"They do not like to lose profits": as US policy in Latin America led to a "banana slaughter"

90 years ago in the Colombian city of Cienaga, events occurred, known as the “Banana Massacre”. Thousands of employees of the American banana exporter United Fruit Company, based in the Latin American state, went on a peaceful strike demanding to improve their working conditions. However, Bogota, which was under the influence of the United States and was afraid of the invasion of the American army, threw armed forces at its dispersal. According to the Colombian military, several dozen people became victims of the conflict. According to official information from Washington, killed more than a thousand employees of the American company. Experts call such incidents a characteristic manifestation of the United States policy in the region.


In the 1870s, a young American, Minor Cooper, Keith worked in Costa Rica on the construction of the railway, which was led by his uncle Henry Meigs. But in 1877, he died, and Kate took over the completion of the highway. When the Costa Rican government failed to make another payment, the American businessman took out a loan from the London bankers in his own name, but demanded a number of preferences for it - in particular, to allocate 3.2 thousand square meters to him on preferential terms. km of land along the railway.

In these areas, he grew bananas, which he considered as cheap food for the workers. However, when the traffic on the highway was launched, it turned out that the passenger traffic is not even enough to cover the loan payments. And Kate decided to experiment: he loaded the train with bananas, which from the coast of Costa Rica went to the United States. And this business soon brought its first fruits.

In 1899, Minor Cooper Kate combined his business with the assets of the Boston Fruit Company, initiating the creation of the United Fruit Company, in leadership positions in which he will work for many years. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United Fruit Company provided 80% of banana imports to the United States, also working in Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and Cuba. The company has become one of the largest employers in Central America - the number of its staff reached 150 thousand people. The United Fruit Company built its own railways abroad and had a fleet of 90 steamers. The total area of ​​its plantations reached almost 1.4 million hectares, which was equivalent to a small state.

Colombian Bananas

In the XIX century, the abolition of slavery undermined the usual way of the economy of Colombia. Local landowners and entrepreneurs began to look for alternative ways of organizing the agrarian business. It was necessary to identify products that are in high demand on world markets so that their export would be profitable. In this sense, bananas were very attractive. However, in order to start their mass production on the Caribbean coast of Colombia (Magdalena district), there were not enough transport highways and irrigation systems. Therefore, the proposal of investment from the United Fruit Company, the Colombian authorities welcomed with gratitude.

The company built a railroad in northern Colombia for its needs and broke a network of plantations. In the late 1920s, the country became the third in the world in trade in bananas. They accounted for 7% of Colombian exports. If in United States, the United Fruit Company recruited mostly dark-skinned people from the nearby Caribbean islands, it was not profitable to take them to Colombia. Therefore, the company has relied on the local population, offering at first a salary higher than that of the Colombian planters. This led to the fact that in the north of the country a new numerous social group emerged - the landless rural proletariat. In addition, small entrepreneurs who served the workers and peasant farms that supplied the company's employees with meat, vegetables, and firewood were integrated into the economic system built by the United Fruit Company.

Workers employed directly on the plantations, worked for 10 hours a day without a full weekend, and support services - in shifts day and night. For most workers, wages were not fixed, but piecework. For a certain amount of collected fruit, felled trees, or built canals, people received a certain amount. At the same time, nominally employees had nothing to do with the company. They worked on sham contractors who, in turn, already had formal agreements with the United Fruit Company. Therefore, the Americans did not bear before them any social obligations.

  • Banana harvesting at United Fruit Company
  • © library.hbs.edu

Although the salary of local company employees was considered very decent, in practice they quickly found themselves in much worse conditions than their compatriots. The Colombians occupied on the plantations had no professional benefits and could not count on the fact that they would have a permanent job. The company could, without warning, send them on forced leave for several months or pay back the money they had already earned with a considerable delay. In case of late payment and in the event that there was a need to issue an advance, people were calculated with special vouchers that could be used to pay for goods in local shops. However, on the “exchange difference” workers lost from 10 to 30% of the amount.

