things hold people's attention currently in Latin
America, the nationwide protest in Bolivia in defence
of the country's natural resources, the ongoing popular
defence of the Chavez government in Venezuela and
the heavy political defeats suffered by President
Uribe in Colombia. Uribe's party lost humiliatingly
both the mayoral elections in Bogota and the national
referendum on his government's policies. These events
represent serious unravelling of US government aims
in Latin America.
the setbacks, official US policy is committed to forcing
through as hard as it can the Free Trade Area of the
Americas. That commitment is primarily a continent-wide
strategy to safeguard US corporate commercial dominance.
But it also works as a piecemeal country-by-country
bilateral strategy to lock economically vulnerable
countries into the US plutocracy's international political
American resistance to this centuries-old colonial
practice is largely a forgotten history in the United
States. "Free trade" ideologues pretend
current conditions are inevitable and God-given. It
is a profoundly anti-historical, carefully contrived
illusion. Hard doses of reality help see through it.
- poetry and political memory
say it was November 24th, 1993. Others remember it
as the 17th. Rigoberto Quezada Figueroa pulled up
in his car at the traffic light by the Hotel Siesta,
just a few blocks from the centre of San Pedro Sula.
The Hotel sits at a busy traffic intersection a couple
of blocks south of the old banana company railroad
tracks. The kind of cheap hotel handy for the centre
of town where you lie awake at night wondering will
the traffic noise ever stop.
those days it was possible to think President Callejas'
1990 political amnesty meant a new era. Maybe Rigoberto
thought so too. In any case, waiting on the corner
by the Hotel Siesta, witnesses said later, two assailants
shot him in the head. The newspaper photos showed
his body slumped forward over the wheel with kind
of a look of surprise on his face.
was "Sebastian Rojas", the poet. For clandestine
organizing purposes he was also "Max". The
Honduran press called him "el último guerrillero"
- the last guerrilla fighter. Rigoberto was killed
because he wrote and lived the meaning of lines like
do you think of your fingernails
when you look at the lines of dirt
that gather with each passing harvest
and that dirt's all that's ever left of you?
then the boss calls you a thief
(Can you really steal what's yours?
You can lose it. That´s different.)
and hauls you up before a judge
then to gaol, since his judge condemned you
(Condemned you? You're damned to daywork
if you don't organize............)
role of memory - 1954
reason they killed Rigoberto was because he remembered
history and refused to let it go. He remembered the
epoch-making strike in 1954 that broke open the old
National Party oligarchy and the stranglehold of the
US fruit companies at the very moment the US was about
to overthrow the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz
in Guatemala. The strike was a surprise to the US
colonialists. Few had expected anything like that
from Honduras. Wasn't it the place Sam "the Banana
Man" Zemurray had ridiculed, where you could
buy a parliamentary deputy cheaper than a mule?
has long suffered from having been the original banana
republic. In fact, Honduran working people played
a vital role in building and sustaining labor rights
in Central America through the 1950s and 1960s. If
there is a single Latin American novelist who speaks
for the rural and urban poor in the 20th Century that
writer is Honduran - Ramon Amaya Amador. His novels
are among the few sources that enable us to recover
the lived reality of those times. No better antidote
exists to the modish evasion of realism than to read
his novels "Prision Verde", "Constructores"
or "Destacamento Rojo".
great strike - from May to July
strike itself lasted over two months. It sprang from
the awakening of nationalist and popular consciousness
following 16 years of the US-supported dictatorship
of General Carias Andino. By 1953 newspapers were
circulating like "Worker's Voice" and "Revolutionary
Vanguard", a political party existed called the
Honduran Party for Democratic Revolution. Leading
demands were for a Labor Code and the right to form
trades unions. Women won the vote in Honduras in 1955,
the year after the great strike.
on demands for fair overtime pay, the stoppage began
in the town of El Progreso on May 1st. It spread rapidly
to the ports of Tela and La Ceiba and other areas
of the banana enclave dominated by the United Fruit
and Standard Fruit companies. 14000 striking banana
company workers paralysed the railways and the docks.
Strike committees were set up throughout the area
maintaining discipline and avoiding violence so as
to strip the army of pretexts for repression.
a month miners, bottling plant workers, textile and
tobacco workers had joined the strike and the dispute
had spread to the capital Tegucigalpa. By mid-June
around 30,000 workers in various industries were on
strike in support of the fruit company workers' demands.
The government and the fruit companies accused the
strike leaders of being communists. Many were imprisoned.
By then the companies and the government were losing
up to a million dollars a week in lost revenues.
deepened in June as employers and government attempted
to isolate the different labor sectors and negotiate
settlements by industry. Despite arrests, repression
and financial hardship the strike held and its basic
demands were met. Employers and government conceded
wage rises and improved conditions. By July 12th it
was over with a victory for the Honduran workers.
US government blamed Guatemala for fomenting the dispute
- a transparent fabrication. Eisenhower's Secretary
of State Dulles had even mobilised the US Navy to
be prepared to land marines "to protect US citizens".
