Novelistic Discourse as History:
Asturias’s (Re)Vision of Estrada Cabrera’s Guatemala, 1898-1920
In 1946 Miguel Angel Asturias published El señor presidente, a text defined by Fernando Alegría as “un documento humano que es, a pesar de sus defectos literarios, una de las novelas de mayor solidez y honestidad artística que se han producido en Centroamérica” (210-11). In spite of its intrinsic historical foundation—the lengthy dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera from 1898 until his removal in 1920—the vast majority of scholars focus critical attention solely on the literary constructs of the novel. Through a comparative reading of the novel in light of recent scholarship in the fields of history and political science, one realizes that Asturias’s work represents a revised literary “journal” of Estrada Cabrera’s reign of terror and cruelty, a historical epoch characterized principally by fear, an emotion the novelist uses to bind together his literary text. The ugly reality of dictatorship is reflected subtly in each of the characters of the novel, all of whom exist under the omnipresent threat posed by the presidente—including the dictator himself.
Jonathan Culler writes: “It is a commonplace of historiography that decisive events are difficult to perceive, except retrospectively. It is the future which will promote incidents of our own time to the status of events and which will enable those events to take their places in the casual sequences we are pleased to call ‘history’” (18). Such a comment reflects accurately the dilemma of a novelist like Asturias, especially when dealing with questions of history. Whereas the historian seeks to discover the chronological sequence of events and analyze their possible interactions with others of the same time period, the novelist creates a literary world based on a particular—albeit humanly imperfect—vision of historical events. The incorporation of historical facts into the literary text is somewhat complex. For Asturias, history is not merely a retrospective vision but a creative re-vision, a re-interpretation of the historical facts. Asturias’s novel mirrors an entire society faced with the reality of political dictatorship: the centers of commerce and trade, the university, the Church, and, as pointed out in El señor presidente, even the brothel and the poor castaways on the streets are caught up in its snares. All of the individual elements of society—no matter what sex, age, or social status—are subject to the broad power and influence of the dictator, the presidente.
The concept of power is as inherent to dictatorship as fiction is to the genre of the novel. In most cases the dictator has power because a small but influential elite has given it to him. This situation is, in truth, a double-edged sword since the dictator in “power” is subject to ouster at the discretion of the ruling elite. The dictator, just like the presidente in Asturias’s novel, constantly must be aware of his position both with the populace that he governs and with the elite that governs him. The pursuit of power remains a constant theme. The avenues to maintain political control are varied but the goal is always the same: to retain power at all costs. Almost by definition a dictatorship—especially that of Manuel Estrada Cabrera—is underscored by lies and deception. The dictator not only deceives those people under his despotic control but constantly must deceive those granting him the authority to govern. In the process the dictator may deceive himself, believing all the while that his power is absolute. Like the presidente in Asturias’s novel, the influence of the dictator, his power and control over the emotions and physical condition of the governed is juxtaposed constantly to the real fear he has for his own safety and well being. The literary world that Asturias creates—one of fixed and regulated order against a backdrop of personal and social chaos—serves as a reminder both to the reader and, metatheatrically, to the literary characters themselves of the mutual states of fear and death in which they are placed by the novelist, a sense of terror that saturates the pages of the text.
Manuel Estrada Cabrera, a man described by Anderson as a “demonic figure of legendary cruelty” (5), stands as the principal model for Miguel Angel Asturias’s presidente. Born November 21, 1857 in Quezaltenango, Estrada Cabrera received his early education from the Jesuits, studied law, and served the judiciary in Guatemala City. Later, he ran a successful campaign for a vacant congressional seat and was elected by a substantial margin. During the administration of President José María Reyna Barrios (1892-98) Estrada Cabrera served the government variously as Minister of Public Instruction, Minister of Justice, and as Minister of the Interior. On February 8, 1898, President Reyna Barrios was assassinated by a German national named Oscar Zollinger, described as “a foreigner who owed him a personal grudge” (Calvert 67). The provisional presidency was awarded to Estrada Cabrera who later was elected to office by a plebiscite in 1898. He was to remain there for more than twenty years.
