Julian, the aviator from Harlem that challenged the CIA and sold weapons to the president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz
During the 1940s the government of the United States imposed a weapons embargo in Guatemala and asked allied nations to refrain from selling any type of military equipment to the government of Juan José Arévalo and, later, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. This left the country short of weaponry during the 1954 US invasion. The only person that defied Washington and sold guns to the Guatemalan government was Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, a mercenary aviator who was better known as the “Black Eagle of Harlem”.
tanding 5’9’’, Julian, with his elegant demeanor and extroverted attitude, was a potent man. He always wore a suit and tie, often donned a top hat, always had thoroughly polished shoes, and he talked with the rhythmic cadence of a British person. He was a refined man who used to tip US$1 for a 75-cent haircut. He passed away in 1983.
orge Mario García Laguardia, a veteran lawyer, born in 1931, remembers that during that week, although there weren’t any shootings on the streets, as Nugent’s book claims, there was a confrontation between Arévalo’s followers and the opposition that demanded his resignation. “Those who supported the government were out on the streets, but it was a mere protest,” Garcia Laguardia, who at the time was a high school student, says. “The country was divided. The two groups, mostly formed by students, collided in the streets. But we were unarmed. It was a civil collision, a collision of protesters,” he adds.
ccording to Billy’s documentary, Julian, inspired by Garvey’s courage, proclaimed himself a pilot and began introducing himself as lieutenant Hubert Julian, from the Canadian Royal Air Force. To support his new identity, he hired a tailor and paid him to make a fake military suit for him.“And it worked?” I ask. “Of course it worked,” Billy says, bringing a greasy and unexpectedly hot chicken wing to his mouth. “This was way before Google. No one could’ve checked if it was authentic.” The restaurant was starting to fill up with people. I pushed my recorder to the middle of the table.
owever, despite being politically agnostic, Mark and Billy agree that Julian would have sympathized with Árbenz’s policies. “Remember, he grew up in a British colony,” Billy points out. “I guess he would support the people’s rights to govern themselves like Marcus Garvey said.”
arlier this year I was reading Bitter Fruit by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer. The book recounts part of the Guatemalan Revolution, the so-called “Ten Years of Spring”, and the 1954 US-backed coup d’état against the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán.
Halfway through the book, on page 148, I stopped in my tracks. “In 1952, the famed ‘Black Eagle of Harlem,’ aviator Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, slipped twelve 20-mm. antiaircraft weapons of Swiss manufacture into Guatemala,” the book read.
That same year, the president of Guatemala had pushed Decreto 900—an agrarian reform that sought to redistribute idle land, 553 acres or more, to landless and poor peasants. This law, which was considered by Washington as a move against US interests and especially against the United Fruit Company (UFCO), was the beginning of the end of Árbenz’s democratic government and the ten years of spring that started in 1944 with the Guatemalan Revolution. It was in June of 1954 when the UFCO, hand to hand with the Dulles brothers, a handful of mercenaries working for Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under direct orders from the president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, launched Operation PBSUCCESS, an American invasion that aimed to remove president Árbenz and eradicate the “communist insurgency in Guatemala.”
In 1952, when President Eisenhower’s government had already been persecuting subversives across the US for years, the fact that Julian sold weapons to Árbenz—who was accused of being a communist—could have been considered an act of high treason.
I put the book down and googled Julian. I found a few articles that mentioned part of his extraordinary life. There were stories about him published in Air & Space Magazine, Medium, The New Yorker, and, of course, his Wikipedia page. In it, his relationship with Guatemala was shortened to a single line.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Hubert Fauntleroy Julian was an aviator, paratrooper, businessman, World War II veteran, and licensed arms dealer. He lived in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance and coincided with renowned artists, athletes, and social activists like Duke Ellington, Jack Johnson, and Marcus Garvey.
n September 3rd, 1922, Julian made his first parachute jump during a parade in Long Island headlined by Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman pilot. During the following months, Julian performed many jumps all over Harlem, stunts that made him earn his moniker: The Black Eagle of Harlem.
