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Robert A. Karl @RAKarl
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December 6 is the 90th anniversary of the massacre of Colombian banana workers, which García Márquez's 100 Years of Solitude made one of the best-known events in Colombian history
I'll be tweeting over the coming months to commemorate significant moments in the mobilization leading up to December 6 + in the massacre's long aftermath. #bananeras90
The massacre is the subject of a chapter of my second book, so I'm looking forward to working through some of the material out loud. ht too to @ErikLoomis' tweets on This Day in Labor History for inspiration
If you want to follow along w/ your own reading, I recommend @coleman_kevin_p's recent essay "The Photos We Don’t Get to See: Sovereignties, Archives, and the 1928 Massacre of Banana Workers in Colombia"
@coleman_kevin_p has kindly posted both the essay + related 1928 State Dept documents on his website:…
Eduardo Posada-Carbó's 1998 essay "Fiction as History: The #Bananeras and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude" offers a contentious, well-sourced overview
For general historical context on the banana zone, + a wonderful exploration of the memory of United Fruit Co, check out Catherine LeGrand's 1998 essay in Close Encounters of Empire:…
The night of October 6, 1928, a plenary session of the Trade Union of Magdalena issued a 9-point list of demands to the United Fruit Co, setting the stage for the strike that would culminate in the banana massacre 2 months later. #bananeras90
The 9 points in the Trade Union of Magdalena (USM) petition can be divided into 3 categories, which I'll cover over the next 3 weeks. #bananeras90
1st set of USM demands (points #4–7) addressed w/ wages + related issues. Petition called for 50% increase in pay for day laborers, end to United Fruit Co. stores + company scrip, establishment of weekly rather than biweekly pay
By the late 1920s, United Fruit had 22–25,000 workers in its operations on Colombia's Caribbean coast, which spread across 60,000 hectares. Exports surpassed 10m bunches for the 1st time in 1926, part of expansion of capitalist sector in Colombia during that decade. (Photo 1929)
Laborers were paid 1.50–1.80 pesos/day. For comparison, US consul in Cartagena reported in 1926 that inside his district, which included the banana zone, "a laborer who has a wife + family estimates his living expenses at from 25¢ to 30¢ per person/day, not including shelter"
Wage labor in the banana zone was therefore a contingent affair. US observers at the time saw a pathological cultural laziness, which drew Colombians off the banana plantations into "idleness" (to quote the Cartagena consul)
By contrast, we can read shifts b/w subsistence agriculture + wage labor as a means to gain the scarce capital needed to sustain family farms, or a means to supplement poor wages. (Photo 1925)
United Fruit also deducted 2% of a banana worker's wage for the maintenance of medical facilities within the zone. But this meant neither access nor quality; the establishment of hospitals per every 400 workers + doctors per 200 was therefore demand #9 (more on which later)
(Photos in this section of the thread via…)
2nd set of demands in USM's October 6 petition (#1–3, 9) called for the enactment of existing Colombian law, on worker housing, public health, paid Sundays off, accident insurance, expansion of healthcare
Many participants in the workers' movement recognized at the time that its demands were far from revolutionary. #bananeras90
In early November, just before the strike began, the USM telegraphed Colombia's Congress, saying in part that “This is not politics that the workers request, but rather justice, respect for the laws”
Ignacio Torres Giraldo, an important labor organizer + member of the Central Executive Committee of Colombia's Revolutionary Socialist Party (PSR), would concur in early December, remarking that the labor dispute in the banana zone was “merely an economic and legal conflict"
Torres Giraldo's take on the banana-workers' movement testifies to the surge of social mobilization and radical working-class politics generated by the growth of Colombia's export sector in the 1920s
In October 1928, between the drafting of the USM's petition and the outbreak of the strike, dock workers in the crucial river port of Girardot went on strike (headline at…; browse backwards for coverage of the strike)
Worker militancy largely corresponded to strategic importance in transport + export sectors: dock workers on the Magdalena River, Colombia's main transportation aertery; workers in the oil fields and on railroad; workers in coffee mills
