gained a good many underground followers, particularly in his native Jalapa. Of course, so dire was the peons’ plight that they would have followed the devil himself had he appeared to lead a rebellion. Nevertheless, a failed revolt against the Guatemalan dictator in 1917 convinced Valdez to seek foreign assistance.
In Veracruz in July, 1918, General Valdez carefully composed his secret proposal to the German Minister in Mexico City. Casting all modesty aside, Valdez bestowed upon himself the grandiose title of Liberal Leader of the Revolutionaries of Central America. He began by falsely meeting that the U.S.” … urges the Governments of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to send large bodies of troops to the Western Front to oppose the offensive of the Prussian Armies … ”
Valdez cited his own patriotism, expounded upon the superiority of Teutonic culture, and conjured up fanciful bonds between the German and Guatemalan peoples. The General reminded Minister von Eckhardt of Germany’s commercial ties to Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
He lambasted Estrada Cabrera and the other Central American he.ads of state fur ….. declaring war on Germany … ” and ….. bending the knee before the Government of the White House”. Valdez wrote, “Do they perhaps believe that the situation of Cuba, Santo Domingo and unfortunate Nicaragua which form feudal states under the Yankees does not deeply wound the dignity of our sovereignty which is due us as Central Americans?” Valdez raved on that the Central American dictators” .. permanence in power is due solely to the government of the United States” and that they were” …mere machines of Mr. [Woodrow] Wilson.”
“The first thing which we propose,” boldly declared Valdez’ blueprint for insurrection, “is to overthrow the government of Guatemala … , which has greater resources and more elements to contribute to the development of our cause against the other tyrannies of the Isthmus … ”
Valdez’ next step would be Honduras. “[When] our revolution is in the [Guatemalan] Departments of Peten and Alta Verapaz, we shall carry revolution to Honduras where the leaders [of revolt] are identified with us.” During the aborted 1917 revolt against Estrada Cabrera, Valdez claimed to have 5,000 Salvadorans massed in Honduras, waiting to invade Guatemala from the east. After conquering Honduras, Valdez pictured his little army rolling through El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and installing new governments until” … the [Central American] union which is the desire of the Liberal Party’ can be achieved. This union would pursue a close entente’ with Mexico, … forming a block of nations which will check the tendencies of Yankee Imperialism.” This block of nations could have been enough to rally South American governments into the formation of a powerful, anti-U .S. Latin League. For the past few years American diplomats bad winced at each rumor that this diabolical La.tin League was in the making.
Belize was the pawn in Valdez’ fantasy. He wrote:
“There will be a revolution in the colony of Belice which will declare itself independent from Great Britain and enter into an alliance with Germany, and in order that this revolution may be effective, it will be made with the assistance of German submarines. In order that independence may be obtained while the German submarines are in action, the revolutionary Governments of Guatemala and Honduras will furnish their contingents, with the necessary reserves.”
General Valdez graciously offered Belize to the Germans to show thanks for their support in installing him in Guatemala’s Palacio Nacional. Valdez suggested, “With the revolution of Belice, the German government, with the help of Guatemala, can establish a naval base and install points of supply.”
Reality and the Reaim of Possibility
Although the General probably did not realize it, the Germans did possess the basic ingredients of the Valdez Proposal. An extensive, if corrupt, network of German spies, orchestrated by businessman Georg Vogel in Guatemala City, extended into the highest levels of Estrada Cabrera’s government. The tentacles of Vogel’s espionage service stretched even into isolated Belize. Regardless of political leanings, the numerous Germans living in Guatemala could be relied upon for support since Estrada Cabrera had recently confiscated their properties; Valdez promised to return it all when be took power.
A superb new class of German long-range submarine-the unterseekreuzer-could supposedly be provisioned for a ten-month cruise. The prototype boat (originally designed for commercial pursuits), the Deutschland, had accomplished a Trans-Atlantic crossing amidst great fanfare in 1915. During summer, 1917, the central post office in Mexico City openly hinted that a special postal service, presumably via German submarine, would soon be available for communications with the Central Powers. Rumors were already circulating of regular bi-monthly mall service between Mexico and Germany. In early April, 1918, French intelligence advised the U.S., “According to information from a very reliable source a submersible cruiser belonging to the class of transformed merchant submarines will leave Germany soon for Mexico to transport there a military mission and arms.” None of these rumors ever materialized into fact.
Then in April and May, 1918, the German Navy’s unterseekreuzers pulled off some daring long-range exploits. On April 10, 1918, U-154 terrorized the West African republic of Liberia. The huge (213-foot long, 1,800-ton (submerged)) oceangoing predator destroyed the Liberian fleet-the auxiliary schooner R.L. PRESIDENT HOW ARD, bombarded a French wireless radio communications station, and spread panic through the capital city Monrovia, where four civilians were killed by stray shells. Meanwhile, sister boat U-153 laid mines off the port of Dakar, French West Africa (now Senegal), and cut Allied communications cables on the ocean floor near the Bijagos Islands of Portugese Guinea. On May 24 and May 26, 1918, unterseekreuzer U-151 mined the United States’ Chesapeake and Delaware Bays.