Later, and under the guardianship of Clarence Chamberlain, Julian finally fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot. In the 1930’s he frequently flew to Ethiopia to help the locals during the second Italo-Ethiopian war, then he joined an all African-American flying troupe called The Blackbirds, and later became a commercial pilot, selling his services to the highest bidder.
“Papa was a rolling stone,” Mark smiles.
In the 1940’s, after hearing how Hermann Görring—the Third Reich’s minister of aviation—talked about people of color, calling them apes, Julian publicly challenged the Nazi leader to an aerial duel. “It would be a pleasure to die amidst bomb and shell, just to show what dirty rats the Nazis are,” he wrote. On July 3rd, 1942, 44-year-old Hubert Julian enlisted in the US Military. In September of that same year, he was discharged because of his age. The duel never took place. However, because of his months of service, he got the American citizenship.
After the war, in 1945, Julian, using his savings and money he got from his parents’ state—who had recently passed away—funded his own airline with the intention of taking medicine and electronic equipment to South America. During one of his first flights, he met general Henry H. Vaughan. After a trip to Indonesia to talk with Surkano, the rebel leader, Julian realized that selling weapons and military equipment to developing nations was a great business opportunity. “The Black Eagle” funded Black Eagle Associates and went straight to Washington DC to talk to Vaughan and ask for references. In March 1949 he registered with the Department of State as a seller of arms and ammunition.
“He did things no black man should’ve done, and very few white men could have done,” Mark says.
Months later Julian met with Árbenz.
y then, after Decreto 900 was approved and set in motion, the US government resented Árbenz and his policies. In September 1952 an agent from the US Department of State paid a visit to Julian’s office in Harlem. The agent let him know that selling “sophisticated” weapons—such as anti-aircraft arms—to a dubious government, went against US interests. Julian kept quiet and didn’t mention that he had just reached an agreement with REMIX, a Swiss arms company, for twelve Oerlikon cannons for the Guatemalan army. The cannons had already left a port in Antwerp, Belgium, and were on their way to Puerto Barrios, via New York.
“Well, I was there (in Guatemala) and if that was Communism, then I’m a Communist —and I’m not!” Julian wrote in his autobiography.
Julian wasn’t willing to let go of what had been his most lucrative business. Since he had begun selling to Guatemala, the aviator had made over US$200 thousand. The Oerlikons, for example, had cost Julian US$1,500 each and he had sold them for US$4 thousand. In his autobiography, he describes with colorful arrogance how he, in that time, used to carry in his wallet more money than what the average American citizen made in a year. “I was looking to keep that business flowing for many years,” he wrote.
However, it was that same opulence that fractured Árbenz’s and Julian’s relationship.
“He was very good at making money,” Billy says, showing me a picture of Julian standing by a classic car. “But terrible at managing it.”
At the end of September, days after the agent from the Department of State talked to him, Julian got a cable saying that the cannons had reached Guatemala in mint condition. With the money he earned from that deal—US$48 thousand—he bought a custom-made Rolls Royce, which, according to Nugent’s book, cost him a little over US$28 thousand. Julian paid in cash. And, as one might expect, local reporters wanted to ask him about it.
The Rolls had foam-rubber cushions, pull-up steps, a mini bar, and a microphone, which allowed Julian to give instructions to the driver from the backseat. “It will be arriving shortly,” he said, “after they finish plating the doorknobs with gold.” The reporters pushed Julian for more details. The pilot gave in and told them about the contracts with the Guatemalan government that, although were completely legal, should remain a secret due to US sentiments toward the Árbenz’s regime.
“Why do you think he told the reporters about his relationship with Árbenz?” I asked Billy.
“That was his first big contract; he was bragging,” Billy answers, coldly.
“He was his own PR agent,” Mark adds, smiling.
