RUBEN GARCIA was the first person I met at Isletas. He led me through the endless lines of banana trees, round the bustling packing plant and to the cluster of wooden houses in the El Carmen section where he lived.
We clambered up some of the mounds of earth thrown up from the digging of the drainage trenches so that I could get a better view. He was friendly and talkative and keen that people should understand what was happening to Isletas.
Two weeks later Ruben was dead. There was a bullet in his back and he had been tortured. About half his finger nails were missing.
Ruben Garcia was not the first person to lose his life in the struggle for the Isletas banana plantation. Nor was he anything like the last. Even the local gangster commonly assumed to have murdered him was himself found dead a few months later.
All for bananas. This soft yellow fruit plays a trivial part in our own lives: it is hard to believe it could be the cause of such bloodletting. But bananas are the biggest money-spinner in Honduras. And the companies, the workers, the government and the army are prepared to fight for their share.
The bananas themselves get much more gentle treatment — handled with the lightest touch at each stage of their passage through the plantation.
‘We don’t have any choice,’ said Ruben, ‘the company will only buy the very best: without any bruises and at least seven and a half inches long. They refuse about a quarter of our production.’
The ‘company’ is the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company, a subsidiary of the US food multinational, Castle and Cooke. It now controls around a quarter of world banana trade. It is one of the big three — the others are United Brands and Del Monte — which between them package and sell 61 per cent of the bananas we eat.
The bananas are packaged even as they hang on the trees. Tubes of plastic sheeting swathe the heavy branches of ripening fruit to protect them from birds. Each ‘hand’ of bananas is placed on a soft polystyrene bed on one of a chain of trailers that slowly snakes its way round the El Carmen section to deliver its precious load to the packing plant Bananas have been moving in bulk across Honduras since the arrival of the US fruit companies in the early 1900s. The local growers were often pushed off their land as the companies set up their huge plantations. And even today Standard and United own about 200,000 hectares of fertile Honduran soil.
But the days of land grabs are over. Today, the real money is made not in growing bananas but in supplying the fertilizer and the packaging and then transporting the fruit in company trains and ships to lucrative markets in the developed countries. Around 40 per cent of Standard’s production in Honduras now comes from independent local producers and co-operatives like Isletas.
One of the main advantages of this change in corporate investment strategy was made clear in an interview with one of the Standard (Castle & Cooke) managers.
‘The difference in manpower costs is what kills Castle and Cooke compared with the independent producer. Castle & Cooke has more problems with the unions. It pays its workers 45 cents an hour, with other benefits, while the independent producer can arrange to pay around 35 cents.’
The union ‘problems’ date back to 1954. Standard had reduced wages by a quarter during the depression of 1931 and had not subsequently increased them. A prolonged but ultimately successful strike in 1954 finally forced a wage rise and also led to the birth of a strong labour movement in Honduras.
Land ownership was also a key problem. A third of the rural population is landless in Honduras and not surprisingly was given to invading land the companies left idle. About two-fifths of company-owned land is farmed, the rest is left in reserve in case disease strikes the crop.
The companies’ first response to the invasions was to send in cattle to eat the new crops of the campesinos. Then they started to sell off the outskirts of their land to local cattle ranchers to form a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the banana plantations. But still the campesinos kept coming. They took and kept the land. Indeed, many of the cooperatives that today sell their bananas to Standard took the land from them in bloody battles during the 1950s and 60s.
Isletas, however, took over its territory in an entirely legal manner. Standard’s Isletas plantation, on the north coast of Honduras, was levelled by Hurricane Fifi in 1974. The damage was extensive and the company refused to rehabilitate the plantation without the help of a government grant of several million dollars and the promise of more favourable tax treatment.
The aid didn’t come, so the company started to sack their workers. The workers then petitioned the government to allow them to take over the land and to their delight the request was granted. In April, 1975 the Associative Campesino Enterprise of Isletas was formed— a co-operative to be run by the workers. With government finance they put the plantation back on its feet.
So what went wrong? Why the violence? The problem, as Ruben explained it, was that the worker-managed co-operative was ‘too successful’. Standard became nervous and other powerful people became greedy.
