Into The Dead Zone
issue 317 - October 1999
In Central American bananaland the Companies lay down the law –
while plantation workers dodge pot-shots and poison.
The ticket collector is determined to squash the mosquito. He’s chasing it across the cracked windshield of yet another hand-me-down American school bus as it rattles out of Puerto Barrios, on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala. Why should this look so odd? We are, after all, in a tropical swamp, where you can expect to get eaten alive by mosquitoes and there’s not much point in taking the trouble to kill a single one. Yet I haven’t been bitten once. And there are no birds. There is, in point of fact, little evidence of life of any kind.
Except, that is, for bananas. Countless thousands of them. Mile upon endless mile, lining the roadside in numbered squares; the serried ranks of some misplaced army kitted out in daft uniforms of waving green headgear and ramrod trunks, holding out white plastic bags that flap like banners in the turgid breeze. Featureless terrain, where rivers run high between dikes and land lies low in a grid of drainage ditches. A land of mighty investments and grand designs, where the bones of thousands who once laboured to make it so lie rotting in the ground.
This is the Guatemalan territory of Chiquita Brands of Cincinnati, a direct descendant of the United Fruit Company. They used to call this company el pulpo, the octopus, because its tentacles reached into every crevice of Guatemalan life. Established in 1899, United Fruit pioneered the plantation system of banana cultivation and by 1949 owned 3.5 million acres of land in Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia. Its largest domain, however, was in Guatemala, where it owned Puerto Barrios as well as every mile of railroad in the country.
In 1954 United Fruit – guided by legendary PR man Edward Bernays – orchestrated US support for the overthrow of the elected Guatemalan Government of Jacobo Arbenz, which intended to expropriate 400,000 acres of its land and support the demands of banana workers for improved pay and conditions. Violent repression ensued and has plagued the country ever since. Anxious to distance itself from accusations that United Fruit were dictating US foreign policy, in 1958 the US Government eventually began a federal anti-trust suit against United Fruit’s banana monopoly, and the company was broken up. Chiquita Brands, Dole Food Company and Del Monte Fresh Produce, the ‘Big Three’ banana companies of today, are its offspring and you can still see the family resemblance all too clearly.1
Alabama and Arizona
Feliciano sits beside me on the bus. He is taking care of me, though I’m not entirely sure who is looking after him, an active trade unionist in a place where this is a perilous thing to be. Gentle and attentive, he has agreed to show me something of what life is like on the banana plantations today. His family has worked for bananas for 60 years: his father ‘retired’ to a smallholding and absolute poverty some time ago, but all his brothers still work on the plantations. And his young children? Will they follow in the family footsteps? Feliciano looks at me with the eyes of one who fears they might – that the future could resemble the past and a present he wishes to change.
The bus slows to a halt. Suddenly a man in a stained vest, seated on a broomstick, hurtles out of the banana plants to one side of us, floats across the road in front of us and disappears into the plants on the other side. The ticket collector, who has killed the mosquito, descends from the bus and pushes back an overhead rail so that we can proceed. In due course we catch up with the man on the broomstick, punting rhythmically through the banana plants with two poles, flying along the cableway that was made to carry off their fruit, into spotlights of burning sunlight like Tinkerbell across a stage set for Peter Pan.
‘Stop the bus! We’re getting off!’ cries Feliciano, some way further on. ‘I thought there was no-one left on the Alabama and Arizona plantation. Let’s go and talk to them.’
We’re left in front of a large, dark barn of corrugated iron, its skirts lifted from the ground for ventilation. Inside there are empty concrete tanks, benches of steel rollers, archaeological remains with mysterious functions. There is a wooden table, into which have been etched in ink the squares of a chess board. From here, Octaviano and Guillermo are watching us guardedly as we approach.
‘Alabama and Arizona,’ says Feliciano. ‘The finca [literally ‘farm’, but better translated here as ‘plantation’] that belongs to Victor Manuel Morales Haussler.’
Feliciano explains to me that Chiquita has tried to escape responsibility for the conditions on its plantations by using local companies as cover. This is part of a much wider pattern of commodity corporations offloading the big risks and low profits of production on to smaller local businesses. But no-one’s fooled. Chiquita bought all the bananas from Alabama and Arizona. In the packing plant they’ve left behind a large poster bearing their instructions to the workers, imperious and dusty.
‘We are totally destitute,’ says Octaviano. ‘Totally destitute. We have nothing good to eat or drink. They cut off the electricity and the water. We have to raise drinking water from wells. It is polluted. We’re being poisoned.’ From the tremor in his voice I sense the frustrated force of a story that has been told too often to little effect. Beside him, an old man listens, motionless. ‘Well, we’re just sitting here. Waiting. There used to be more than two hundred of us, men, women and children. But some have drifted away. There’s about a hundred of us left. Like I said, we’re just waiting.’
