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The "Free Trade" History Eraser Honduras, Maquilas and Popular Protest in Latin America

The "Free Trade" History Eraser

by TONI SOLO

Three 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.

Despite 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 agenda.

Latin 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.

"Max"–poetry and political memory

Some 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.

In 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.

Rigoberto was "Sebastian Rojas", the poet. For clandestine organizing purposes he was also "Max". The Honduran press called him "el ultimo guerrillero"–the last guerrilla fighter. Rigoberto was killed because he wrote and lived the meaning of lines like these 1

What 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?

And 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
and then to gaol, since his judge condemned you
(Condemned you? You’re damned to daywork
if you don’t organize…………)

The role of memory–1954

Another 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?

Honduras 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".

The great strike–from May to July

The 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.

Based 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.

Within 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.

Repression 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.

The 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.

Following 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.

1963–the forgotten coup

Plenty 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 infiltration."

It 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.

On 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 of months.2

So that’s how the maquilas came about ……

Throughout 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.

During 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.

As 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 was crippled.

The 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.

Public 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.

Honduran maquilas now

Conditions 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.

The 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.

Most 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,"3 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.

Penniless philanthropists finance the free market

The 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.

With 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.

International 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.

The maquila motive–high short-term profit

Local 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 assets.

The 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.

Next 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.

National snapshot–look!….not so invisible hands

Honduras 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.

Honduras 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 process.

Honduras 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.4 You are unlikely ever to see that fact widely broadcast or published in the US or in 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.

One 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. When is happening in Bolivia recalls Honduras 50 years ago.

TONI SOLO is an activist based in Central America. Contact:- tonisolo52@yahoo.com

NOTES

1. From his "Jornalero", in "Regrese a quedarme". Ediciones Martillo Tegucigalpa 1989

2. Amaya Amador brought the Arellano coup to life in his novel "Operacion Gorila" 1991 Editorial Universitaria, Universidad Nacional Autonoma, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

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