A separate problem was medical care. For those territories in which the plantations were located, there was an extremely high incidence of malaria, tuberculosis and various intestinal infections. However, the United Fruit Company did not bother to create a medical infrastructure. Emergency hospitals were not in principle. The workers of the plantations were sent to medical institutions located in other localities, and for the service they were retained each month from employees 2% of earnings. Those who could not get to the hospital on their own sometimes died right in the workplace, the rest were given quinine or magnesium sulfate and sent home.

The situation was aggravated by the unsatisfactory living conditions of the workers. By this parameter, their camps were very much like prisons. People had to spend the night in crowded barracks full of bedbugs, where hammocks were instead of beds. They could not even dream of ventilation, drinking water, toilets and a shower. At the same time, not far from the working “ghetto” were the villas of the top managers of the United Fruit Company, in whose territory there were all the amenities and a whole entertainment system, including tennis courts.

Soil for a social explosion

In the late 1920s, the situation on the plantations of the United Fruit Company in Colombia began to heat up. In addition to workers, local peasants and businessmen were unhappy with the company's policy. The Americans found aristocratic families, to whom, even in the colonial era, the Spanish administration allocated large tracts of land in "wild" territories.

However, landlords who did not have the necessary funds did not master them and gradually forgot about their possessions. In fact, these territories belonged to local Indians or peasant settlers who dared to retire from civilization. However, the managers of the United Fruit Company sought out those to whom land was allocated “on paper”, and bought property rights for pennies. And then they expelled the real owners, burned their houses, and requisitioned the property. At the end of the 19th century, the Colombian authorities passed a series of laws protecting the property of the colonists who settled in undeveloped territories. However, the management of the United Fruit Company had good relations with local authorities, and they simply turned a blind eye to the schemes on land raiding. More and more former landowners became powerless laborers.

Small local banana growers who supplied the United Fruit Company about half of the fruit it exported were unhappy with the actions of the Americans. On the one hand, the company provided local business with access to the international market, but on the other, as a monopolist, it set extremely low prices. Those who tried to organize sales on their own immediately started having problems: they were tried in courts, and the goods were arrested. And even if the local producers managed to defend their case, their bananas had time to rot. The central authorities tried to support local entrepreneurs and helped them to cooperate. But all this came up against resistance from the United Fruit Company and local officials. It got to the point that the police arrested representatives of the government, objectionable to the American corporation. Moreover, the company seized both private and state property (for example, railways) and simply sabotaged the decisions of courts that were not in its favor.

In the mid-1920s, left ideas began to spread among the employees of the United Fruit Company and the peasants. People began to unite in a kind of trade unions. Anarchist trends penetrated remote areas of Colombia, and in 1927, emissaries of the Revolutionary Socialist Party visited the plantations of the United Fruit Company. Caught in unbearable living conditions, the inhabitants of Magdalen County prepared to fight for their rights.

"Banana Massacre"

On October 6, 1928, banana plantation workers formulated a number of requirements for the United Fruit Company. It was about abolishing the system of sham contractors and providing people with legal labor rights and social insurance. In addition, the workers demanded to establish at least one day off per week, to arrange the provision of medical services and emergency assistance, to eliminate the voucher system, raise wages and start paying it regularly. However, the company management completely ignored the demands of the workers and refused to meet with their delegates.

On November 12, people employed on plantations declared a general strike. They did not go to work and cut off transport routes that allowed them to take bananas to the coast. Total decided to strike about 32 thousand people. The company began to incur losses, but still did not want to engage in dialogue with the workers.

Management United Fruit Company appealed to the government. The officials who arrived at the talks convinced the workers to stop the strike in exchange for introducing one day off a week, building hospitals and a small salary increase. However, the Americans categorically refused to formalize their relationship with employees and, accordingly, to provide them with any guarantees. The protest continued.