For the US, the strike made dealing with the moderate
reformist government in Guatemala more urgent. Good
democracy was bad for US business.
the overthrow of President Arbenz in Guatemala in
1954, Honduran's civilian government was thrown out
by the armed forces in 1955 until a constituent assembly
was formed prior to new elections. In 1957 a Liberal
Party government was elected under Ramon Villeda Morales.
A cautious social democrat, but with the 1954 strike
as his precedent, Villeda Morales introduced a Social
Security program, a modern Labor Code and the country's
first Agrarian Reform legislation.
- the forgotten coup
of people know of the coup d'etat in the Dominican
Republic in 1963, when military officers overthrew
the democratically elected centrist government of
Juan Bosch allegedly to save the country from communism.
Not so many people know of the coup in Honduras in
October 1963 which ended the elected government of
Ramon Villeda Morales. The coup was led by the chief
of the Honduran Air Force, Colonel Oswaldo Lopez Arellano
who declared in a radio broadcast, "The patriotic
armed forces have intervened to put an end to flagrant
violations of the Constitution and self-evident Communist
might have been a model for Chile just ten years later.
Only 12 hours before the coup, Arellano Lopez was
saying publicly he had no intentions of intervening.
Early next morning, he put two squadrons of warplanes
in the air, threatening to bomb the residence of the
democratically elected President. Arellano Lopez was
a man to warm the hearts of latter-day covert coup-plotters
like Colin Powell and Otto Reich, understudies to
Henry Kissinger and Vernon Walters.
the ground, the army fought and disarmed the pro-government
Civil Guard. The colonel forced Villeda Morales to
resign and packed him and other Liberal Party leaders
off to exile in Costa Rica. Rural workers and urban
trades unionists were not so lucky, suffering imprisonment,
torture and murder. Lyndon Johnson's administration
recognised the Lopez Arellano regime within a matter
that's how the maquilas came about ......
the 1960s and 1970s Honduras toed the US colonial
line. When banana workers again took the initiative
in the 1970s, setting up the ground breaking successful
"Las Isletas" workers cooperative, the CIA
stepped in and wrecked it. The business was taken
over by Standard Fruit.
the 1980s, Honduran domestic agricultural protection
was systematically dismantled. US PL480 "aid"
distorted the country's basic grains market with dumped
US surplus wheat and maize. Provisions in the aid
legislation to protect the indigenous market were
waived year after year. That "aid" was tied
to hard political conditions including removal of
the country's Agricultural Marketing Institute and
any other effective support for small domestic producers.
Policy was geared to promote cattle farming and non-traditional
exports, favouring large farmers and big agribusiness.
A main beneficiary was the US animal feeds sector.
a result local basic grain production contracted.
By the end of the 1980s, Honduras, which had been
a net exporter of basic grains in the 1970s, was dependent
on imports. Correspondingly, the 1980s saw wholesale
acceleration in migration from rural to urban areas
- in effect the creation of the unskilled urban labor
reserve needed for US and US-allied maquilas. At the
same time US ambassador John Negroponte helped oversee
a "dirty war" in which as many as 180 leading
members of the popular movement were disappeared or
murdered - including many leading trades unionists.
The Honduran people's capacity for organized resistance
decade also saw the imposition of international financial
institution "structural adjustment" policies,
notorious for their failure either to promote real
economic development or to overcome poverty. By the
1990s all the necessary conditions were established
to promote low wage, non-unionised assembly operations
to serve the US apparel and other markets. The US
government's preferred industrial model for Central
America was in place.
sector cutbacks and the collapse in agricultural employment
created a huge pool of unskilled labor desperate for
work. The assault on the popular movement left trades
unions in disarray and on the defensive. The government
parroted free market gobbledygook from its overseers
in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund
and translated it into legislation offering give away
terms to attract predatory foreign, low-cost, light
industrial pseudo-investment - the maquilas.
in Central American apparel and other maquilas have
been well reported over the years. Over 80% of maquila
workers are women, the majority between 18 and 25
years old. They work minimum shifts of 9 hours with
obligatory overtime. Their work conditions are usually
stressful and unhealthy. Apparel workers typically
suffer serious respiratory problems after a couple
of years working while constantly inhaling lint microparticles.
The women work in a deliberately high tension atmosphere
which includes predetermined and timed rest-room visits.