This December 6, 1926 map from the NY Times, ostensibly focused on the banana strike, shows much of the decade's geography of strike activity: oil workers in Barrancabermeja, especially in 1924 and 1926; port and railroad workers, Girardot; railroad workers, La Dorada
Attempting to give national articulation to these movements were the eventual founders of the PSR, men like Raúl Eduardo Mahecha, shown here at left w/ a PSR banner advocating "the three eights:" 8 hours of work/study/rest
The PSR was founded in 1926 by Macheca and other activists, many of them from interlocked kin networks from Bogotá + Medellín. The party was recognized by the 3rd Communist International/Komintern in July 1928. (Photo 1928, via…)
Mahecha (#4 in this photo) traveled to the banana zone in August 1928. His presence, like that of other PSR leaders, would be decisive for how the labor mobilization there would be portrayed, as well as tactical decisions taken in the leadup to the massacre
(For an analysis of that last photo, I refer you again to @coleman_kevin_p's wonderful essay on the massacre:…)
The working-class and radical ferment of the mid- to late 1920s generated a ferocious response from the ruling Conservative Party
PSR leaders faced frequent arrests + jail time throughout the period. For example, Mahecha was released from prison in mid-1928, subsequently made his way to the banana zone
Citing fears of "bolshevism," the goverment of President Miguel Abadía Méndez (1926–30) issued a decree in April 1927 strengthening police detention powers and establishing firmer limits on firearms
This measure would be followed in 1928 w/ debates in Congress over a law on "social defense," also known as the Heroic Law. Critics warned that the law would severely limit freedom of press + speech, criminalize union activity. (Cartoon, showing Minister of War, Oct 26)
Minister of War Ignacio Borrero, who helped draft the law, was the target of particular resentment. This cartoon (October 26) makes specific reference to a report that Rengifo had shown up to a congressional debate w/ a dagger in his belt. But it's evocative even w/o that detail
The campaign against the Heroic Law reached a fever pitch in October 1928. Between 10 and 15,000 Liberals and socialists took to the streets of Bogotá in protest
Despite such protests, and the opposition of several Conservative congressmen, the Conservative Party's majority was such that the Heroic Law passed #otd, October 30, 1928
(Torres Giraldo's biography of his partner, María Cano, the Flower of Labor, said that she + other PSR leaders were arrested under the Heroic Law on October 29. He is off by several weeks on the passage of the law)
For reasons we'll get into later, the Heroic Law wasn't applied (so far as I know) in the case of the banana strike. But its passage just weeks beforehand says a lot about the mood of Colombian politics at the time
Through the 1st week of November 1928, the USM + United Fruit went back + forth on the October 6 petition. #otd, November 6, United Fruit denied the union's demands a 2nd time. #bananeras90
United Fruit's refusal to negotiation w/ the union rested on the argument that the union's members were not company employees, but rather worked for subcontractors
United Fruit's tactic was not unusual in late 1920s Colombian labor relations. Magdalena River transport companies used the same logic in refusing workers' demands during the October 1928 strike in Girardot
Point #7 of the USM's petition, on the establishment of collective bargaining, dealt most directly w/ the subcontracting question. But the issues resounds through the union's entire set of demands
The USM would later complain that workers were only treated as United Fruit employees for the purposes of company scrip, salary deductions to fund nonexistent hospitals
In response to United Fruit's 2nd refusal, a USM plenary on the night of November 6, 1928 issued a final warning to United Fruit, threatening that the union's members would out on strike in 3 days if its demands were not met
We are now less than a week out from the declaration of the strike and exactly a month from the banana massacre. #bananeras90
Throughout the leadup to the banana massacre, especially in this preliminary stage, the Magdalena departmental (state) government operated as an intermediary b/w the union + United Fruit
1 curious thing is that the governor's office didn't sent the USM's October 6 petition to United Fruit until October 28. Only then did the back-and-forth begin
