Fifty Years Later: Between Resistance and Servility
From those pages your laughter and songs fly
amid the banana workers, in the somber mud, rain and sweat...
But we’ll change the earth... We’ll change, joining your hand with mine...
We’ll change life that your kin may survive and build their organized light.
(“Calero, Banana Worker,” from Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, translation by Jack Schmitt)
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Glorious May. This May, Honduran society, especially the poor and working class, commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the strike waged in 1954 by the “campeños,” the banana workers on the country’s northern coast. That strike lasted 69 long days and was based in the city of El Progreso to the east of the Sula valley, less than 20 miles from San Pedro Sula. In discussing this major event, historians often talk about how the strike’s Central Committee, representing over 30,000 striking workers, acted as a people’s government parallel to the official government. During those two months, even the dreaded “Comandantes de Armas,” the armed representatives of the central government, sent to protect the banana companies, had to ask the committee’s permission to leave the city and inform the committee when they left and returned.
Strands of change in Central AmericaThe 1954 banana workers’ strike was Honduras’ expression of the resistance and revolutionary effervescence that swept through Central America during those years, in which several strands came together. In Nicaragua the Heroes of April 1954 led an anti-Somoza conspiracy, two years before the young poet Rigoberto López Pérez executed Anastasio Somoza García, founder of the Somoza dynasty. But the strand involving Jacobo Arbenz’s reformist government in Guatemala had the greatest influence on the events that led the Honduran banana workers to rise up in a general strike.
The central antagonist in both the overthrow of Arbenz that year and the Honduran banana strike was the United Fruit Company. The strike would end in June after the company tried to undermine it by dragging out negotiations and dividing the workers, and after the Honduran army turned out to lend its support to the company through a wave of repression. It was the same month that Arbenz’s government was brought down by the United Fruit Company and the United States, with support from some sectors of the Guatemalan army.
Honduras’ main civic event Now, fifty years later, it is clear that the 1954 banana strike was the most important and decisive event in Honduras’ 20th-century history. It explains not only the energy and dedication of those involved in the struggle but also the power the fruit companies exerted on the life of the country over the century and the banana’s value in the national economy. The strike was powerful both because of the workers’ strength and conviction and because their struggle directly affected the interests of the US companies that defined the country’s economic and political course.
of the 20th century
Honduran historian Marvin Barahona argues that this strike against the transnational companies did more to build a citizenry than any other event in a country that kept wavering back and forth between two paths throughout the century. Sometimes it followed those who sought to make Honduras subservient to US economic and cultural interests, while at others it was inspired by those who fought from below to build a nation of citizens and an independent state.
“The awakening of the Americas”It is worth recalling some of the front-page headlines from the local and international press coverage of the daily developments in that historic strike. One headline in an international paper described the strike as “The Awakening of the Americas.” The article discussed the working class’s struggle to win the most elemental democratic freedoms, including the right to form a union. Under the yoke of the Nationalist Party dictatorship and obliged to produce for US monopolies and local oligarchs, the workers did not then enjoy any rights. They lived in misery and hunger, under the thumb of the overseers.
Unprecedented achievementsTo speak of the history of the 69-day strike—led by the Democratic Revolutionary Party of Honduras with total support from the country’s workers—is to speak of the very history of El Progreso, department of Yoro, since this strike established the basis for social tranquility in Honduras. It began on April 30 in the Tela Railroad Company offices in El Progreso, as workers set out to win the right to form unions, a wage hike, improved working conditions, an eight-hour day and six-hour night shift, double pay for overtime, equal pay for equal work, an end to arbitrary firings and racial discrimination, free medical care in the company hospitals, free primary education and retirement benefits for dock workers. The strike did not achieve all these goals, but it did achieve a great deal, including recognition of the right to form unions, future approval of the labor code, the establishment of the Honduran Social Security Institute, a reduction in work hours and wage increases for some workers.
Fifty years later a civic celebrationThat struggle was commemorated on April 30 and May 1 of this year as thousands of people from all over the country came together for a series of political and cultural events in El Progreso. It was nothing short of a celebration, a people’s jubilee.
The city was “taken” for several hours. A march wound its way through the streets, culminating in a gathering of organizations from the northern, central, eastern, southern and western parts of the country belonging to the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance. The march and demonstration were preceded by a cultural event, the “Resistance Festival 2004,” with musical and other cultural groups from around the country alternating with Latin American groups, including “Exceso de Equipaje” from El Salvador and the legendary “Guaraguao” from Venezuela.
All kinds of grassroots organizations participated in the events, from the most traditional unions to environmental and community organizations that are waging specific local struggles. The air was filled with a spirit of resistance coupled with firm social and political demands.