After the interviews, Julian took a plane to Guatemala. Swollen with pride, “The Black Eagle” walked the hallways of the National Palace waiting to be hugged and congratulated. But his joy didn’t last long since he found out he had just been fired. Árbenz, who had just learned that a counterrevolution was heating up in Honduras, had wanted to keep his businesses with the aviator a secret. When the president found out about the Rolls, and how his weapons supplier had been talking openly and with great detail to reporters about the boots, the jeeps, the rifles, the armored cars, and the Oerlikons, he decided to let go of Julian and dispense of his services.
It didn’t take long for the government of the United States to find out about the Alfhem. Days later, on May 18th, The New Yorker published a statement written by the Department of State in which they declared that the weapons, “given its quantity, origin, boarding point, and final destination, represented a serious development” for the relationship between the US and Guatemala. And, naturally, they looked for Julian, who was out of the country trying to secure other deals.
“I had nothing to do with it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But I knew all about it.”
Nugent’s book claims that there was an American citizen working at the Swiss company where Martínez got the shells. It was this American citizen who alerted the US government. Julian had also done business with this company, so he knew about the cargo on board the Alfhem.
García Laguardia remembers the story of the Alfhem and how the propaganda shared in the following weeks claimed that the weapons came from the Soviet Union. “This was a serious allegation against Árbenz’s government. And the opposition used this information to make claims that the government was communist,” he says.
On June 17th, 1954, when Julian came back to New York, customs authorities took his passport as part of the ongoing investigation about his links with the Guatemalan government. Julian, suddenly, became a stateless man.
At the same time, three thousand miles south, in Guatemala, Castillo Armas’ counterrevolution gained ground.
Schlesinger and Kinzer’s book says that, on the morning of June 18th, a pilot aboard a Douglas C-47 airplane flew over the capital and dropped thousands of pamphlets asking for the resignation of president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. The leaflets announced that, if Árbenz were still in office by dawn, the C-47 would return to destroy the country’s arsenal and bomb the National Palace. The messages were signed by the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (MLN), Armas’ political party. Additionally, Árbenz got news that Escuintla and Retalhuleu had been heavily attacked.
Well into the afternoon, two P-47 Thunderbolt planes descended over the city. They shot and dropped fragmentation bombs around the Guardia de Honor—one of Guatemala’s most important military bases.
“We spent those days full of anguish,” García Laguardia, who at the time was 22 years old and lived in Downtown Guatemala City, says. “We saw the planes flying dangerously low and dropping bombs all over the city.”
The CIA’s strategy, however, was not to destroy any buildings or harm civilians. They aimed to bomb empty lots and scare people, and to use that fear to force the president to resign.
“Of course, we didn’t know that at the time,” García Laguardia argues. “As we watched the planes we thought that the next bomb was coming for us. It was an awful fear.” After a few days of watching the airplanes grazing the city, he and his family moved fifteen miles west, to Antigua, Guatemala.
After nine days of attacks, on June 27th, 1954, president Árbenz resigned and handed over the power to Colonel Carlos Enrique Díaz, chief of the Republic’s Armed Forces. “We have been outraged by the cowardly attacks of the American mercenary pilots who, knowing that Guatemala doesn’t have an air force strong enough to fight back, have tried to scare people all over the country,” Árbenz said during his resignation.
On July 7th, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas assumed the presidency.
In early August, the Department of State talked to Julian. After a long conversation, “The Black Eagle of Harlem” promised not to do business with other “Communist” regimes. In return he got his passport back. Days later, Julian sent a cable to the new president of Guatemala, congratulating him on his victory and offering his services.
“No, thanks,” Castillo Armas replied.
“In any case, I have never been absolutely sure that the degree of Communist infiltration was as great as Washington made out,” Julian wrote in his autobiography. “It seemed to me then, and still does, that the influence of that giant American concern, the United Fruit Company, played as great a part in the crisis as the international considerations.”
“Did he ever tell you about his time in Guatemala?” I ask Mark.
Mark shakes his head no. After 45 minutes of conversation, there was still one barbeque chicken wing left on the table.
“He was 73 years old when I was born. He didn’t talk about his past life. He was a dad. He was no longer The Black Eagle.”
“What about his friends? Did you ever hear him talking about that—?”