The United Fruit Company shifted to direct pressure on the Colombian government. According to the recollections of the participants in these events, the corporation gained the support of the US authorities and notified Bogota that if the strike in Magdalena did not cease using “official” methods, the United States Marine Corps would do it. And the country's Ministry of Defense commissioned the head of the Colombian Armed Forces in Magdalena, Carlos Cortes, to force people to go to work. He transferred three battalions of soldiers to the plantations and arrested several hundred participants in the strike, filling them with all the local prisons. However, the mayors and judges, knowing full well that lawlessness was happening, released the arrested.

The contingent command, including Vargas, at this time settled in the villas of the United Fruit Company, and the Americans organized banquets in honor of the guests, which had grown into an orgy. Vargas announced that “agents of communism” are to blame for the strike. Among them, he even attributed Alberto Martínez Gómez, a government labor inspector. The official tried to explain to the military that, from the point of view of the law, the workers were completely right. However, Vargas threw him in jail and kept him there until the judge released him. In early December, the United Fruit Company brought to the harvest and loading of bananas specially brought scabs. However, the people blocked their work. Moreover, support for the ideas of the strikers began to be expressed by soldiers and junior officers. On December 6, a mass demonstration was scheduled in the city of Cienaga.

On the night of December 5-6, Vargas led troops into the square near the railway, where several thousand protesters were, demanding to disperse. People refused and began shouting slogans in support of the Colombian army. In response, they opened fire with machine guns and rifles. Similar "stripping" in the neighboring settlements lasted about a week. Vargas officially announced that 9 people died in Cienag, and 47 people throughout Magdalena. However, no one believed these numbers.

  • Shot Strike Members in Colombia
  • © Wikimedia Commons

According to local residents, the number of victims approached several thousand. Similarly, the US embassy arrived at the State Department, reporting to the State Department that while defending American interests, the Colombian military "killed over a thousand people." The opposition severely criticized the actions of the security forces, stating that the bullets that killed their compatriots needed to be issued against foreign interventionists.

Shortly after the Banana Massacre, conservatives were removed from power in Colombia. The government came under the control of the liberals, who granted the population some labor rights. The United Fruit Company was forced to make some concessions to the workers, but it didn’t wind up its activities and worked in Cienagos until the 70s of the 20th century. In 1978, a monument to the workers was erected in the city. The events of 1928 are often referred to by historians as one of the main prerequisites for the start of a large-scale guerrilla in Guinea - a guerrilla war that formally ended only in 2016.

“The influence of the United Fruit Company in Colombia was not yet the greatest. In a much more difficult situation, for example, Guatemala, in whose economy the American company took a monopoly position, found itself.

In 1951, a former military man came to power, Jacobo Arbenz, who tried to take steps to ensure that the people of Guatemala received at least a little more for the resources that the Americans used. At the suggestion of the United Fruit Company, he was declared a communist, which he actually was not, launched a campaign against him in the press. The American enterprise was supported by the US government, and then everything went according to a well-known pattern - air strikes, invasion, and coup d'état. However, these days, such “stories” associated with the United Fruit Company are often forgotten, ”said Boris Martynov, head of the department of international relations and foreign policy at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations at the Russian Foreign Ministry's Department for Foreign Relations.

  • US President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles discuss action plan in Guatemala
  • © Wikimedia Commons

According to Yego Lidovsky, Director General of the Hugo Chávez Latin American Cultural Center, the Banana Massacre in Magdalena is a "characteristic manifestation of US policy."

“This is not the only such case. The instrument of pressure on official Bogota was not so much the United Fruit Company, as Washington. For him, Latin America is a “backyard,” and the opinion of its population in the United States does not count. Americans do not like to lose profits. And legal payments to their employees are perceived as losses, ”the expert concluded.

REF: https://russian.rt.com/science/article/580125-ssha-kolumbiya-bananovaya-reznya