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The Banana Companies


The history of the banana companies in Colombia shadows that of Central America. The same U.S.-based bananeras operated in both parts of the Americas, but the major player in Colombia would be United Fruit Company, who opened its plantation doors in Magdalena Department in 1899.


The Caribbean coast was rocked with banana worker strike that lasted several months. They were appealing for nine rights, including eight-hour days, written contracts, the abolition of food coupons—to be spent only in company stores—and no more than six days a week of work. In December 1928, the Colombia government put down the strike in Ciénaga, near Santa Marta. Military forces rolled in and the massacre of United Fruit (now known as Chiquita) employees began—the worst in the banana trade’s history. The government was afraid unions would give way to communism. The army barricaded the plaza and then proceeded to machine-gun down hundreds of workers from the rooftops.


The Colombian government claims that the violent incident was necessary to avoid U.S. intervention on behalf of the United Fruit Company’s interests. The true number of deaths is unknown as the governmental and company archives have never been made public. Most figures claim it to be between nine (the official report) and 2,000. The history was brushed under the carpet for decades, until the publication of Gabriel García Márquez’ “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The novels’ version of the Macondo masacre de las bananeras seems to have been accepted more as historical, rather than fictional, truth. Márquez’s exaggeration of the death toll, which intended to convey the repressive nature of the conservative government and the brutality of United Fruit, has now become la historia oficial. The massacre was a pivotal event in Colombian politics, which bolstered support for the left.


The history of United Fruit, which became Chiquita in 1984, doesn’t stop there: Chiquita was fined $25 million upon discovery that it had made 100 monthly payments totaling $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a Colombian right-wing terrorist group, between 1997and 2004. While the company claims the payments were made to protect its workers, union organizers were targeted by the very same groups financed by Chiquita.


Oddly enough, the Urabá plantation in Colombia was the most lucrative of all of Chiquita’s global properties during the payment period. Additional reports allege that Chiquita boats have couriered cocaine and smuggled in machine guns for the AUC; a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of hundreds of Colombian families asserts that Chiquita’s payments financed both torture and murder.


Colombia’s Attorney General even demanded that Chiquita executives be extradited and tried in the country for their crimes, but to no avail. The U.S. refused. The disturbing reality of Colombia under the banana companies seems to move closer to Macondo every day, as history repeats itself and one hundred years of silence dawns to a close.


Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Colombia: History, Málaga History, History of Taganga, History, Cartagena History, History of Buenaventura, History of Bahía Solano, History of Quibdó, History and Fernando Botero.

27 Sep 2011

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