Standard’s nervousness was prompted by the campesinos making direct contact with potential customers in Europe — in the hope of releasing themselves and other Honduran co-operatives from the grip of the US corporation.
The powerful people who saw a chance of enriching themselves were the local government bureaucrats and the army. Honduras at this point had a military government.
On the 13th of February 1977, Standard Fruit railway trucks filled with soldiers rolled up at the headquarters of Isletas. After a short struggle, the co-op’s leaders were seized and then imprisoned. They were accused of embezzlement and of being members of the Honduran Communist Party. The soldiers who carried out the ‘coup’ came from the Fourth Infantry Battalion based in the nearby banana port of La Ceiba and headed by Colonel Gustavo Alvarez.
Later events shed some light on the background to this dramatic take-over, including the publication in 1978 in the newspaper El Tiempo, of a series of internal Standard Fruit documents. One was entitled ‘Procedure for Special Payments’ and at the top of the list of recipients (he had been given $2,500) was Colonel Gustavo Alvarez.
After the take-over things rapidly started to slide downhill. The army imposed a new ‘Junta Directiva’ on the co-op and installed one Rafael Sanchez as Secretary-General. A new and unfavourable five year contract was signed with Standard Fruit. Family members of the military were put on the payroll as ‘technicians’ and expensive and over-invoiced purchases were made so important people could take their commission.
But even Sanchez could see that all this would soon land them in bankruptcy. He started to resist the requests for favours. In June, 1979 there was another violent take-over by the army in which one man died. Rafael Sanchez was imprisoned and accused of fraud. He was released in August, 1980, and murdered two days later under orders from the army-installed co-op management.
Throughout this period a major beneficiary of the largesse flowing from Isletas was COHBANA, the government banana marketing agency. According to some estimates it was siphoning off a million dollars a year in charges to the co-op for a fairly minimal service.
With yet another Secretary-General installed, the payments to COHBANA were stepped up. Several of the agency’s employees were added to the payroll in $1,000-a-month advisory positions.
The Fourth Battalion at La Ceiba was similarly favoured. They were paid $1O,000 a month to provide ‘protection’ to the plantation.
All this naturally incensed the ordinary members of the co-op but protesting was a dangerous business. Nevertheless, they finally went on strike in September 1980 demanding a clean-up. And for a short time they were successful. A new and truly representative managing group was elected to be headed by Atilio Villalobos. Ruben Garcia was also a member.
This looked like a new broom. They demanded an audit and that payments to COHBANA cease. They also wanted a new contract with Standard Fruit. By this time they were losing money on every box of bananas they sold.
On the 13th January 1981 the soldiers arrived again. But this was seen as such a blatant grab for the co-op’s remaining resources that the government’s National Agrarian Institute then stepped in and took over.
In March, 1981 I sat down with Atilio Villalobas and with Ruben. We were in Atilio’s house, a flimsy blue clapboard structure that hardly looked as though it would survive the torrential rains that batter the north coast of Honduras.
Atilio was bitter about the way that the worker-managed company had been undermined. 'Every time that we have a free vote the real workers win by about 650 votes in 125. But then we have to face the army.'
‘Maybe what we have to do,’ said Ruben, ‘is divide up the plantation. Four of the fields for us and maybe three for them.’ By now Isletas was firmly split into two camps: those who had been co-opted by the Army and the majority who wanted to go on working for themselves.
I went off to the administration building to talk to the people from the National Agrarian Institute, I said goodbye to Ruben in the yard. That was the last I saw of him.
Things didn’t turn out the way he wanted, In October, 1981 there was another army-manipulated election and a new management group, this time led by, ironically, a Señor Paz — Mr Peace, So things were set on the same downhill course.
Now, in 1982 there are a few rays of hope. A newly-elected civilian government has started to take an interest. And it looks as though it could intervene directly in what has become a running sore in the economic and political life of the country.
Meanwhile, the bananas have never stopped moving. The sleek white ships of the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company draw up at La Ceiba. The railroad wagons roll down the pier and boxes of bananas from Isletas flow from conveyor belts in an endless stream into the ships.