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The hidden folds of the delicate waist of America

Today, bananas have lost their capacity for extortion in favor of agroindustries and open-pit mining concessions, but above all drug trafficking

A rooster walks in front of the corpse of a gang member in San Pedro Sula (Honduras), in September 2018.
A rooster walks in front of the corpse of a gang member in San Pedro Sula (Honduras), in September 2018.Goran Tomasevic (REUTERS)
Sergio Ramírez

The scientific name of the banana is musa paradisiaca. A muse that rots if it lacks proper care, from the time the bunch is cut from the plant, transported by ship in refrigerated warehouses, and stored in ripening chambers until it reaches the supermarkets.

Sam Zemurray was a Jewish immigrant from Bessarabia who, aged 18, was buying overripe bananas arriving from Honduras at the port of New Orleans to make vinegar, when it occurred to him that it would be better business to grow them. At the age of 21 he had made enough money to buy an old steamer, in which he traveled to Honduras in 1910 where he acquired 20 square kilometers of land along the Cuyamel River. Upon his return, he hired a party of mercenaries led by two movie characters, Guy “Machine” Molony and Lee Christmas, to assemble a force to help restore General Manuel Bonilla — who was living in exile in New Orleans after having suffered a coup d’état in 1907 — to power.

Once Bonilla was reinstalled in the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa, Zemurray founded the Cuyamel Fruit Company, which received exemption from all taxation and autonomy in its banana operations. From then on, Zemurray became known as the all-powerful Banana Man. A congressman, he said, is cheaper than a mule.

The brothers Giuseppe, Felix, and Luca Vaccaro, immigrants from Sicily, started importing coconuts in 1899 from the port of La Ceiba, also in Honduras, and in 1906 founded the Vaccaro Brothers company, which also exported bananas, courtesy of a generous concession granted to them by General Bonilla himself. They also dedicated themselves to the production of ice to refrigerate the transport ships. In 1924, the brothers created the Standard Fruit Company, the great rival of United Fruit, founded in Costa Rica, with which they competed for control of the ice. The Vaccaro brothers eventually triumphed because they monopolized all the ice boxes in New Orleans, via which Giuseppe became known as the Ice Man.

William Sydney Porter, whose pen name is O. Henry, was employed as cashier of the First National Bank in Austin, when in 1895 he was accused of embezzlement. On the eve of the trial, he fled on a cargo ship leaving New Orleans for the port of Trujillo, Honduras, and there he wrote the novel Cabbages and Kings.

In the book, Trujillo became Coralio, and Honduras the Republic of Anchuria, and it was in those pages where O. Henry coined the term “Banana Republic.” “In those times we had treaties with almost all foreign countries, except Belgium and that banana republic of Anchuria…” says the narrator.

The United States consul in Honduras, in a burst of sincerity, wrote in 1917: “[...] The territory controlled by the Cuyamel Fruit Company is a State in itself, within another State… it houses its employees, cultivates plantations, operates railroads, terminals, steamship lines, drinking water systems, electric plants, commissaries, clubs…”

History, which repeats itself in Central America with terrifying constancy, has taken away the preeminence of the banana and given it the company of various agribusinesses and open-pit mining concessions that poison rivers, monopolize water, and turn forests into wastelands. But the supreme kingdom is drug trafficking, which signifies the buying of congressmen, police chiefs, five-star generals, ministers, and presidents of the republic, to ensure impunity and control transportation routes, airstrips, seaports, and customs. And so we have gone from Banana Republic to narco-state.

This is what Carlos Dada, founder of the digital newspaper El Faro in El Salvador, tells us with the prose of a novelist and the rigor of a chronicler in Los pliegues de la cintura (or, the Folds in the waist), published by Libros del K.O and which we recently presented in Madrid.

Three of the articles in the book reveal the intimacy of political power in Honduras, the old Anchurian republic of O. Henry, with organized crime: according to the testimony of the head of the Los Cachiros drug gang, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, imprisoned in the United States, presidents Porfirio Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernández received large bribes in exchange for facilitating drug operations. Lobo escaped trial in federal courts, but not his son Fabio, who is serving time in a New York prison where Hernández, still on trial, and his brother Tony, a congressman sentenced to life imprisonment, also went.

All of Dada’s other stories reveal that Central America, so current and so ancient, of national sovereignties ceded at auction to the highest or lowest bidder; the corruption that corrodes everything; the political assassination among whose victims are both an archbishop, Monsignor Romero of El Salvador, now elevated to the altars, and Berta Caceres, a leader of the Lempa ethnic group shot dead for opposing mining operations in Honduras; the genocide against indigenous peoples in Guatemala; the peasant massacres of El Mozote in El Salvador, and the ruthless repression against young people in the streets of Nicaragua in 2018.

The hidden folds of “the delicate waist of America” of Pablo Neruda’s Canto General.

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