Manuel Estrada Cabrera’s presidency—like that of Asturias’s El señor presidente—was one marked by vivid contrasts. For the most part he honored the Liberal Guatemalan Constitution of 1880 during his first term in office but later forced substantial changes in the text to ensure his repeated “reelection,” a fact highlighted in the novel. It is not an easy task to “categorize” the rule of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, as currently defined by political scholars. For sure, one side of him fits the label of the nineteenth-century dictator, one “who stands for the status quo and whose sole purpose is to enhance his own personal power and preserve the elite” (Callan 14). But another side of Estrada Cabrera corresponds to the stereotype of the so-called twentieth-century dictator, those men who “advocate economic development and employ social justice demagoguery through modern methods of communication” (Callan 14). The picture we have of Estrada Cabrera reflects the iron-fisted control typical of nineteenth-century dictators but tempered somewhat by the long range desires for greater economic expansion and overall national growth common to twentieth-century despots.
Throughout Asturias’s El señor presidente society is stratified among many different levels: the President, the shop owners, the rich yanquis living in luxury, the prostitutes, the members of the military, and the ever-present Indian population surviving on the streets. Ironically, this same literary world is unified in time, place, and theme. The Indians merit special attention since they are closely related to Asturias’s critique of “progress,” viewed by the novelist as the imposition of foreign influence and domination by the “yanquí” corporations like United Fruit. In the context of Asturias’s novel, the Indian is relegated to the rank of peón, a virtual slave to foreign nationals and an object of exploitation by his own dictatorial government. The Indian in El señor presidente is painted as an innocent corrupted by the society into which Fate has exiled him. This image is coupled to the idea that he was better off before the gringo invasion, “an image similar to Rousseau’s myth of the noble savage once dominant in American literature” (Callan 13). Clearly the relationship of man to land is evident throughout the descriptive passages of the text, and the idea that only those who live closest to the soil, like the Indian, are in God’s favor is implied both in the text under analysis and in other works by Asturias, especially his novel Hombres de maíz. Asturias equates the enslavement of the peon—physically, spiritually, and financially—with the growth of economic development seeded by foreign interests. In El papa verde Asturias voices his opinions on foreign economic domination this way: “Siempre el país más adelantado administra la riqueza del menos desarrollado, hasta que éste alcanza su mayoría de edad. A cambio de riqueza, progreso” (85). According to this view, it would be preferable to set back the historical clock and celebrate a revival of Indian communalism, driving out the foreigners and their corruptive sense of “progress.”
As several studies have noted, Miguel Angel Asturias never mentions Guatemala by name in the text nor does he make any specific references to Manuel Estrada Cabrera’s administration, preferring instead to distance himself from the immediate historical reality and focus critical light on the internal problems that he sees there. There are numerous indirect references to the novelist’s homeland: the unity of the Spanish language; the unanimous “reelection” of the President; the forced adulation and imposed celebration of the dictator’s birthday; the national celebration of his mother’s birthday; the secret police; and, perhaps of greatest validity, his lay army of informers. In a chapter entitled “The President’s Mail-Bag,” the diversity of Asturias’s literary world comes together in a single, unified goal: to curry favor with the presidente at others’ expense and thus unite with him—at least in their own imaginations—and be counted among his faithful members. The President’s spies infiltrate the local hospital listening to other patients speak in the delirium of anesthesia. The reader is uncertain if the President ever acts on this information. Nevertheless, Asturias has succeeded in underscoring the importance of the written word as it appears throughout the text.