‘For what?’ I ask.
‘For something to happen,’ says Octaviano.
‘It began with the women,’ interrupts Guillermo, suddenly animated. ‘The way they were treated. They were the ones working here in the packing plant. They had to use chemicals that made them sick, in the washing tanks, gave them sores on their feet. All times of the day, and late into the night too. Many of them are single mothers, and they weren’t even allowed to breastfeed their children. Well, it got to the point where we weren’t prepared to put up with it any more.’
‘The only way to protect ourselves was with a union,’ says Octaviano. ‘There were lots of rumours flying around. The com-pany was getting jumpy. Part of the plantation is on the other side of the river, and there’s a bridge across it for the cableway, which we had to use to get to work. They came with armed guards and dogs to stop us crossing it, to split us up. So we were forced to use small boats. The river is very dangerous. Sometimes the guards would shoot into the water, trying to scare us. And then we were all sacked, with almost a week’s wages still owing to us. The company has broken the labour laws of this country. The Government should be enforcing the law, but it doesn’t. The courts are always on the side of the companies. We’ve been waiting to be reinstated ever since.’
‘When did this happen?’ I ask.
‘February,’ says Guillermo.
‘Six months ago?’ I ask with alarm.
‘Eighteen months ago,’ says Octaviano.
He takes me out behind the packing plant. There are three lines of wooden barracks. Most of them are shut up, but children tumble from one open door, and as we walk around the back we meet the community that remains, gathered in the shade of a few trees. An old man swings in a hammock, reading a book. Octaviano shows me the appalling sanitary conditions and the two wells, saturated with toxic chemicals from the surrounding plantations.
A few miles further down the road we enter a village where a thousand people live – the families of the workers on Finca La Inca, at the end of the bus route and almost into Honduras. Stunted trees and mean little hutches line the only street, where the prevailing colour, freshly painted, is a distinctive shade of blue – Pepsi label blue. As Feliciano and I stroll through the village we are followed by a man in uniform carrying a pump-action shotgun. Crawling behind him is a Pepsi delivery truck. It used to be raided by children under contract to Pepsi bootleggers. In Guatemala, value is signified by the size of the weapons touted around it.
We first see Francisco sitting outside his house as his two small daughters play around him. He’s on the executive of the Finca La Inca union, which is recognized by the company. Reluctantly and slowly, The Big Three have been recognizing trade unions on some of the fincas they control. Feliciano believes that improving international links between banana unions in the early 1990s had a marked effect. Guatemalan labour law, however, permits the formation of unions only in individual companies. So there are many small unions here, one for every unionized finca of 200-or-so workers, and communication between them is difficult.
Francisco, Feliciano and I sit down. There are only two chairs, so Francisco squeezes himself into his child’s chair which cracks ominously under his weight. We are joined by Ubaldo, an immense and powerful man just in from an eight-hour shift on the plantation. He is plainly exhausted, and sinks into a tiny hammock strung between two trees. We talk about the difficulties they face.
Their ‘wages’ average $0.63 an hour, $28 a week. Fixed almost three years ago, the rate was due for review in August. But the companies have made full use of Hurricane Mitch, the terrible storm that hung over the region for four days last October. Though the devastation and death toll in Guatemala did not reach the same levels as in neighbouring Honduras, still the rivers here ripped away bridges and filled houses with silt, flooding banana plantations along their banks. The companies extended the wage agreement and sacked ‘redundant’ union members, claiming the damage done by Mitch as the reason.
At COBSA (a front company for Dole) they went one stage further. Members of the ‘yellow’ company union were induced to make legal complaints against the independent trade union, claiming its members were responsible for ‘damages and prejudice’ valued at $7.5 million in the wake of Mitch. Armed guards with dogs stripped the roofs off their houses to force them to leave the finca. The courts duly issued ordenes de captura (arrest warrants) against 150 union members. Most are still in hiding, though among those arrested was a union lawyer in Guatemala City. It says little for the case against him – or any of the others – that his passport proved he had been in Britain attending an international conference at the time the ‘damages’ were alleged to have taken place.
Just before I arrive in Puerto Barrios there has been a big demonstration, and scrawled on a wall are the words ‘we are workers, not criminals’.
Along the roads are posted ‘Notices to the Public’ warning against entering the plantations while aerial fumigation is taking place. The Big Three routinely claim that they do not fumigate when workers are in the plantations. Feliciano, Francisco and Ubaldo laugh heartily at the claim. If the workers got out every time aerial fumigation took place there’d be no bananas cut at all.
