In mid-August of this year, a contingent of Honduran policemen gathered near the headquarters of the Coalition of Honduran Banana and Agroindustrial Unions – COSIBAH – in the town of La Lima in northwestern Honduras. Founded in 1994, COSIBAH is a federation of seven unions, three of which are heavily involved in the resistance to the June 28 coup that overthrew Honduran President Mel Zelaya. According to the leaders of the organization, the police had intended to arrest them but had changed their minds after noting the large number of people present at the headquarters for a meeting; the staff nonetheless continued to take extra safety precautions such as monitoring suspicious vehicles in the area and keeping the front door of the building locked.
As for recent police endeavors that had not been thwarted, Iris Munguía – Secretary of Women at COSIBAH – described her experience at an anti-coup roadblock in San Pedro Sula on July 2, when after fleeing tear gas she had been shoved into the back of a police pickup truck and taken to jail. Subsequent analysis of such incidents had led Munguía and her colleagues to conclude that police repression in Honduras was gender-specific and that men were generally beaten on their heads and backs while women were beaten on their legs and rear ends. Munguía outlined additional forms of treatment the police reserved for females, such as yelling “¿Por qué no estás en la casa cocinando?” – “Why aren’t you at home cooking?” – and putting their tongues in the ears of nuns.
Aside from Munguía, my hosts for an afternoon at COSIBAH included workplace safety coordinator Gloria García, media coordinator José María Martínez, and expert organizer Nelson Nuñez. All former banana plantation workers themselves, they offered logistical details of the fruit picking and packing process, which was the subject of a colorful mural on the wall of the meeting room. Other wall adornments consisted of posters listing workers’ rights and calls to eradicate seasonal employment, which Martínez explained was a primary obstacle to unionizing; he added that workers with questions about their rights had the option of phoning in to one of five live radio programs managed by COSIBAH.
Nuñez brought up current infringements on the rights of melon workers in southern Honduras who were being paid 80 lempiras a day, almost 4 USD, while the minimum wage was 135.17. COSIBAH’s campaign to organize the melon workers focused not only on this “robbery,” as Nuñez termed it, but also on the failure of companies to grant medical benefits and the practice of informing workers that if they were not happy with work conditions there were plenty of Nicaraguans to replace them.
As for other kinds of replacement, Nuñez announced that many of the banana plantations in the vicinity of La Lima had been replanted with African palms, which produce palm oil and biodiesel. University of California professor Dana Frank, well – known by all at COSIBAH, offers one explanation for the proliferation of the African palm in her book Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America. According to Frank, banana corporations like Chiquita took advantage of the destruction of the majority of the Honduran banana plantations by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 to withdraw from plantations that had workers’ unions or else replant them with African palms, which require less of a work force and thus presumably generate fewer workers’ demands.
Other objectives of African palm proliferation were suggested by Nuñez, one of them being the expropriation of land from small farmers who had been encouraged to convert to the crop and then gone bankrupt due to increased Asian production of palms and their diminishing market price. Nuñez listed Honduran politician and businessman Jaime Rosenthal as an example of someone who might end up in possession of the expropriated land and proceeded to list other things already in the Rosenthal family’s possession, such as banks, crocodiles, the newspaper El Tiempo, and the Marathon soccer team – which, he added mischievously, workplace safety coordinator Gloria García avidly supported. García laughingly protested that media coordinator José María Martínez was even worse than she was due to his affinity for the Olimpia soccer team owned by golpista Rafael Ferrari; as for the destructive environmental effects of the African palm, which reportedly rendered land cultivatable for other crops, García remarked on the danger of being inmediatistas and not taking the future into account.
Martínez in turn stressed the importance of taking the past into account, especially when it came to the 69-day general strike in 1954, driven by the nation’s banana workers, which paralyzed the Honduran economy and achieved the formation of SITRATERCO, the Tela Railroad Company Workers’ Union. The Tela Railroad Company was the Honduran subsidiary of the US-based United Fruit Company and the union was the first in Honduran history; Martínez drew attention to the fact that the current Honduran coup resistance was, at the time of discussion, verging on 69 days of existence, and emphasized that in order for a general strike to paralyze an economy it would have to truly be general. He described a recent meeting of the frente de comunicadores – the media workers against the coup – during which the participants had proposed holding forums in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula to consider the lessons of the 1954 strike and the methods the strikers had used to garner public support.