On November 7, 1928, the departmental government asked United Fruit to recognize the USM's delegates as legitimate representatives of its workers. On November 8, United Fruit's manager forwarded the strike ultimatum to the governor
On November 11, 1928, 5,000+ workers in Santa Marta, including many from the banana zone, marched in front of the governor. Waving white flags and declaring their support for the government, they hoped to head off the USM's call for a strike
"But the strike was practically already declared," one chronicler of the region would later write
Reports arrived that same day that preparations underway: labor leaders in the town of Sevilla put in for permission to police to address workers; the mayor of Aracataca, at banana zone's southern end (+ Gabriel García Márquez's home town), telegraphed to say stoppage had begun
This Day in Labor History, 1928, workers in Colombia's banana zone went on strike. Early actions included destroying small quantities of fruit ready for export, seizing tools, but most importantly, blocking rail lines thru the zone. #bananeras90 (Photo c. 1906)
Officials + planters in the banana zone immediately worried how they would contain the strike. Magdalena’s governor sent as many as 3 telegrams to the president on November 12, asking that Army troops be sent to Aracataca to reinforce the scant police presence there
President Abadía Méndez prevaricated on the governor's requests, saying that he would consult with his ministers of war + industry
But War Minister Rengifo took the initiative, telling governor that he would send a detatchment from the 2nd Division in Barranquilla, under the command of General Carlos Cortés Vargas (shown here)
Cortés Vargas arrived in the banana zone #otd, November 13, 1928. He wasted no time trying to cow the striking workers into submission. Within a day, his forces detained 413 people attempting to obstruct a train at Riofrio. (Headline El Tiempo, Nov 17…)
The government's early response to the strike – Abadía Méndez's apparent indecision, Rengifo's taking the lead, Cortés Vargas's hard line – fits into contemporary narratives about the banana massacre
Abadía Méndez was often portrayed as a hapless old man, subservient to US capital generally and the United Fruit Co. specifically, as in this March 19, 1929 cartoon on "The Judgement of History"
Liberal critics frequently described Rengifo's influence as tantamount to military rule, unbecoming to a country that fancied itself one of Latin America's strongest democracies
Consider this November 19 El Tiempo editorial: "military authorities in the zone have taken on the function of the state in the face of the workers' movement, not only substituting but intimidating civilian authorities"
Cortés Vargas was bashed, particularly after the banana massacre, for his brutality. Cartoon March 10, 1929 (…, along w/ translation from US ambassador
Throughout the leadup to the banana massacre, Cortés Vargas clashed w/ civilian officials at the departmental + national level. Long-running class + intra-regional tensions within the banana zone also played a crucial role in the pace + outcome of events. #bananeras90
Cortés Vargas pressured Magdalena's governor to withdraw police agents he accused of being "communists." On more than 1 occasion, Cortés Vargas responded to governor's requests by threatening to withdraw Army from the banana zone
Cortés Vargas also arrested the official in charge of the Santa Marta branch of the national Labor Office, encharged w/ overseeing labor laws, accusing him of inciting the strike
In spite of their frequent disagreements, civil + military officials pressed United Fruit + the smaller, independent Colombian banana planters to negotiate with the union. The Labor Office's director + top lawyer also arrived from Bogotá on November 19
UFCo officials never abandoned their initial position: that USM leaders did not have standing to negotiate for the banana workers. Yet they conceded to demands for weekly pay + an end to company scrip (points #6 + 7), pledged 2 hospitals in Aracataca, better worker housing
Yet UFCo, pressured at least in part by the so-called "national producers," refused to budge on worker insurance, claiming "issues of legal interpretation." Worker demands for a pay raise + end to company stores were also turned down
Unsurprisingly, the USM turned down the growers' partial response to its petition. On November 26, after a week in the banana zone, the head of the Labor Office reported to Bogotá that neither side would agree to a compromise. US diplomats concurred
