Banana Massacre

“Towards the end of 1928, in protest against poor pay and working conditions, banana pickers in Colombia took the decision to come out on strike. The industrial action threatened the interests of the American-owned United Fruit Company, who lobbied the American government to send troops into Colombia to suppress the strike.

In order to obviate the need for US troops entering Colombian territory, the Colombian government acted to suppress the strike itself, and on 6 December sent armed forces into the town of Cienaga, the strikers’ stronghold. The suppression was ruthless and violent, and was responsible for the deaths of scores of strikers and members of their families. It became known as The Banana Massacre, or Matanza de las Bananeras.

The workers of the United Fruit Company had several key grievances, most of which concerned their harsh working conditions, and the perception of being under-valued. They demanded formal written contracts, eight-hour working days, six-day working weeks and an end to the practice of paying wages with food coupons. Backed by left-leaning politicians, the strike quickly gathered momentum and became the largest display of organised dissent ever seen in Colombia.

Alarmed by the extent of the civil unrest, but unwilling to allow America to participate in a domestic matter, the Colombian government sent a regiment from Bogotá to put down the strike. Under the leadership of General Cortés Vargas, the government forces set up heavily armed posts around Cienaga’s main square, surrounding the strikers who were gathered within. A warning was issued to disperse, but before the protesters had time to respond, orders were given to open fire on the crowd. Reports of casualties widely differed, and were constantly disputed by both sides, but estimates of striker fatalities range from forty to around 2,000. Women and children were included among the dead. The bloody events were recounted in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The aggressive and uncompromising tactics of General Vargas ensured a swift end to the strikes, but they by no means brought an end to the government’s problems. One of the knock-on effects of the massacre was the radicalisation of anti-governmental opposition. The event drove a wedge between the leftists and the largely conservative political mainstream, and pushed those who resented the regime towards the fringes of the political spectrum. Faced with the prospect of further aggression, some radical groups felt compelled to militarise, and leftist guerrilla movements began to emerge throughout the country.

Vargas’s strong-arm tactics may have brought temporary satisfaction to the owners of the United Fruit Company, but they also polarised political opinion, and unwittingly established the conditions that allowed radical movements such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC, to emerge. With FARC continuing to dominate the radical left, the indirect consequences of the Banana Massacre can still be felt in Colombia almost a century after one of darkest events in its civil history.”