Here's a piece I wrote for The Nation a couple of years back that has some resonance on the events in current-day Latin America...
Lee Christmas and Machine Gun Guy Molony
by Lucius Shepard
I first was made aware of Lee Christmas on coming upon a photograph in an obscure travel book that depicted a slight, boyish-looking blond man standing amid palm trees, wearing a comic opera military uniform with outsized epaulets, topped off by a wide-brimmed hat bearing an ostrich plume, and accessoried by a belted sword with an ornate grip. The caption beneath the photograph read: Lee Christmas on the beach at La Ceiba. Several lines of text referred to him as a soldier of fortune who, during the early portion of the twentieth century, assisted the rise to power of the United Fruit Company in Central America. United Fruit, called "El Pulpo" (The Octopus) by Latin Americans due to its grasping, acquisitive nature, dominated the political reality of Honduras and acted as an oppressive force througout the southern portion of the hemisphere for the better part of a century. Indeed, the most notorious president of the company, Samuel Zemurray, aka The Banana Man, was--with the help of Christmas and his associate, Machine Gun Guy Molony--instrumental in overthrowing a number of governments that tried to institute land reform, the last of these being the leftist administration of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala during the early 1950s. 1 United Fruit's power over Central and portions of South America was so extensive that at one point, for instance, they owned 42 percent of all land in Guatemala, paid no taxes or import duties, and controlled that country's other two largest enterprises, International Railways of Central America and Empress Electrica. It's impossible to calculate the number of lives extinguished as a direct result of their repressive policies in dealing with agrarian reform--a conservative estimate would put the toll in the tens of thousands, but that total rises dramatically if one adds in the hundreds of thousands slaughtered and disappeared by the various dictators propped up by the company. The Guatemalan regime of Col. Castillo Armas alone was responsible for 140,000 people killed and another 45,000 disappeared. The United Fruit logo, Chiquita Banana, became the symbol of US oppression throughout Latin America.
Capitvated by the photograph of Christmas, by a quality in his pose that struck me as self-deprecating, I did some research and learned that he had been a railroad engineer in Louisiana who had fallen asleep at the wheel and wrecked his train. Unable to get work, abandoned by his family, he traveled to Honduras where he found employment with a small fruit company, driving trains on a narrow gauge railway between San Pedro Sula and Puerto Cortez. In 1897, a Guatemalan-sponsored revolution took Puerto Cortez with thirteen men and commandeered Christmas' train. Offered a choice between joining the revolution or being executed, he taught his captors how to armor the flatcars with the scrap iron left along the tracks and, thus protected, they gained control of the entire north coast of the country in less than a week. For his service, having in that brief time secured a reputation for extreme heroism and a disdainful attitude toward physical danger, Christmas was awarded the rank of captain. When the revolution was defeated, he fled to Guatemala. There, the government entrusted him with funds and sent him to New Orleans to buy guns for a new revolution, but Christmas spent the money gambling and whoring. In 1898, under an amnesty, he returned to Honduras and was employed by the president, Terencio Sierra, who had hired a small army of thugs with the idea of forestalling the election process and maintaining his power--he believed that Christmas' charismatic presence would serve to keep them in line. But Christmas, whom Sierra elevated to the rank of Colonel and made head of the National Police, had developed a relationship with Sierra's political rival, Manuel Bonilla, himself an ally--if not a pawn--of various men involved with United Fruit. In 1903 Christmas swung the National Police over to Bonilla's side and marched on Tegucigalpa, seizing control of the city after laying seige to it with Krupps guns, thus earning the rank of general under Bonilla.
Christmas spent much of the next few years courting his third wife, though still married to his second--he was eventually to marry a fourth and fathered innumerable illegitimate children. In 1906, a Nicaraguan-sponsored revolution ousted Bonilla. He and Christmas sought refuge in Guatemala, where Christmas became the chief of the Guatemalan secret police--his charisma remained a currency he could trade on--but all the while he sought to reinstate Bonilla as president in Honduras. In 1910, Christmas returned to Honduras at the head of an armed expedition financed by Samuel Zemurray. Accompanying him was Guy Molony, a young machine gunner who stood 6'6" and had fought in the Boer Wars when he was sixteen. The force captured the Bay Islands and then La Ceiba, where they did battle against a garrison led by one General Carillo who rode into battle on a white mule and carried a golden sword and, like Christmas, was rumored to be unkillable. This rumor proved to be untrue. Six weeks later, the country had fallen and Bonilla was on his way to becoming president again. Shortly thereafter, the Honduran congress approved a concession that ceded Zemurray an enormous tract of land and waived his obligation to pay taxes, thereby ushering in fruit company domination of the country.