In those conditions the women perform repetitive micro-tasked
work at an output rate of two to four pieces per minute
so as to make their shift quota, that can be anything
from 800 to 1200 pieces. For that, workers are paid
a basic rate of about US$25 for a six day week.
companies keep the wage calculation complicated. The
total wage includes an additional daily attendance
bonus of around US$3 and a similar weekly production
bonus enabling the women to make over US$30 for their
week. But if they miss just one day they lose all
their bonuses and their weekly pay can fall below
US$20. Days lost through sickness are treated the
same as a day lost through unjustified absence.
women work in the maquilas for no more than six or
seven years, often moving from one to another. Unable
to save, unable to study, those years are lost to
them. A Mexican sociologist has succinctly characterized
the plight of women maquila workers, "To be a
maquila worker is to be vulnerable, day in and day
out," It's just the
same in Honduras. Women are stressed all day at work
only to be faced each evening with completing domestic
chores in desperately poor conditions at home.
philanthropists finance the free market
maquilas now employ more than 100,000 workers in over
150 factories. Honduras is the fourth main exporter
of apparel to the United States. In 1999 those exports
were worth more than US$2 billion - a grossly exaggerated
return on a total investment of just a few hundred
million dollars. The US owns over 40% of the maquilas
in Honduras followed by South Korea, Taiwan and then
Singapore, China and Hong Kong. Local Honduran businesses
run the remainder. Resistance to labor unions is common
to them all.
government concessions in practice exempting the companies
from the country's labor laws, foreign businesses
can open up and close down fast. In 2001, 34 companies
closed down throwing nearly 30,000 people out of work.
Many workers were left without their statutory severance
pay. Foreign companies can soon open up again, maximising
company profits at heavy social cost. In addition
to the no-cost hire-and-fire culture, some of the
companies dump toxic waste from their plants frequently
causing widespread pollution.
and local pressure has led to slight improvements
in employment terms and conditions. Some of the industrial
parks housing these companies now run childcare centres
- but few can pay the usual cost of US$10 a week out
of a total wage of barely US$30. Attempts to organize
continue based on small successes in the late 1990s.
But resistance is fierce from both the companies and
from powerful local politicans like Liberal Party
business magnate Jaime Rosenthal.
maquila motive - high short-term profit
women's organizations try to monitor conditions to
ensure minimum standards are applied. But all efforts
to improve conditions come up against a stark reality.
The companies are only interested in maximizing short
term profits. People and whole countries are expendable
argument for the maquila industry is that it brings
economic benefits to Honduras. But the principal characteristic
of these businesses is their almost total isolation
from the local economy. Almost all the inputs for
the apparel industry come from high-tech production
areas overseas. In Honduras extremely labour intensive
processes complete the production process. The goods
are then shipped back out to high-income markets in
the US and Canada.
to nothing of value remains in Honduras, mostly sick,
exhausted labor and a polluted environment. Tax revenue
for local and national government is virtually nil.
But national and local government pick up the tab
for the infrastructure and social costs that make
extortionate maquila profits possible.
snapshot - look!....not so invisible hands
has a population of just under 7 million. Per capita
income is around US$920 per year. The poorest 20%
receive just over 2% of the country's income while
the richest 10% receive over 40%. Just as the rural-urban
balance has changed from 1982 to the present so has
the balance between agriculture and manufacturing.
As a percentage of GDP, agriculture represented over
20% in 1982. Twenty years later that had dropped to
under 15%. Correspondingly, manufacturing in 1982
represented nearly 15% of GDP. By 2002 that figure
had reached over 20%. The symmetry is striking.
is highly indebted. In 2001 the value of international
debt was nearly 50% of the country's gross domestic
product and over 100% of the value of its annual exports.
There is no Adam Smith "Wealth of Nations"
invisible hand here. That debt is a jemmy in the all-too-visible
hands of international corporations working in protective
gloves provided by the international financial institutions.
As elsewhere around the world, through privatization
they have openly rifled Central American public sector
resources. The maquila system is part of the same
is supposed to be a free market model. But Cuba -
victim of 40 years of economic blockade and terrorism
by the United States - sits dozens of places above
Honduras in the UN Human Development Index.
You are unlikely ever to see that fact widely broadcast
or published in the US or Europe. The international
financial institutions and the corporate controlled
media tirelessly sustain the illusion of inevitability,
that "free trade" is imperative, the only
way to haul people out of poverty. It is a pathetic,
easily refuted lie. The truth is there for all with
a mind to see.
of the reasons for the murder of Rigoberto Quezada
Figueroa was that he worked relentlessy at grass roots
to break the corporate illusory spell and expose the
lie. Few poets are worth a bullet. He was one of them.
A suitable metaphor for the global elite's systematic
attempts to deny hope, dignity and autonomy to the
region's poor majority. But no matter how hard the
global corporate media try, people don't forget. They
remember. What is happening in Bolivia recalls Honduras
50 years ago.
Solo is an activist based in Central America)
1. From his "Jornalero" in "Regrese
a quedarme". Ediciones Martillo Tegucigalpa 1989
2. Amaya Amador brought the Arellano coup to life
in his novel "Operación Gorila" 1991
Editorial Universitaria, Universidad Nacional Autónoma,
3. In "Numerous Killings Of Mexican Women Unsolved"
by Marion Lloyd, Boston Globe 2002
4. "Latin America in Crisis: Cuba's Self-Reliance
in the Storm", By NELSON P. VALDES, Counterpunch,
November 7, 2003
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