Resistance in the Banana Republic: Commemorating 'El Camino de Mayo'
The past didn't go anywhere, did it? It's right here, right now... Time is an enormous long river and I'm standing in it, just as you're standing in it. My elders were the tributaries and everything they thought, and every struggle they went through, and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me... - Utah Phillips
Nestled in the back of a pickup truck on the way to El Progreso, Yoro, in northwestern Honduras, we travel down from the mountains and into the valley, heading towards the town where a festival of resistance is to take place in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the great strike of 1954. The participation of strike participants, a concert until dawn, a march and other actions are on the agenda, to celebrate May 1st and to pay homage to one of the most important actions of political resistance in the history of the country.
The context was one of decades of exploitation and repression against workers and other sectors of the population, at the hands of a series of dictatorships and undemocratic governments who governed at the service of the economic elite, consisting primarily of the US banana companies controlling enclaves all along the north and, to a lesser extent, other foreign and nationally owned exportation-exploitation industries -- mining, textiles, etc. Aside from the successive national governments, these interests were well protected by both "Honduran" and US military and other repressive forces.
On April 10, 1954, dock workers in Tela refused to load one of the United Fruit Company's cargo ships, demanding the overtime pay to which they were legally entitled. News of the action traveled quickly and soon workers of the Tela Railroad Company, a UFCO subsidiary, in Puerto Cortés, El Progreso, La Lima and Bataan declared themselves on strike. By April 30, all workers in El Progreso, the heart of the actions, were on strike and had organized a local strike committee, which virtually self-governed the entire town.
In support of the strikers' demands -- an 8-hour day, double pay for overtime, improved health services for workers, provision of gear to protect workers' health, education for their children, abolition of the obligation to eat in company-run eateries, among many others -- many others joined what became a nation-wide action: 25,000 Standard Fruit Company workers; tobacco factory workers in San Pedro Sula; women workers of 7 textile companies in the same city; miners of the foreign-owned Rosario Mining Co.; thousands of workers in the capital of Tegucigalpa, etc.
The strike lasted 69 days, amidst State accusations of communism and international instigation, and amidst the numerous tactics of transnational companies and Honduran government to repress and debilitate the movement and its Central Committee, some of whose members met with political persecution including jail, torture and, reportedly, assassination. The agreement reached met many of the workers' demands for better pay and working conditions and opened the path to the legalization of union organizations.
Fifty years later, remembering the actions of 1954 is not enough. The drastic conditions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and persecution remain prevalent in Honduras, kept in place by the coalition of the State, international financial institutions and economic interests, including both national elite and foreign-owned companies. Repression of social movement leaders and organizers by State and company forces, especially along the north coast, has been on the rise, to the extent that human rights organizations compare the phenomenon to the repression and state terrorism of the 1980s under the National Security Doctrine.
The Land is Rich with History
Nestled in the back of the pickup truck on the way to El Progreso, I am reminded of my previous journey along the same highway, in the company of activist and lawyer Marcelino Martínez, member of the Mártires de Guaymas organization who has received multiple death threats for his active participation both as a grassroots activist and as a lawyer in a number of struggles for land rights, indigenous rights, and in the growing movement against the environmental dangers and health risks posed by foreign-owned mining concessions.
"I used to live just over there," comments Marcelino along the way, "when my father worked for the transnational [banana company]."
The land is rich with history, with memory. Driving along the highway is a living stream of consciousness -- snippets of lives, childhood memories, struggles...
That house over there is where a compañero used to live. He was a land rights activist, involved in the land recuperation movement, recognized as a leader in the region for his unwavering commitment and for the clarity of his ideas and objectives. So they took him away. They brought him back during the night to the house where he lived with his mother. "Señora!," they shouted, "the meat has arrived!," as they dumped the lifeless body -- disfigured from torture -- in the patio before driving off into the night.
The narrative is incessant, jumping back and forth in time. "And over here, down that road, another compañero was assassinated by soldiers..."
The land is rich with history, with blood. This region of Honduras once formed part of the banana enclaves controlled by the US-owned United Fruit Company, subsequently known as United Brands and Chiquita, operating in Honduras under the guise of its subsidiary, the Tela Railroad Company. These enclaves still exist in much of northern Honduras, although in some areas plantations now produce African palm, the fruit of which is processed into palm oil for export.