The letters received by the President form yet another subtext of the novel and highlight the importance of what is “heard” and later “related” versus what is “known.” Throughout the novel information—be it true or false—is passed between the major and minor characters. In the case of the letters the writers at once become translators of the spoken word, transcribers of an oral tradition to a written medium, and traitors to the spoken word by defiling its liberty. This play between the dynamics of the spoken word and its anchoring into the written medium was treated in comments made by Asturias on the genesis of El señor presidente:
El libro no fue escrito, al principio, sino hablado. Y esto es importante subrayarlo. Fue deletreado. Era la época del renacer de la palabra, como medio de expresión y de acción mágica. . . . Del dicho al hecho, dice el proverbio, hay gran trecho. Pues es mayor la distancia que separa el dicho de lo escrito. Hablado, contado el material de la novela, que sufría constantes cambios, había que estabilizarlo. . . . Eso pasa con las obras que llevan mucho tiempo en la imaginación y la lengua. Termina por no poderse escribir, pues siempre, al escribirlas, sentiremos que las traicionamos. (Bellini 57)
Ironically, the numerous examples of written texts in El señor presidente—the warrants, memos, posters, and especially the cartas—do not necessarily solidify or stabilize their interpretation with the particular reader of that text. Instead, each is read and re-read—and sometimes misread—by the various characters that populate Asturias’s literary world. Of course, the President’s reading and interpretation of a written text is considered the final, and therefore acceptable, version. Significantly, the variation witnessed in the interpretation of prepared texts is carried over to the definition of the President’s character as well.
The image of Asturias’s presidente is notable for its fragmentation and obscurity. Ricardo Gutiérrez Mouat correctly observes that the reader of the literary text never develops a clear picture of the President, and, as revealed by the minor figures of the novel, they either have never seen him or only have observed him from a considerable distance. Gutiérrez Mouat suggests that this technique of fragmentation and distortion in fact helps to elevate the character of the President beyond the merely human to the level of myth. The appearance of the presidente is continually re-evaluated, re-defined, and, ultimately, re-constructed according to his perception by others, similar to Asturias’s own novelistic (re)vision of Estrada Cabrera’s regime. These variables combine to modify or “deconstruct” any established opinion of the President and prohibit any one “reading” of him. Because he is being defined and re-defined constantly in the text, the myth or spirit of the dictator saturates and interweaves itself throughout the fabric of the novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, the historical record of the presidential model, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, similarly is fragmented and does not lend itself to any one definitive vision.
Even though he held power longer than any other political leader in Guatemalan history relatively little is known or written about Manuel Estrada Cabrera. The very fragmented vision of Asturias’s dictator mirrors the piece-meal presentation of Estrada Cabrera in history. Virtually all historically oriented texts refer to him in connection with the establishment of the United Fruit Company and his close interactions with the United States government. Except for Asturias’s shadowy depiction in El señor presidente, little is revealed about the man behind the mask of the dictator. Bienvenido Jiménez offers the most comprehensive image yet of Estrada Cabrera:
Fue un hombre trabajador. Sencillo en el modo de vivir. Era huraño y melancólico. Fue un hombre recoroso. Tenía un carácter altivo y variable. Le gustaba intervenir en todo. Era adicto a la improvisación de discursos. Era autócrata y tirano. Era absoluto y desconfiado. Fue un férreo dictador. (186)
For his generation Estrada Cabrera was a well educated man and manifested a certain flair and sophistication. He undoubtedly would have been considered culto by his contemporaries. A man of learning, Estrada Cabrera became noted in the late nineteenth century for the institution of the “Fiestas de Minerva,” public celebrations of the Roman deity Minerva, goddess of wisdom, and dedicated to “la juventud estudiosa” (1022). The Fiestas de Minerva lasted until Estrada Cabrera’s fall from power in 1920. Ironically, the extravagance and joviality of the Minerva celebrations contrast sharply with the image of Estrada Cabrera that has survived the eroding affects of time and memory: el férreo dictador.
Any historical account of Manuel Estrada Cabrera’s term in office tends to highlight two basic qualities of his regime: the first, the overall sense of cruelty and fear that became his trademarks; and second, the considerable length of time—over twenty years—that he maintained presidential control. Both of these themes are captured and explored in Asturias’s novel. Like the actual regime that served as an inspiration and model for Asturias’s creative imagination, El señor presidente has been called a study of fear. Callan points out that fear is a real, almost tangible force that lingers throughout the literary text, a “weapon that the President wields with skill but against which he himself is defenseless; fear strikes high and low; it grips the cruel and the brave and reduces each to the standing of a rag doll” (21). Such fear is manifested in both the governed as well as in the one exercising control. The letters are a good example of the overall fear sensed by the general population of Asturias’s fictional world. They are afraid of their own personal enemies whom they attempt to ruin by fabricating stories about them, they fear the President that is “known” but still unfamiliar, and, most of all, they dread falling out of favor with the dictator, since so much depends on staying in his good graces.