In 1976, I interviewed a great many people in Honduras regarding Christmas and Molony. One, Fred Welcomes, was a Bay Island fisherman, then in his nineties, blinded by cataracts, who had fought alongside Christmas at the Battle of La Ceiba. He explained that Christmas had recruited the blacks of the islands because they were better marksman in those days than were the defenders of La Ceiba
"Dat de case no longer," he said. "De Sponnish have since learned de use of weapons."
The shanty in which I interviewed Welcomes was lit by a kerosene lamp, and in that light his cataracts showed thick and shiny, like raw silver nuggets, His appearance and the wind shaking the boards lent his relation the air of a ghost story, and this idea was amplified when, in a raspy, windy voice, he gave me a word-for-word account of Christmas' speech to his troops prior to the Battle of La Ceiba.
"Lee gathered us on de dock," he said. "And he walk up and down in front of us and say, 'Boys, you done break your mothers' hearts, but you no be breaking mine. We gonna come down on de Sponnish like a buzzard on a sick steer.'"
Welcomes and others told me of incidents during which Christmas, already wounded, walked directly into enemy fire and how, when captured, he would laugh at threats of execution. I came to understand that this behavior, the self-deprecation I had sensed in him, the ridiculous uniform...these were to a large degree the product of a Lord Jim complex. He believed he had ruined his life in the States and as a result he placed scant value on it and perceived his victories to be something of a joke. He sought an American redemption, one that was never forthcoming--when he offered his services to the Wilson Administration prior to World War I, the offer was summarily rejected. I suspect that his loyalty to Bonilla was at least in part due to his hope that by pleasing Bonilla's masters, he might repair his Stateside reputation.
Molony's brand of heroism was if anything more extreme than Christmas'. He once blew up an armory atop which he was standing in order to prevent it from falling into counter-revolutionary hands. Yet his motives were, apparently, less redemptive than mercenary. Though he returned to New Orleans often, at one point serving there as Chief of Police, he remained active in Central American politics throughout the 195Os, assisting Zemurray in various aggressions. I've seen a photograph of Molony taken in the mid-Fifties shaking hands with Vice-President Richard Nixon at the Tegucigalpa airport--an immense Bull Connorish figure clad in chinos and a slouch hat. He died in 1972 at the age of 89, prosperous, fat and unrepentant, after a lifetime of violent accomplishment.
Flying over Honduras you cross vast stretches in which you see nothing below except bananas, and whenever I look down on these plantations, I imagine the dozens of back fence wars fought to sustain them, and I think of the two men who orchestrated many of those wars and made others possible: Molony, the implacable giant armed with a gas cylinder-powered machine gun, engaged in creating the new century, and Christmas, the charismatic womanizer with his good looks, his ostrich plume and fancy sword, unable to escape the shame of the century just past. Carrying themselves like colonialist versions of Butch Cassidy and Sundance, oppositional personalities joined in a strange dynamic by the forces of manifest destiny and business--if, indeed, those forces were ever separate; they seem more colorful fictions than neglected historical figures. And because they are so neglected, no mention whatsoever made of them in Honduran history books and little recorded elsewhere, part of an almost secret history, we are forced to conjecture as to the bloody intimacy of their relationship and the character they brought to their semi-patriotic miscreance. Doubtless they joked and whored together as they toppled governments and thwarted coups, but we're unable to determine if the true weight and measure of their work became clear to them, if they ever understood that what must have seemed at the beginning an adventure was in fact the inception of a remorseless political enterprise. We only know for certain that they were friends. In 1922, following Manuel Bonilla's death and a series of businesss reversals, Christmas wired Molony for money and received $100 for a ticket back to New Orleans. There he lobbied the fruit companies for job, but was deemed too old to function as once he had and found no takers. In December of that year, while still in New Orleans, he fell ill and died. Guy Molony paid for his funeral.
1 Though the politics Zemurray practiced in the Third World were reactionary, he acquired a reputation as a philanthropist and a liberal in the US. He was, for instance, among those who provided the funds that financed the start-up of The Nation.