The lands owned by these transnational fruit companies, many of which were granted as concessions by a series of banana industry-propped governments in the early 20th century, have included massive tracts of idle land. These uncultivated properties legally formed part of the land reform of the 1960s and 70s, which ordered idle lands to be expropriated and redistributed to the landless. For the most part, the reform was never implemented, and the land rights movement, which involved land recuperations all over the region, was met with heavy-handed repression, which continues today.
Festival of Resistance 2004
Nestled in the back of the pickup truck, we arrive in El Progreso ('Progress'), part of an influx of thousands coming to participate in the festival of resistance organized by the National Coordination of Popular Resistance. The steady stream of union members, social movement organizations and general public continues to arrive for hours after the inauguration of events at 6pm on April 30th.
A number of participants and survivors of the 1954 strike are invited onto the stage to share their experiences and memories. Two of them were members of the Central Committee. Although a couple have lost much of their mobility and their voices shake, none have lost the clarity of their struggle or their commitment to fight for justice.
Two of the special guests are women, one of whom is introduced with the remarks that the role of women is ever so important, as it was in 1954, when these women supporting their striking husbands, making tortillas for the workers... A few cringes, a brief consultation, a quick correction: This compañera was not making tortillas for the men -- she was one of the strike leaders in Tela! In fact, the Security and Discipline Committee during the strike was comprised of women, who are recognized for their success; during the course of the actions, crime was virtually non-existent.
Over the course of the evening, the stage hosts a multitude of talent: political folk music, dance troupes, speeches, Garífuna ensembles, singers, songwriters and musicians from all over Honduras. Invited artists from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Peru share their music and messages of solidarity. The concert continues all night, as the thousands of participants dance, read the information displays about the strike and different organizations and struggles around the country, and stretch out on the grass to dream in the open air.
At last, the much awaited group headlining the show comes onto the stage a good 6 hours into the event. Los Guaraguao, a Venezuelan group famous for their politically charged music in the 1970s, has made it to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the longest and largest strike in the history of Honduras. Although fierce repression and persecution forced the group to disappear from the public eye in the 1980s, the popularity of their music has continued in Central America, where many of their songs have become anthems of the diverse social movements of the region. "Ud. No ve que se llevan lo que es de nuestra tierra, y sólo nos van dejando miseria y sudor de obrero..."
If the River Could Speak
As the music comes to an end at 4:30 in the morning, people begin to regroup and march to take over the three bridges leading in and out of town, in celebration of May 1st and to commemorate the actions in 1954. The bridge 'of democracy,' an important site for political actions in El Progreso because of its role 50 years ago, straddles the Ulua river. The music and discourses continue as the sun rises over the dozens of organizations congregating on the bridge, where the protest lasts several hours. Aside from in El Progreso, tens of thousands of people are participating in marches and actions in Tegucigalpa and elsewhere around the country.
The Ulua passes under the demonstration as people wait for the arrival of hundreds of members and activists belonging to SITRATERCO, the Tela Railroad Company Workers' Union, one of the unions legally constituted in the aftermath of the 1954 strike. They arrive on foot and proceed to pay homage to the heroes and martyrs of the struggle. Some strike activists were jailed, tortured and reportedly assassinated, the continuation of a long history of persecution of workers' movements in Honduras.
The night before, one of the 1954 strike participants had spoken about the terrible acts of repression carried out against strike activists. "If the river could speak," he began, his voice breaking. In the morning, SITRATERCO members hold a ceremony in honour of those who did not make it to see the fruits of their struggles. A stream of flowers falls silently from the bridge and disappears into the flowing current below.
Leaving the river behind, the different groups meet up to form a single march into town, where a final rally concludes the events. Nestled in the back of a pickup truck, between bananas and bright-eyed children, we follow the winding highway into the mountains, the birthplace of rivers.
********** This article was written by Sandra Cuffe, who works with Rights Action in Honduras.
To support grassroots organizations working for social justice in Honduras, to participate in an educational delegation to learn about the issues confronting the local population, or for more information, please contact Rights Action: firstname.lastname@example.org, 416-654-2074, www.rightsaction.org