Wee.ks later, reports reached the U.S. Legation in Mexico City of a “German submarine base near Port Zapotitlan, Vera Cruz, between the reefs or bars of Coatzacoalcos and Santa Comapan,” where a “Gennan submarine of large type toot on fuel oil and food stuffs.” At the same time U.S. military attaches in Argentina forwarded rumors of a covert German submarine base open for business around Tierra del Fuego. Investigations of these reports never produced evidence of genuine U-boat activity, and post-war examination of the records never revealed any Latin American war cruises. Nevertheless, spectres of unterseekreuzers continued to surface. On July 9, 1918, the little Mexican port of Progreso, Yucatan was abuzz with stories that a U-boat had visited the night before to load gasoline and lubricating oil. The captain of the steamship MONTEREY, which was sailing in the vicinity, gave the tales the benefit of the doubt and steered 45 miles out of his way to avoid meeting the phantom submarine.
In spite of Germany’s interest in Latin American intrigue, General Valdez’ German-Central American alliance and conquest would remain a drunkard’s fantasy. Some German submarine crews had reportedly mutinied before sailing out of Kiel harbor. And although Georg Vogel’s Central American espionage network worked efficiently enough, many of his agents pursued smuggling and other assorted vices with much more ardor than they did spying. The tainted reputation of Isidro Valdez was no plus for the proposed operation either.
According to the files of Major Louis O’Donnell, U.S. Military Attache in Guatemala, Valdez had “… the reputation of being a drunkard and a Soldier of Fortune. It is said be will oppose any faction whatever if the reward is propitious financially.” As if that were not bad enough, O’Donnell added, “He has been shot in the head [probably in Mexico], as a result of which some people claim he is mentally unsound.” Regardless of German Minister von Eckhardt’s opinion of the matter, the Armistice on November 11, 1918, not only ended the world war but shelved any idea of overt German participation in Valdez’ plan.
About a year and a half later, on April 8, 1920, President Manual Estrada Cabrera’s 22-year reign ground to a halt when the Guatemalan National Assembly declared him insane, and an enraged mob looted bis mansion and ran him into a prison cell. General Valdez surfaced to be appointed a member of the Constituyente representative member of the constitutional committee from Jalapa.
Around Christmas that year, one of Major O’Donnell’s Guatemalan informants passed him a copy of General Valdez’ secret proposal. Major O’Donnell’s superiors at the Military Intelligence Division in Washington, D.C. forwarded a translated copy of the proposal to the U.S. State Department. Valdez’ strong anti-American views and radical schemes aroused paranoia among State Department bureaucrats. Undersecretary of State W. L. Hurley pressed the U.S. Legation in Guatemala for more information on Valdez in January, 1921; Hurley wondered if Valdez “…may occupy a position of prominence there.”
Major O’Donnell replied, “The present Government do [sic] not give him any consideration at all, and say that after he completes his duties in the Constituyente, which will be very shortly, be will go back to Jalapa and become a nobody. No one says anything good about him. However, he is the kind of a man who has very strong influence with the peon, and be would probably be able to muster to his banner a respectable command of men in Jalapa to fight fur and with him, no matter what the principle involved was.”
Despite the presence of Gennan spy chief Georg Vogel among the inner circles of Unionistas that deposed Estrada Cabrera, Isidro Valdez, die-bard foe of the deposed dictator for two decades, was rewarded with no prominent role in the new government. The ambitious General felt short-changed by both the Unionistas and the Germans.
In June and July of 1921, the Unionistas returned all property confiscated during the war back to its’ German owners.
Undaunted by nearly a quarter-century of setbacks, General Isidro Valdez led an armed revolt against Guatemala’s new government in early August, 1921. The revolt 11 … was immediately suppressed. 11 But Isidro Valdez was not. On December S that same year, General de Division Jose Marfa Orellana led the Guatemalan Anny in a relatively tranquil cuartelazo-a shifting of alleglance.-against President Carlos Herrera. Isidro Valdez had learned his lesson in 1898, and followed the shift of power to Orellana. El Presidente Orellana rewarded Valdez with the post of Jefe Politico-Political Cbief-of Peten. the isolated, jungle province adjacent to Belize.
1. National Archives and Records Administration, War College Division, Record Group 165, Military Intelligence Division File 10987.-679/2, “Memorandum Which General Isidro Valdez, Engineer, Liberal Leader of the Revolutionaries of Central America Has the Honor to Present to Minister Eckardt [sic],” dated 18 July 1918, Veracruz, Mexico.
2. National Archives and Records Administration, War College Division, Record Group 165, Military Intelligence Division File 10087-679/4, Letter UH from W. L. Hurley, U.S. Undersecretary of State, to Brigadier General Dennis Nolan, U.S.A., Military Intelligence Division, War Department, dated 29 January 1921.
3. National Archives and Records Administration, War College Division, Record Group 165, Military Intelligence Division File 10987-679/8, Letter No. 425 from Major Louis A. O’Donnell, U.S. Military Attache in Guatemala, to The Director of Military Intelligence, dated 23 February 1921.
4. National Archives and Records Administration, War College Division, Record Group 165, Military Intelligence Division File 10087-679/11, “Guatemalan Revolt Quickly Suppressed,” Brooklyn Eagle [newspaper], 7 August 1921.
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