The labor action against United Fruit + Colombian growers was not limited to plantation workers. Merchants in the banana zone provided food + supplies that much helped sustain the movement. Merchants as far away as Cartagena, Barranquilla also said to have contributed
By December 1928, upwards of 30,000 people across Colombia's banana zone were engaged in a massive work stoppage + partial civic strike. This was a multiclass, multiracial movement, coordinated at least in part by revolutionary cadres. #bananeras90
This is what so frightened Colombian authorities + corporate officials. At the end of November 1928, days after United Fruit's initial offer had been rejected by workers, the company told the head of the Labor Office that they would now commit to 6 of the union's 9 demands
After hearing directly from United Fruit, USM sent representatives to Santa Marta to sign a deal. But the company stalled; on December 3, the worker delegation returned to Ciénaga. This part of the story is not altogether clear (at least to me)
Alberto Castrillón, a PSR leader recently returned to Colombia from Moscow, later wrote that the whole thing was a ploy to divide the movement. Perhaps. He also said United Fruit's delay had to do w/ differences b/w the company + Colombian growers
The pace of events in the banana zone began to accelerate after December 1 (+ so will that of these tweets)
The dejected USM delegates returned to an increasingly restive Ciénaga. Both the governor and the Liberal press in Bogotá reported that the movement had been orderly. It remained largely so (article El Tiempo, November 29)
Confrontations increased after December 1 for 3 reasons. First, Magdalena's governor banned workers from congregating in groups, traveling between plantations. Workers in Orihuaca tried to block distribution of flyers announcing policy; police in Riofrio killed another protestor
This increase in state repression generated more protests, which heightened possibility of a wider confrontations b/c of a second consideration: Cortés Vargas was already preparing to crack down vs strikers
On December 3, Cortés Vargas proposed exiling strike leaders off the Colombian mainland to the island of Santa Marta. He also exploited intra-regional rivalries, warning that Santa Marta faced attack from other sectors of the banana zone
300 more soldiers also arrived on December 3. That they were paisas – natives of Antioquia – speaks to Cortés Vargas's specific distrust of locally recruited troops, general cultural attitudes about the racial, social, personal unreliability of people from the Caribbean Coast
Why did Cortés Vargas side with United Fruit in the banana strike? The answer may seem axiomatic, but contemporary arguments about this are worth delving into
According to Liberal + socialist critics, United Fruit covered troops' expenses, hosted elaborate parties for Cortés Vargas + his officers, put Cortés Vargas up in its manager's house in the banana zone
Cortés Vargas's superiors conditionally accepted this last accusation (saying company housing was necessary b/c it was the only place he could access a phone), denied former. But consider this *April 1928* State Dept. report on a water dispute involving United Fruit
Colombian ill-will toward US companies wasn't confined to United Fruit. Colombian politics in 1928 were shot thru w/ concerns about imperialism + national sovereignty, particularly w/ an ongoing debate about foreign oil rights (which Wall St Journal [Oct 6] was NOT pleased about)
The horseman at left – a reference to a recently ended emergency economic program – also points to a broader concern w/ the banana strike: as the global economy began to falter, Bogotá was worried about investor confidence, moved to end the movement
In this tense atmosphere, United Fruit + Magdalena's governor took a major, third step toward confrontation: they ordered the banana harvest to resume under police/Army protection
Harassment of strike breakers had previously been a flash point, but now the scope expanded dramatically. By December 4, governor + United Fruit reported a "turn [in] the strike," leading US consul in Santa Marta to warn of "a possible uprising" in banana zone
On December 4, United Fruit's British manager sent updates to Bogotá about attacks on planters + property. The local branch of the agriculturalist guild joined in, cautioning President Abadía Méndez that the strike had cost nearly 1 million pesos, risked ruining 400 producers
December 4's transcendent event showed the potential of the strike movement + the state's capacity for violence. Around 4pm, near Sevilla, strikers disarmed a contingent of 25 soldiers, the most graphic demonstration to date of solidarity b/w soldiers, banana zone's working class