‘It’s not so bad in the mornings,’ says Ubaldo. ‘But as the heat increases these foul-smelling chemicals seem to rise up in the air, you have to inhale them and you begin to feel nauseous and have difficulty breathing.’
‘The company doctor doesn’t have any specialist knowledge about their effect,’ adds Francisco. ‘I myself was beginning to have nose bleeds and trouble with my eyes. So I went to the doctor who said there was nothing wrong with me. We’re always asking for protective clothing. They keep saying “soon”. It’s hard to imagine anything that would be both effective and bearable in this heat.’
I ask what the chemicals are. They do not know. Francisco fetches a wad of blue plastic strips. These are sometimes placed around the stems of the bunches as a substitute for the intensely toxic concentrations in the plastic bags used to protect the growing fruit. He asks me to smell them. There is a deep foulness to the odour. We wrap one of them up. I’ll try to find out what it is, and let them know.2
Prayers in darkness
Feliciano has given me a copy of the pacto colectivo, the union agreement they fought long and hard to achieve at the Pamaxan plantation, where he works. On the face of it, this is a benign document granting the union formal recognition. But as I read through it I am astonished. There are clauses regulating almost every aspect of their daily lives; not just working conditions and pay, but schools, healthcare, water and electricity supplies, housing, cooking equipment, transport, recreation facilities, books for the union library, football shirts, the annual number of basketballs the company will pay for, toys for the children, clocks.
At Finca La Inca I look around me and ask if there is anything, besides the union, that isn’t controlled by the company.
‘No,’ says Francisco. ‘Not apart from the Catholic Church over there.’ He points to a wooden shed across the street. ‘And the company refused to give them electricity. So they have to pray in the dark.’
Does he ever eat bananas?
‘Good lord, no!’ he says. ‘People in places like this don’t eat the fruit they cut. I guess we know better.’
Though the offspring of the octopus that was United Fruit have had precisely 100 years to establish a decent relationship with plantation workers, they have got precisely nowhere. From time to time they appear to adapt, to act as if they don’t have to poison their employees or pay them shameful wages, but they’re hooked. Always they have to pull back, resort to crude repression, because otherwise they are at risk of collapse. In truth, despite the outward appearance of a modern, efficient agricultural industry, this place is an industrial dinosaur.
All the talk of ordenes de captura and guns and dogs and escape into hiding brings a single word to my mind, but I have refrained from using it because of the sensitivities involved. Ubaldo’s great form, exhausted but relaxed now, swings in the tiny hammock. He looks into the distance and reflects in silence.
‘It’s just this wretched poverty,’ he says eventually. ‘We cannot get away from it. You know what it is?’
‘You tell me,’ I say.
‘Slavery,’ he says.
My word exactly.
A dark, hard history
UNSITRAGUA, based in Guatemala City, represents some 74 member unions across a wide range of employment, from the maquila export-processing factories to rural workers and banana unions. As yet, it operates semi-clandestinely and its activists continue to be targets for arrest and assassination.
‘We have a dark, hard history,’ says Julio Coj of UNSITRAGUA. ‘You could not speak or say what you felt and suffered, because you would be assassinated immediately. But we think that if we keep hiding our faces and our names, then we endorse the impunity that the Government and business sector still try to maintain.’
That much, he says, remains unchanged. ‘We have peace on paper, not a real and concrete peace. To make that we need full respect for union rights and for collective bargaining. The Government does not play its proper role, which is to balance business and union interests. It continues to privilege big business at the expense of the majority. There needs to be a radical change of attitude in the business mentality and especially in the courts, which should uphold such meagre protection as we get from our labour laws, in conformity with the conventions of the International Labour Organization. But they remain in the pocket of big business.’
He is under no illusion about the difficulties that lie ahead. ‘What matters for the workers is that the Government makes sure that all transnational companies respect the law. At the moment that’s getting much more difficult, because globalization is allowing transnationals to produce what they like where they like, with no impediments. The tragedy is that this process is creating more, not less, poverty for us in Latin America.’
Contact UNSITRAGUA at 9a Avenida 1-43, Zona 1, Guatemala City, Guatemala, Central America,Tel/Fax: +502 238 2272,
1 Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Sinclair Browne, London, 1982.
2 Almost certainly chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate (OP) insecticide that disrupts central nervous systems. Produced by the US multinational Dow Elanco, it is classified by the World Health Organization as Class II, or ‘moderately hazardous’, and is in widespread use around the world. A leading cause of acute insecticide poisoning in the US, it poses a risk of serious damage to the eyes, as well as to the health of children. Recent research has identified immune-system abnormalities following exposure. In 1997 the US Environmental Protection Agency prohibited its use in toys, domestic curtains and furniture. Source: Active Ingredient Fact Sheet, Pesticides Trust, London, September 1998.