Garveyism and Labor Organization on the Caribbean Coast of Guatemala, 1920-1921

Article excerpt

In an 1896 travel account of Guatemala, Richard Harding Davis described the city of Puerto Barrios, situated in the department of Izabal on Guatemala's short Caribbean coastline between Honduras and Belize, as a frontier railroad town full of "zinc depots, piles of railroad-ties, and rusty locomotives" belonging to the Northern Railroad, which provided the country with access to Caribbean shipping routes (see map). (1) The state-operated Northern Railroad was the most important enterprise on Guatemala's Caribbean coast. The government's Northern Railroad construction project called for laying track across the country from Puerto Barrios to Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala, located closer to the Pacific side of the country. Indeed, soon after Davis published his account, Northern Railroad construction had expanded from Izabal into the neighboring department of Zacapa. (2) A few years later in 1901, the United Fruit Company (UFCO) of Boston established banana plantations in Guatemala in the Quirigua region of Izabal, and within three years, UFCO officials had consolidated many of the existing Guatemalan railroads, including the Northern, to form the International Railroad of Central America (IRCA), which UFCO used to transport picked bananas to the coast for shipment. IRCA established its headquarters in Gualan, Zacapa, where the Northern Railroad had previously been based.


The North American white officials of UFCO undertook what one historian called "trial and error racialist searches" for exploitable workers for the company's Central American banana plantations and railroads. African American immigrants from the United States and the West Indies represented but a portion of the thousands of laborers from around the globe with whom UFCO and IRCA managers experimented. (3) Firsthand accounts of 1920s and 1930s Central America (written largely by upper-class white Americans) indicate that UFCO and IRCA established a labor hierarchy on their Central American plantations in which African American immigrant laborers and some "Ladino" workers who were culturally and linguistically Spanish served under white American managers. In 1926 Wallace Thompson traveled by train through UFCO's Costa Rica division in Port Limon on the Caribbean coast of the country. Thompson described the banana-producing region as a "Latin American Black Belt" where banana plantations and black laborers were synonymous. African American immigrants could be seen working individually and in gangs on plantations, in villages, and almost "every-where." (4) Lilian Elwyn Elliott, who traveled extensively throughout Central America in the 1920s, saw lines of sweating black immigrants at Caribbean coastal ports loading bunches of bananas twenty-four hours a day onto UFCO boats headed for New Orleans, New York, and Boston. She wrote that "everywhere up and down the Caribbean coast of Central America," there could be no banana industry without black immigrant laborers; if these workers had not been available, the ports would have disappeared. (5) After visiting Guatemala's banana region in Izabal in the early 1930s, the radical American journalist Carlton Beals concluded similarly, "Central America is going black." (6)

In the last years of World War I, Guatemala's Ladino laborers began to organize, and in 1920 a revolution unseated the repressive government and led to reforms that allowed workers to assert more rights. During the same period, the black immigrant labor force on the coast also began to unite and organize against the exploitation by their employers and the reactionary Guatemalan government. Unlike Ladino workers, however, African American laborers drew on the black nationalist ideas and objectives of Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to do so. Consideration of Garveyism and its influence in Guatemala offers insight into how the movement operated outside the United States, where it was also very strong. …