Cortés Vargas was apoplectic (headline Conservative _El Nuevo Tiempo, December 13), particularly because the detatchment's lieutenant had fled before the strikers, rather than following standing orders to "fire rather than succumb"
"I have ordered [our] troops to concentrate, I will promptly smash the mutineers with force," Cortés Vargas wrote in a telegram to War Minister Rengifo. Rengifo endorsed the plan. (Headline El Diario Nacional, Barranquilla, December 4, w/ consular report)
The question of agency becomes crucial in narrating the final day of the banana strike, December 5, 1928. The most common telling of why workers + their families gathered at the Ciénaga train station (shown here), site of the following day's massacre, makes them seem like dupes,
overemphasizes United Fruit's foresight/power, ignores the on-again/off-again frictions b/w Magdalena's governor + Cortés Vargas, and doesn't account for the role of PSR leaders that day
According to that version, the governor lured workers to Ciénaga with the promise of an update on the negotiations with United Fruit. This contrasts with what is to my mind the most persuasive account: that of PSR cadre Alberto Castrillón (written 1929; republished 1974)
Castrillón explained that he and other PSR leaders invited workers to Santa Marta for a rally to be held December 6. Thousands of people converged on Ciénaga December 5 w/ plans to spend the night there, continue on to Santa Marta the next morning
"By midday [on December 5]," Castrillón recounted, "Ciénaga took on the feel of a city in celebration." The crowds became even more fired up at 2pm, when word arrived that the governor + United Fruit's manager were on their way. (Photo Ciénaga, c1920s)
Castrillón later reasoned that the banana workers' movement had become "a civic struggle without precedent in our history, as the strike had entered its fifth week"
But as the afternoon of December 5 advanced, the mood in Ciénaga shifted. When it became evident that the governor wasn't on time, parts of the crowd "assaulted" the office of the union leadership, accusing them of having betrayed the rank + file
Castrillón writes elsewhere that United Fruit's manager had stalled union negotiators at the end of November to achieve precisely this split within the movement. I think that gives United Fruit too much credit. The company did ultimately get lucky though
Officials in Bogotá received a report that 4,000 armed strikers were on their way from Ciénaga to Santa Marta (again, an instantiation of old intra-regional rivalries)
United Fruit's British manager meanwhile sent a series of telegrams from Santa Marta to Bogotá. One, to War Minister Rengifo, warned of increasing violence by the strikers vs planter interests, added that the region's entire crop would be lost in under 15 days if action not taken
Another telegraph, sent to a United Fruit colleague, invoked the prospect of asking the US Marines to land to protect company interests in the banana zone. This is one of the funnier episodes of the entire story (recounted here in a December 11 US legation report)
These updates about "a subversive plan" moved the national government into action. The Bogotá press had been in the dark for days about events in the banana zone, but now observed a hubbub of activites b/w ministries, even as officials denied any new developments
At 5pm on December 5, the president's advisors approved a state of siege for the banana zone. Civil liberties would be suspended, the government granted power to rule by decree. The strike would now be legally treated as a revolt. Cortés Vargas received civil + military authority
Rumors of the state of siege reached Ciénaga by 10pm. A delegation of planters had just been allowed to leave by train for Santa Marta, after committing to obtain a signed settlement with United Fruit's manager
4,000 people had by then gathered around the Ciénaga train station. It was too late for them to disperse, so many settled in for the night
Just after midnight on December 6, 300 troops arrived in Ciénaga, ordered strikers to disperse. In a sort of modern-day reenactment of the conquest-era Requerimiento, the state-of-siege decree was read aloud. A coronet sounded 3 times. At 1:30am, troops opened fire on the crowd
W/ telegraph wires down + censorship in place under the state of siege, the situation in the banana zone would not become clear for days after the massacre. We'll approach it the same way. December 6's headlines in Bogotá reported "clash b/w soldiers + strikers," 1 dead
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