A bridge in memory of the survivorsAmong the most emotional moments in the festival were the testimonies of six surviving members of the strike’s central committee. With gray hair, shaky steps and quavering voices, they formed a living bridge that links the memory and struggle of the 20th century with the resistance of grassroots organizations that now, at the beginning of this century, are still fighting for a more dignified, shared country. They are working to create a country completely distinct from the one built by the politicians and other powerful groups in the last century to serve the interests of the empire to the North, and from the one in the minds of the group now led by President Ricardo Maduro .
“We’ve come to this celebration,” said Juan Blas, one of the surviving members, “because we have an obligation to tell younger generations about the ideals that motivated us in those years that were difficult but full of hope. And we’re here to rejoice because our struggle was not in vain, it remains alive in this new century.” Blas’ words came alive when he climbed on to the stage to dance one of Guaraguao’s lively Caribbean rhythms with a journalist.
“We’re here today thanks to them”While the survivors were on stage, one of the presenters roused the crowd overflowing the festival field by pointing to them and exclaiming, “It’s thanks to them that we now have the right to fight and to organize. Thanks to them, we now have the right to an eight-hour day. Thanks to them, we have the right to paid vacations. Thanks to them, we have the right to keep fighting for equal rights and opportunities in society. Thanks to them, we have a country that gives us the right to fight for ourselves, for the poor and exploited. Thanks to them, we can continue to sow hope.”
The May 1 event, which coincided with International Workers’ Day, culminated a series of cultural, social and political activities carried out over the previous two months. It also inaugurated the next stage in the struggle of the grassroots groups, which presented their set of demands at the events in El Progreso and others held in Tegucigalpa. The demands took the form of a public summons to the government, as the document issued by the National Coalition of Grassroots Resistance states in its conclusion: “The government must respond to us within 60 days or we will carry out acts of resistance.”
“We summon the government...”These are the demands contained in the public summons to Ricardo Maduro’s government:
1. An immediate decree to reduce fuel taxes and guarantee that the energy market will not be deregulated, with the state assuming control of the purchase and sale of petroleum derivatives in application of legislative decree 94-83, designed to regulate the price to the consumer. The implementation of measures to stabilize the value of the lempira, protect international reserves and national production, and stabilize the price of basic goods.
2. The repeal of legislative decrees 219 and 220 of December 19, 2003, which froze salaries, and of the law regulating the government’s compensation system, since they violate the statutes currently in effect and collective bargaining. An immediate agreement for a general wage increase and the implementation of effective measures to apply the Labor Code and International Labor Organization (ILO)conventions 87 and 98.
3. The definition of a fiscal policy based on national interests, which eliminates privileges and inequity, does not unduly burden low-income people with direct taxes, and guarantees a fairer distribution in which citizens pay in accord with their income and resources.
4. The repeal of the Water and Sanitation Law and the immediate initiation of discussions regarding a new law based on the proposal presented to Congress on July 1, 2003. The initiation of a process to recover the public services that have already been privatized, including health and education, and other services in the process of privatization.
5. Unequivocal responses to each of the points proposed by the environmentalists from Olancho in the March for Life held in June 2003 in defense of Honduran forests, and to the demands for protecting the forests made by indigenous and peasant organizations and communities from western Honduras. A new forestry law that guarantees forest sustainability and benefits for the rural communities. Fulfillment of the agreements signed with the inhabitants of La Labor, Ocotepeque, on suspending the concession granted to the transnational mining company Maverick. Repeal of the current mining law and the initiation of consultations to draft a new law that serves national interests and guarantees the conservation and protection of the environment and the communities.
6. The investigation and sanctioning of current and former public officials and private executives responsible for the misuse of public funds and the collapse of banks. Proposals for alternative prevention and rehabilitation programs for at-risk young people. Repeal of the reform to article 332 of the Penal Code, known as the anti-gang law, and transparent processes to judge those responsible for providing weapons to gang leaders, for the April 2003 massacre in the El Porvenir penitentiary in La Ceiba, and for the series of killings denounced and documented by human rights organizations.
7. A commitment to support a project for migrants that eliminates intermediaries in the current system for sending family remittances and guarantees that the people who benefit from migrants’ work abroad are their own families rather than private or state systems that unjustly appropriate a high percentage of the transfers.
8. Approval of labor legislation to protect maquila workers from arbitrary firings, and a commitment by the Ministry of Labor to improve working conditions and respect the right to form unions established in the Labor Code.
9. An immediate, satisfactory response to the demands laid out by the peasant organizations in February and March 2003 related to approval of a new agrarian reform. The trial of those who ordered and carried out the murders of peasant farmers who were defending their right to land, particularly those killed during this administration. A just, impartial trial leading to the freeing of peasant farmers and indigenous people who have been imprisoned or detained in relation to the March for Dignity on August 26, 2003.
10. Full compliance with ILO Convention 169, with respect to defending and protecting the rights of the country’s indigenous and Afro-Caribbean peoples.
11. Non-ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which among other serious consequences would undermine the country’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and national independence.
