The Harsh Price of U.S. Profit in Latin America

Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel “Harsh Times” is an acid denunciation of corporate interests’ role in establishing U.S. power.

By , a writer and teacher who lives in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where he is a Dornsife fellow in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.
The quiet atmosphere of a street in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, in 1954 before the upheaval of the June 18 coup.
The quiet atmosphere of a street in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, in 1954 before the upheaval of the June 18 coup.
The quiet atmosphere of a street in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, in 1954 before the upheaval of the June 18 coup. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images; Scott Nelson/Getty Images

Harsh Times, Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, is a didactic book. Set before and after the U.S.-orchestrated coup that toppled Guatemala’s socialist President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, its message is spelled out repeatedly across some 300 pages, and then again—as though the reader were in danger of missing the point—in its final paragraph: “When all is said and done, the North American invasion of Guatemala held up the continent’s democratization for decades at the cost of thousands of lives, as it helped popularize the myth of armed struggle and socialism throughout Latin America.”

For all the endless debates over the proper role of politics in literature, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a stark example of what might be called liberal realism. Vargas Llosa has long been an outspoken member of the market-friendly center-right—so much so that in 2014 he was awarded membership in the Mont Pelerin Society, the organization founded by economist Friedrich Hayek in 1947 to combat left-wing ideas in academia and government. Yet Harsh Times is no paean to the free market: The novel is largely an acid denunciation of the extent to which the role of corporate interests in the establishment of the U.S. superpower has come at a steep social and political cost.

This is not the first time Vargas Llosa has fictionalized watershed historical events in Latin America. But in reducing the ideological battles of the Cold War into little more than “tragic” deviations from a democratic ideal, the novel—though written by a literary genius—frequently teeters on the edge of reducing its real-life characters to stand-ins for a morality play designed for the Davos set.

Harsh Times, Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, is a didactic book. Set before and after the U.S.-orchestrated coup that toppled Guatemala’s socialist President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, its message is spelled out repeatedly across some 300 pages, and then again—as though the reader were in danger of missing the point—in its final paragraph: “When all is said and done, the North American invasion of Guatemala held up the continent’s democratization for decades at the cost of thousands of lives, as it helped popularize the myth of armed struggle and socialism throughout Latin America.”

For all the endless debates over the proper role of politics in literature, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a stark example of what might be called liberal realism. Vargas Llosa has long been an outspoken member of the market-friendly center-right—so much so that in 2014 he was awarded membership in the Mont Pelerin Society, the organization founded by economist Friedrich Hayek in 1947 to combat left-wing ideas in academia and government. Yet Harsh Times is no paean to the free market: The novel is largely an acid denunciation of the extent to which the role of corporate interests in the establishment of the U.S. superpower has come at a steep social and political cost.

Harsh Times: A Novel, Mario Vargas Llosa; translated by Adrian Nathan West, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $28.00, November 2021

This is not the first time Vargas Llosa has fictionalized watershed historical events in Latin America. But in reducing the ideological battles of the Cold War into little more than “tragic” deviations from a democratic ideal, the novel—though written by a literary genius—frequently teeters on the edge of reducing its real-life characters to stand-ins for a morality play designed for the Davos set.

There are few awards on earth the 85-year-old Vargas Llosa has not won. His 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature—awarded “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”—almost feels like old news now that he was admitted to the Académie Française in November 2021 despite having never written a book in French. Super Mario, the Argentine-Peruvian writer Pola Oloixarac has called him—and it’s hard to disagree.

Still, such an oeuvre—20 novels over 60 years—cannot but yield comparisons to itself, and Harsh Times fits neatly into what my grandfather, a Vargas Llosa completist who shared a hometown with the Peruvian author, used to call his “minor work.” Which isn’t to say that the novel isn’t, on occasion, good fun. Vargas Llosa’s kaleidoscopic narration marries the entertaining pleasures (and hackneyed tropes) of the political thriller with that of historical fiction.

While Harsh Times’ strongest moments serve as a reminder of the author’s best novels, its weakest bring to mind his most tendentious opinion columns: a grab-bag of prefabricated lines drawn from six decades of wildly prolific output. The result is an uneven blur, a mixture of literary brilliance and the sputterings of a political ideology that, if not dead, has certainly fallen out of favor in the age of populist reactionaries and democratic governance backsliding worldwide.


Harsh Times is a fictionalized account of Washington’s disastrous decision to view the labor and land reforms undertaken by Guatemala’s first democratically elected presidents as a lurking communist threat. The story, in Vargas Llosa’s telling, begins with the meeting between two historical figures: Sam Zemurray, a “boorish self-made impresario” who ran the notorious U.S.-based United Fruit Company (the predecessor to Chiquita Brands International), and Edward L. Bernays, the man who made public relations “the central political, social, and economic weapon of the twentieth century.”

