The Velasco family had ruled the island of San Cristóbal since the 1920s; Ramon Velasco had made his bones as a fiery opposition spokesman in street protests against the previous regime. The first free and fair elections since independence from Spain had catapulted him to the presidency, and once ensconced he found it suited him. Through a combination of electoral fraud and intimidation, he remained president until his death in 1952, favoring a crash program of industrialization and expansion of the lumber industry and tax base at the expense of the island’s environment and poorest citizens.

Marco Velasco, his son, had followed in his footsteps. But his “presidency” was cut short by cancer, and he died in an American hospital in 1960. His 19-year-old son, Alberto Velasco, was duly installed as president but had not been groomed for the role as his father had. The influential San Cristóbal Army refused to rally behind him, and he was ousted in a coup by General Jorge Garitano. Garitano had been a long-time supporter of the Velasco regime, but once rid of the family he enacted an entirely different type of rule.

A mestizo rather than of pure Spanish ancestry like the Velascos, Garitano had grown up in poverty on the outskirts of Bilbao de San Cristóbal. e was a firm believer in developing the island for tourism, reducing urban sprawl, and preserving what remained of the verdant foliage that had once covered the land. His time in power, 1961-1983, was marked by massive slum clearing, public housing initiatives, and explosive growth of the national parks. Lest anyone accuse him of being a benevolent dictator, Garitano enacted his measures harshly, imprisoning and executing dissidents and often deploying the army to rout slum dwellers before their homes were razed.