Ironically, the President is subject to the same fear that he imparts and, indeed, personifies. We never see the President in daylight because he must hide from the very people who profess admiration for him. The fear felt by the people is generated by one principal source, the presidente. For the dictator, however, the same fear is magnified greatly, for it is the fear of the unknown that plagues him. This same fear was known to the novel’s precursor dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera. It is documented that in his final years in office the Guatemalan leader became a morbid recluse, sleeping in different houses each night—just like Asturias’s President—and refused to eat food that had not been prepared for him by his own mother (Calvert 69). Fear debilitated both strong leaders, the historical and the fictional, forcing them to flee the challenges and realities of a daylight world and, instead, caused them to retreat to the solitude of darkness, symbolic, perhaps, of their very soul.
Fear is only one of two important themes of the novel. The second is the interpretation and portrayal of time. The text of El señor presidente is separated into three large divisions with these broken down into numerous short chapters, a literary technique used to underscore the fragmented vision of the dictator. The first division is entitled simply “The 21st, 22nd, and 23rd of April.” The second acts as a continuation of sorts, appropriately titled “The 24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th of April.” Whereas the first two divisions draw attention to specific days the final section ballons to include infinity and carries the ambiguous title “Weeks, Months, Years.” These divisions underscore an ongoing time frame that has a definite beginning but no specific ending; he points to the lingering nature of the political dictatorship. He does this to emphasize the cyclical, non-changing, repetitious aspect of life suffered under a dictatorial regime. By not revealing a specific year the novelist succeeds in creating a literary world that has existed—and continues to exist—outside the limits imposed by the patriarchal time frame. For those bearing up under the yoke of dictatorship each day resembles the last. Lives are touched by fear, repression, and distrust, all emotions that transcend the stabilizing forces of time.
Manuel Estrada Cabrera’s regime was overcome with the effects of fear and time. The crafty lawyer who took control of Guatemala in 1898 had declined to a fearful, weak, and deranged despot that was declared mentally unfit to rule on April 8, 1920. Not only was he attacked by his hand-picked legislative assembly but was abandoned as well by his long-time political supporters in the United States. While taking refuge in the La Palma section of Guatemala City Estrada Cabrera was issued an ultimatum by Benton McMillin, the U.S. representative in Guatemala. McMillin demanded that the dictator resign immediately. Undercut by the very system he had created, Estrada Cabrera renounced all presidential power finally on April 14, 1920. He stood trial and was convicted for crimes committed against the Guatemalan people; he was imprisoned and there died in disgrace on September 24, 1924. After his death his remains were transported to Quezaltenango, where he was buried in the city’s cemetery.
Guatemala’s most notorious dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, may have died in 1924 but his dictatorial legacy survived his death and, indeed, flourished during the ensuing decades. That infamous spirit is captured in Miguel Angel Asturias’s novelistic (re)vision of Estrada Cabrera’s Guatemala. While never in the spotlight, the influence of Asturias’s presidente infiltrates every corner of society and adversely affects both the psychological and physical actions of those who populate that literary world. To be sure there are substantial contextual differences between the novelistic text and the historical vision that, in and of itself, forms a type of living text, both proving to be equally valid yet diverse. The subtle nuances of Manuel Estrada Cabrera surface in the background and the foreground of Asturias’s novel. The fear, the rage, the silence, and the hope expressed verbally and physically by his literary characters continue to co-exist within the reality of the dictatorship. The spirit to survive and to persevere is as strong in the reality of the novel as it is in the reality of history.
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Asturias, Miguel Angel. El señor presidente. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1982.
___. Hombres de maiz. Madrid: Alianza Ediotiral, 1982.
___. El papa verde. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1982.
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Calvert, Peter. Latin America in the Twentieth Century. New York: St. Martins P, 1990.
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Gutiérrez Mouat, Ricardo. El espacio de la crítica. Madrid: Orígenes, 1989.