12. The immediate return of Honduran troops from Iraq and the withdrawal of US troops being trained in Honduran territory. A permanent commitment to keep Honduras out of conflicts that respond only to US government interests.
President Maduro’s responsibilityThe commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the banana strike coincided with a particularly important moment in an administration guilty of carrying to an extreme the servility that has too often characterized Honduran governments. Ricardo Maduro is largely responsible for reviving practices from the first half of the 20th century, when governments were literally put in place by the transnational banana companies. In today’s world, however, nations that fail to resist tend to dissolve in a sea of globalization where the only existing laws and frontiers are the ones set by large corporations and the international financial organizations that worship capital and the market.
One sign of servility after another When US Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Honduras on November 4, 2003, to thank Maduro for his government’s support for the war in Iraq, the President did not hesitate to apologize to Powell when they heard shouts from grassroots organizations protesting his government’s militaristic policies.
Nor did Maduro hesitate eight months earlier, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, when the US government “suggested” that friendly governments support its effort by sending troops for the “reconstruction” of Iraq. He immediately submitted a decree to that effect to Congress, which a majority of representatives hastened to convert into law. The military adventure would cost the country more than US$700,000 over the course of the year, and would come out of the national budget line earmarked for contingencies, disasters and national emergencies.
When the International Monetary Fund mission visited Honduras to “recommend” fiscal and tax measures designed to reduce the imbalance between public income and spending as a condition for signing a Letter of Intent, Maduro promptly launched a publicity campaign to convince people that the country’s present and future depend on the IMF’s financial support. In the ads, a shadowy path leads to the future that awaits the country if the government does not sign the Letter of Intent, while a straight, shining path leads to the glowing horizon Hondurans will purportedly enjoy if it does. When the letter was finally signed in February, the government was already fulfilling one of its commitments to the IMF by making the first of a series of fuel taxes hikes.
While the negotiations for the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States were going on, Maduro did not waver in his determination to convince people that signing the agreement represented the country’s first step on the path to development, while refusing to give them any information about its contents and terms.
In April, Maduro immediately supported the proposed resolution before the UN Human Rights Commission urging the Cuban government to accept the presence of a UN representative to supervise the human rights situation in its country, which was subsequently adopted. It was yet another example of the Honduran government mortgaging its sovereignty in favor of blind obedience to US government interests.
Hondurans in Iraq: A step back?Maduro’s decision in April to withdraw the 370 Honduran soldiers in Iraq can only be explained by the Spanish government’s decision to pull out of this illegal war, along with the imminent risk of remaining in a military and political situation that worsens by the day. The government was very much afraid of the death of any Honduran soldiers, because of the ensuing political costs. Maduro recognized that as the situation grew increasingly tense in Iraq, tension would increase in his own house as well. “I was worried,” he said, “since the problem was getting worse and we saw that our role in Iraq was not congruent. The day Hondurans were killed in Iraq would have been politically very damaging for the government.”
Maduro did not want it to appear that he was withdrawing the troops because Spain was, so he decided to try to beat Spain’s official announcement. But since he also wanted Bush’s approval, he first sent his presidential minister to “notify” the US government of his concerns and decision. That new sign of subservience cost him the edge. By the time the minister returned with US consent, Rodríguez Zapatero had already announced Spain’s troop pullout.
Public opinion in Honduras is now very strongly decided on two issues related to Iraq. The troops must leave immediately, without waiting for the June 30 “handover” of authority in Iraq. And the government, whose decision to go to there made Honduras a mercenary country, must demand a multinational solution to the conflict in Iraq under the aegis of the United Nations.
The worst sign: The United States has already given more than enough evidence that it cannot resolve the crisis in Iraq. With the selection of John D. Negroponte as ambassador to Baghdad, Bush’s government has sent an unequivocal signal that its only proposal is a military one, designed to favor US oil interests. As the US ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was President Reagan’s “covert war” expert, “chief” of the Nicaraguan contras, and responsible for turning our country into the gringos’ “aircraft carrier” in Central America during that decade. Having allowed itself to get pulled into this new US war, Honduras is now obliged to demand a solution that will put an end to it.
Negroponte to Baghdad
“We have to be servile”A congressional representative recently made some candid statements to a regional radio station that summed up the nature of Honduran governments, and Ricardo Maduro’s government is a perfect example: “It’s true that the government always has to say yes, to accommodate itself to the decisions made by the US government... People cry out in protest, demonstrate, turn out in the streets, but the government knows they will soon forget. The blow comes, people protest, but they soon assimilate it and life goes on. The government always wins because the orders it obeys come from outside, from the Embassy in Tegucigalpa. I admit this is a servile attitude, but remember that we are a poor, dependent country and have no hope of development. We have to be servile, so we can get things.”
Ismael Moreno, sj. is envío's correspondent in Honduras.