REMEMBERING THE MASSACRE OF THE BANANA FIELDS 80 YEARS AGO
Friday, December 5, 2008
Ø With this article, María Tila Uribe refreshes our memory sbout how an d why the massacre in the banana fields at the hands of the Army and the United Fruit Company now Chiquita Brands) happened 80 years ago.
Ø “The 25 thousand strikers had in their favor the sympathy of the population and of the very Mayor, of the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada, of the business people and of some cattle raisers who sent them cows to maintain themselves.”
With nearly 7 million inhabitants in that epoch, our country had a certain character of virgin forest. The traditional haciendas with practically feudal customs abounded. It was a country of gold, platinum, coal, salt and emerald mines, of immense coffee banana and tobacco plantations. There was a form of slavery in the rubber areas of the Amazon.
25 years had passed since the “kidnappinf og Panama”—that is what it was called—and with the first payment of 5 million of the 25 million with which the United States paid for that territory, and the rise in the price of coffee, and the external debt contracted in that period and the violent entrance of foreign capital, the 20s became the decade of accelerating industry and the beginning of economic and physical infrastructure necessary for the development of the incipient Colombian capitalism.
That is how modernism came to our country, that is when we learned about the new machines for factory production that speeded industry up and manual labor of artisans, of the coffee processors, the foot-pedal sewing machines that our grandmothers used, the mills and of course everything electrical, as well as automobile mechanics, as cars replaced the romantic coaches drawn by horses.
It was a key and outstanding decade of the twentieth century, not only because of the transformation that the technology of that period worked in the life of the people, but also because of the significance of the two biggest social phenomena of the first 50 years of that century: the birth of a working class and the incorporation of women into the labor market. The first was the result of the changes in the lives of thousands of campesinos who stopped being tied to the haciendas as sharecroppers or renters and began to be incorporated in a massive way into the concentrations of workers through a new pay system: wages. Legions of workers were incorporated into different labor fronts: 20 thousand in railroads, more than 600 thousand men and women made the export of coffee possible, thousands more in the construction of canals, aerial cables, roads, updated of ports. For their part, women who in this period could only work as teachers, nurses or telegraph operators were now needed in the clothing workshops, the textile factories of Antioquia, the match, beer, cigar factories, and others recently opened. In addition, armies of secretaries began to be formed for the offices.
For this oversized mobilization, the government created the circulation law, which permitted whole masses to go to work as laborers in the North American enclaves: the Tropical Oil Company in Barrancabermeja exploited petroleum; the Frontino Gold Mines and Chocó Pacífico, gold and platinum; and the famous United Fruit Company, responsible for the massacre of workers at the end of the decade, in then banana zone of Santa Marta.
The natural consequence of those concentrations of workers was organization and discovering the power of strikes. The abysmal social differences of wealth and poverty and the barbarity of a hegemonic regime in power for 42 years that utilized displacement, death and torture against its adversaries brought the different social sectors together and in the middle of the decade the first National Workers Confederation (Confederación Obrera Nacional) and the revolutionary Socialist party (Partido Socialista Revolucionario) were founded, both groups were a result of an organizing process and years of experience.
Their national leaders, among them Tomas Uribe Márquez, Raúl Eduardo Mahecha and María Cano felt and confronted their struggle in the heat of the great strikes, the last of which was that of the banana zone, led by the very representative Sixto Ospino, Adán Ortiz Salas, Aurelio Rodríguez, José G. Russo, Erasmo Coronel, and as well by women like Josefa Blanco, the secretary of the Orihueca union, who had 100 workers under her responsibility, with them she watched to make sure that there were no bunches of bananas cut, and she smbushed and reduced small groups of soldiers whom she later brought to the strike committee to make them reflect on the truth of the case, or get information from them, or judge them. Another forgotten woman was Petrona Yance, the most distinguished among the 800 women who participated in the strike.
President Abadía Méndez and his minister of war named Carlos Cortes Vargas as general commander, and gave him excessive powers. He fixed the 4th of December as the date to negotiate the set of demands, which contained nine points.
The 25 thousand strikers had in their favor the sympathy of the population and of the very Mayor, of the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada, of the business people and of some cattle raisers who sent them cows to maintain themselves. And an unusual thing, contrary to generally accepted ideas, was the fact that many North American workers expressed solidarity with them. It is also known that there were individual and group desertions in the first period of the strike, recruits who refused to shoot and others that turned their weapons over to the workers.
It is estimated that there were 5000 workers who were in the plaza when they were surrounded by 300 armed men. The survivors related that after a cornet call Cortes Vrgas himself gave the order to fire three times. However, it was never learned how many dead there were; the oral and written narrations of the people differ: between 800 and 3 thousand, and they add that they threw them into the sea. The officers admitted to between 15 and 20.
That was the “baptism by fire” of the Colombian working class. The Councils of War came, later selective murders of other leaders and jail for the national and local leaders.
In defense of the condemned rose the young lawyer Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who left an unforgettable page in the history of Colombia that ended successfully, since they absolved all the accused.
The decade of the 20s has been correctly called the revolutionary golden age of Colombia.
*María Tila Uribe es the daughter of the leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Parfty, Tomás Uribe Márquez, who supported the 1928 strike of the banana workers. She is author of the book, The hidden years: dreams and rebelliousness in the decade of the twenties.
Colombia Support Network
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phone: (608) 257-8753
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