Zemurray hires Bernays for two objectives: to clean up United Fruit’s image in the Anglo-American press and to establish a way to beat back the government of the newly elected Guatemalan president, Juan José Arévalo. Arévalo’s vocal support of unions and embrace of democratic principles for Guatemala’s poor and landless peasants was a problem for the company, whose dominance of the banana trade was so complete that it controlled the nation’s single rail line, electrical grid, and sole Caribbean port.

Following a trip to Guatemala, Bernays delivers a Bond-villain-like speech to United Fruit’s board, claiming that while the “danger” of Guatemala’s government operating in tandem with the Soviets isn’t real, “it is convenient for us that people believe it exists, above all in the United States.” United Fruit’s representatives at the time included John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, who would become U.S. secretary of state and director of central intelligence, respectively, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The geopolitical stage set, Vargas Llosa turns his attention to Guatemala. The narrative cycles between short, discursive chapters that follow the main players around the U.S.-backed coup against Árbenz, Arévalo’s successor, which installed military dictator Carlos Castillo Armas as president. Laced in between are chapters that follow the two real-life characters who come closest to walking off the page: Johnny Abbes García, a spy hired by U.S.-backed Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and Marta Borrero Parra, a Guatemalan socialite who becomes a canny political operator over the course of the narrative.

The novel’s narration dips in and out of each character’s consciousness, allowing Vargas Llosa to give some depth to characters made wooden in historical memory while quickly moving back and forth across years of complex political intrigue.

Yet even in cases where the characters’ relative absence from the historical record gives Vargas Llosa freer rein, the narration’s overall breeziness suggests more of a tinkering with history rather than an intimate engagement with it. And while Vargas Llosa’s familiar Rabelaisian focus on grotesque physical characteristics and outsize perversions certainly enlivens the narrative, it just as often transforms the events into cartoonish melodrama.


In both the historical and fictional stories, Árbenz was toppled after a pressure campaign designed by the U.S. State Department, funded by the CIA, supported by U.S.-backed dictatorships across the region, and cheered along by the Anglo-American press.

The coup began on June 18, 1954, when Castillo Armas and his mercenaries crossed the border from Honduras near the town of Esquipulas while U.S. pilots flew bombing missions in San José, a port town on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and in Guatemala City, the capital. (One of the book’s better chapters tells the story of Crispín Carrasquilla, a military cadet who leads an ill-fated attack on the CIA-trained mercenaries after a U.S. pilot bombs the military academy.)

Under pressure from the U.S. ambassador, John Emil Peurifoy—“forty-six years old, had the build of an orangutan”—Árbenz resigned on June 27, and by July, Castillo Armas was installed as president. What followed were seven decades of political chaos, culminating in a devastating civil war—the aftereffects of which are still felt in today’s refugee crisis.

Whether true or not, Harsh Times often has an effect similar to the best investigative journalism.

Historians are more or less in agreement that Castillo Armas was killed by a member of his presidential guard, a leftist sympathizer named Romeo Vásquez Sánchez. Yet in the book’s boldest stab into the historical record, Vargas Llosa instead details an intricate assassination plot involving Trujillo, Abbes García, Borrero Parra, and a bespectacled CIA operative operating under the pseudonym Mike Laporta. (Though even this may well turn out to be based in “reality”; the Dominican writer and politician Tony Raful—to whom Harsh Times is dedicated—has argued that Trujillo organized the assassination with the help of Gloria Bolaños Pons, the Guatemalan-born U.S. citizen on whom Borrero Parra seems to be based.)

Whether true or not, Harsh Times often has an effect similar to the best investigative journalism, where knowing what happened is always secondary to knowing how something happened. Even for those already disabused of the notion of the U.S. government as the “good guy,” the sordid story illuminates the way the McCarthy-era tendency to imagine a Soviet plot lurking in every shadow served as an effective mask for far cruder instincts.

Yet I can’t help but return to the novel’s final scene, where the narrator, in an autofictional touch many readers will find familiar, discusses the coup with some friends over a nice Italian meal in Washington. In the narrator’s world, history’s characters are either cynical or they are deluded. In believing that only he and his friends can tell the difference, the narrator succumbs to both positions at once.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to FP.

Correction, Feb. 26, 2022: This article has been updated to correct the timing and context of Edward Bernays’s speech to United Fruit’s board and the role of the Dulles brothers at the time.

Lucas Iberico Lozada is a writer and teacher who lives in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where he is a Dornsife fellow in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. His work has recently appeared in the NationVirginia Quarterly Review, and the New York Times.

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