From the United Fruit Company to Drummond

(Translated by Emily Ellis, a CSN Volunteer Translator)

With this article Maria Tila Uribe refreshes our memory of how and why the banana massacre 80 years ago came about, and the hands of the army and United Fruit Company (now Chiquita brands).

With around seven million inhabitants at that time, our country had a certain character of virgin forest, they swarmed the traditional haciendas of almost feudal customs, it was a country of gold mines, platinum, carbon, salt, emeralds, immense coffee plantations, banana, and also tobacco and forms of slavery in the rubber areas of the Amazon.

Twenty-five years had gone by since the “kidnapping of Panama” -that’s what they called it-and with the first quota of 5 million, of which 25 the U.S. paid in installments for that territory. Plus the rise of the coffee price, plus the external debt acquired then, and the violent invasion of foreign capital, the 20’s  turned into the decade of acceleration of the industry and the start of economic and physical infrastructure necessary for the incipient Colombian capitalism.

 That’s how modernization came to our country, then one met the new machines for manufacturing that accelerated the industry and artisans’ manual work, coffee thresher machines, pedal sewing machines that grandmas used, mills and of course everything electric, as well as auto-mechanics, since cars replaced horse-drawn carriages.

It was a key decade, and outstanding in the 20th century, not just for the transformation that the technology back then took effect on the lives of the people but for what the two biggest social phenomenons of the first 50 years of this century meant: the birth of a working class and the incorporation of women into the labor market.  The first given by the change of the lives of thousands of rural peasants that stopped being tied to the haciendas like sharecroppers or renters and they started to massively incorporate into worker concentrations by means of a new pay system:  a salary.  Legions of workers went to work in different types of jobs: 20 thousand on trains, more than 600 thousand men and women made possible coffee exportation, other thousands in canal construction, aerial cable, highways, port adjustments.  Women for their part, which at that time could only work as teachers or nurses, now were needed in tailoring workshops, antioch textilery, match, beer, tobacco and other recently opened factories.  Also, they were starting to train large groups of secretaries for office work.

For that disproportionate mobilization the government expedited the law of circulation, which permitted entire masses to come to work as laborers in North American enclaves: Tropical Oil Co, in Barrancabermeja, exploited petroleum; Frontino Goil Mines and Choco Pacifico, gold and platinum and the famous United Fruit Company, protagonist of the worker massacre and the end of the decade, in the banana area of Santa Marta.

 The natural consequence of those laborer concentrations was the organization and the discovery of the power of strikes.  The abysmal social differences of wealth and poverty and the barbarity of a hegemonic regimen in power for 42 years, that utilized displacement, death and torture for their adversaries, united the different social sectors and at the middle of the decade, they founded the first National Worker Confederation and the Socialist Revolutionary Party, both instances as a result of a process of organization and of years of experience.

 Their national leaders, among them Tomas Uribe Marquez, Raul Eduardo Mahecha and Maria Cano felt and confronted their struggle in the clamor of the large strikes, the last of which was the Banana Area one, run by the most representative Sixto Obispo, Adan Ortiz Salas, Aurelio Rodriguez, Jose G. Russo, Erasmo Coronel, and also by women like Josefa Blanco, secretary of the Orihuecha union, who under her responsibility had 100 laborers, with them she oversaw that there was no cutting of bunches of bananas and ambushed and reduced small groups of uniformed men that then brought them to the strike committee  to make them reflect if it were the case, or get information from them or to judge them.  Another forgotten woman was Petrona Yance, the most outstanding of 800 women that participated in the strike.

President Abadia Mendez and his minister of war named General Carlos Cortes Vargas as Commander General with an overabundance of attributions.  He set December 5th as the date to negotiate the sheet of petitions that contained nine points.

The 25 thousand strikers had in their favor the sympathy of the population and their own mayor, of the indigenous of the Sierra Nevada, the businessmen and some livestock farmers who sent them beef for  their support.  And somewhat uncommon, contrary to popular belief, was the fact that a lot of North American workers sympathized with them.  It is also known that there were individual and group desertions in the first part of the strike, recruits who refused to fire and others who turned in their arms to workers.

It is estimated that 5000 workers were in the plaza when they were surrounded by 300 armed men.  The survivors were counted and after a bugle playing, Corte Vargas himself gave the order to fire three times.  However, no one ever knew how many deaths there were.  The people’s oral and written accounts differed: from 800 to 3 thousand and they added they threw them into the sea.  The officials admitted from 15 to 20.

That was the “christening of the fire” of the Colombian working class.  The court marshals came, as did the subsequent selective murders of other leaders and imprisonment of other national and local leaders.

In defense of the incarcerated, came the young lawyer Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, who left for Colombian history an unforgettable page that ended with success since all the people accused were acquitted.

The decade of the 20’s has been called with reason, the revolutionary gold period of Colombia.

Attempt on union leader, a DRUMMOND mining worker:

Once again there were assassination attempts against union directors from SINTRAMIENERGETICA, a union organization that groups workers from the multinational company DRUMMOND in Colombia. Esteban Padilla, an executive member of SINTRAMENERGETICA, Chiriguana section, is a recognized social leader among the coal workers.

According to the union report on Wednesday July 14, in the city of Barranquilla, when he was traveling in his own car, Esteban Padilla was a victim of a criminal assassination attempt, and is a member of the board of directors of Sintramienergetica and employed by the company Drummond Ltd in Colombia.

 Two hired assassins on a motorcycle shot at the union leader, leaving him gravely injured, and the bodyguard with him was also injured the same way.

Esteban Padilla is a recognized social and union leader and also works as truck maintenance mechanic for the past ten years in the Pribbenow mine, located in the town of La Loma de Calenturas, in the center of the department Cesar.

Union leaders from Sintramienergetica, Chirigana section rose up about it and commented indignantly that we have received this news, and for as much as these workers at this multinational company have always been victims of these criminal attempts.

In 2001 five managers died for crimes against humanity, a situation that until today is unpunished with tolerance from the state and indifference with which sees these attempts; a situation that involves that us workers, leaders in particular have to live with our families in constant anxiety, without the national government complying with the protection that it is obligated to provide every citizen, union leaders in particular, now that the number of crimes everyday has risen before the accomplice look of the government.

In their activity as laborer supporters and representatives of DRUMMOND LTD, the union leaders expressed how the paramilitaries murdered the president and vice president of the National Laborer of Mining and Energy (Sintramenergetica) Union on March 12, 2001. Valmore Locarno Rodriguez and Vicepresiente Victor Hugo Orcasita Amaya were traveling in the bus that takes the La Loma mine workers to their homes in Valledupar.  The vehicle was intercepted by the paramilitaries who proceeded to murder at that place and kidnap  Orcasita, who would turn up dead hours later.  Locarno’s presidential successor in the union, Gustavo Soler, was also killed seven months later in September 2001.





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