Unearthing a book entitled La verdad de la huelga de 1954 y de la formación del SITRATERCO – “The truth about the strike of 1954 and the formation of SITRATERCO” – Martínez suggested that the coup resistance may one day rewrite the book with its own story, a process that will likely be simple given his claim that history is repeating itself. Martínez cited evidence of repetition such as the rapid maturation of the public conscience and the policy of repressing peaceful demonstrations in the streets, although he acknowledged that the streets are now paved. He then responded to the question as to the whereabouts of the “railroad” portion of the Tela Railroad designation by explaining that such infrastructure had disappeared with Hurricane Mitch, thus adding trains and large amounts of rain to the list of themes currently shared by La verdad de la huelga de 1954 and One Hundred Years of Solitude, which already included banana workers’ strikes and repetitions of history.
Nelson Nuñez pointed out additional similarities between 1954 and the present, such as that in both cases outside influences were accused of fomenting domestic workers’ aspirations to basic rights. He shared that when COSIBAH had reported the mid-August police gathering near its headquarters on its website, the organization had received such responses as: “Hijos de puta comunistas” by citizens apparently concerned by Venezuelan influence in Honduras. As for outside influence in 1954, this had consisted of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz’ attempt to usurp Guatemalan land from the United Fruit Company; not deemed to be outside influences, meanwhile, were the United Fruit Company and the 1954 military assistance agreement between the US and Honduras that facilitated the coup d’état against Arbenz.
Time magazine has a different take on the historical parallels of the present political crisis in Honduras, and a July 1 article entitled “Hondurans Take Sides and Hit the Streets” determines that “scenes of divided crowds protesting in a tropical republic may seem like a time warp to the war-ridden ‘80s.” Crowds become further divided when “groups of young men gather on street corners burning tires and smashing windows before troops hit back with baton charges and tear gas,” a sequence of events which fails to explain what happens to people who are not groups of young men, such as COSIBAH Secretary of Women Iris Munguía at the July 2 roadblock. Time magazine’s ability to distinguish cause and effect is again called into question when a sentence describing how “as darkness descends, everyone rushes to their homes to beat curfews that last through the night” is juxtaposed with the following link: “ (Read about U.S. gang members being deported to Honduras.)”
The placement of the link to this Time article from 2008 generates a number of possible interpretations, such as that forced confinement to one’s house is in fact preferable in a country infested with gang members courtesy of the US, or that police violence is nothing if we consider that members of the Mara Salvatrucha have hacked rivals to death with machetes and flushed the pieces down the toilet. As for other US contributions to Central American violence, Dana Frank points out in her book on bananeras that the regional insurgencies of the 1970s and 80s were not replicated in Honduras due in part to its function as a US base for counterinsurgency operations and to the AFL-CIO’s hold on Honduran organized labor during the Cold War.
Past US control over Honduran unions does not detract from the significance attached to the 1954 general strike, and the event features prominently in the reading materials published by COSIBAH. Pamphlet topics include labor laws and gender issues – often explored via conversations in Honduran slang between cartoon banana workers – as well as the minimum wage for 2009, which Zelaya raised to approximately $290 a month in urban areas. The Time magazine article on Hondurans taking sides offers the opinion of a representative of one of the sides who claims that by raising the minimum wage the president “declared war on business”; the nature of the victimized businesses is meanwhile suggested in Time’s preceding observation that “[i]n another flashback to ‘80s politics, supporters of the ouster have denounced Zelaya as a communist who planned to turn the nation of sweatshops and banana plantations into a Soviet-style fortress.”
The article does not mention any flashbacks to 1954, although it does speculate that Honduras might be “stuck in the past, while much of the rest of the world seems to have moved on.” Evidence of the rest of the world’s movement, according to Time, consists of the fact that the US has condemned a right-wing coup; opportunities for Honduran mobility meanwhile increase if being stuck in the past is instead viewed as repeating history.
First published in Narco News, 14 September 2009