“No.” Mark’s voice was firm and severe. “I remember he used to have a lot of people over for dinner. But I can’t remember anything in specific.”
“If there are any pictures of him in Guatemala,” Billy adds, “they’re probably in Guatemala.”
Billy says that after his documentary was released, in May of last year, he got a never-before-seen photo of Julian wearing shorts in Indonesia, and he hopes that more people watch the video to see if any other pictures come to light.
“Alejandro, eat that so I don’t,” Billy says, pointing at the last chicken wing. It was still warm.
“Do you think that for Julian this was strictly business?” I ask.
“My father didn’t care about no politics,” Mark says. “He just wanted to make money.”
In his autobiography, Julian closes the chapter about Guatemala saying that as far as he was concerned, he always worked legally, and that’s all that mattered to him. “Árbenz’s regime was the duly elected and properly constituted government of the country, which was perfectly entitled to retain me to buy arms or any other goods. The internal politics of the country were no affair of mine,“ he wrote.
fter his time in Guatemala, Julian sold weapons to the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was also the democratically elected president of his country and who could be described as many things, except being a communist. His last weapons contract was with Moise Tshombe, Katanga’s leader, during the Congo crisis. Mark repeats, “He did things no black man should’ve done, and very few white men could have done.” During his time in the Congo, Julian became sick and retired. Otherwise, according to Billy, he would have played his part in the Vietnam War as well.
“And I’m sure he would’ve done it from Cambodia’s side,” he adds. “His father was not a stupid man,” he says, pointing at Mark, “and he learned from his mistakes. He was a fan of JFK, LB Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Roosevelt—”
Billy pauses as if dazzled by the question. “Probably not.”
Julian lived the rest of his life in Harlem where he continued to be a beloved figure. He made appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show. Billy said that, before the interview, he discovered an amazing photograph of Julian at the New York State Public Library. The Black Eagle was approximately 65 years of age and shaking hands with a young Cassius Clay—before he legally changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
“When this photo was taken,” Billy says, holding his phone, “Julian was the more famous of the two.”
However, despite his grandiose life, few people have heard of The Black Eagle of Harlem, and even less of the part he played in the history of Guatemala, and how, if his last deal with Árbenz had gotten through, the country’s history could have been different.
His autobiography, for example, was self-published, and Nugent’s book, though it was published in hardcover and paper, has been out of print since the 1970s. Even in Harlem, where there are streets, parks, and monuments erected to its most famous residents, there is not a single mention of Julian. Mark says that at some point in the 1980s there was interest in making a film about his father’s life and that there was even a preliminary script.
“Did they have a lead actor?” I say.
Mark says no. “But I imagine Denzel. This was before the Malcolm X or the Hurricane movie.”
“Maybe we could get Chadwick now,” Billy says, and asks for the check.
“No spoilers,” Billy says to Mark who, after the interview, was going to see Avengers: Infinity War. “When we met, Mark said that he thought nobody remembered his father anymore. However, Julian’s influence and stardom are undeniable.” There was a pause. “Do you know Sam Wilson?”
I told Billy that the name sounded familiar.
“Falcon. Marvel Comics,” he adds. “Sam Wilson was born in Harlem. His first appearance was in 1969. Black Eagle. Falcon. Black man. Aviator. I’d love to ask Stan Lee if he based Falcon on Julian. No spoilers,” he says again. “But, not even the schools in Harlem mention him.”
“Much like Árbenz,” I say. Mark and Billy seem confused. “I didn’t learn about Árbenz or the invasion in school.”
“But they do talk about him?” Mark says.
“Let me put it this way. We have a bridge named after Castillo Armas. There’s also an overpass named after Ubico—the dictator that was ousted in 1944 by the Revolution. There is an overpass named after a dictator,” I repeat.
Another pause. The waiter comes back with our check. Billy offers his credit card. “The good thing about getting tenure is that I can invite you, gentlemen,” he says.
“Did you bring the book?” Mark asks me. “Where they mention my father?” I told him no. I said to Mark that I was in New York only for a few days and that I wanted to travel light. I should have brought the book.