I read several English-language newspapers every day to get a feeling of what is happening around the country. This past week I read about the proposed billion dollar Moin dock expansion in a publication I have mixed feelings about—the editor’s political views seem diametrically opposed to mine. Anyway, his editorial comment at the end of the article said, and in bold print so I could hardly avoid seeing it: “It’s crazy that the dock worker’s union in Limón opposes the proposed container terminal.”
Excuse me‽ It’s not crazy at all.
Earlier this month there was a tense public information meeting in Limón. The Dutch firm, APM Terminals, presented plans for the modernization. This expansion is necessary, the proponents say, “to remain competitive in a very competitive market.”
And just how does that translate into a language we can understand? I’d venture to say the firm in charge of the overhaul is talking about “cost containment” and “efficiency,” which can both be translated as “mechanized” and hence “a reduction of manual labor.”
Needless to say, there were protests, shouting, slow downs, and strikes by the Moin stevedores, not to mention environmentalists upset about possible damage to mangrove swamps and turtle nesting areas. This protest was fairly subdued, not like some we have seen in the past with burning trucks, fruit left to rot in the tropical sun, and angry mobs lobbing Molotov cocktails at the police.
The article also points to APM Terminals maintaining numerous port installations in China, their positive working relationship with the Chinese, and the fact that the Chinese are looking at Limón for a Zona Franca, a free zone for businesses involved in import-export activities.
Aside from the fact that the proposed expansion will mean a loss of their jobs, the stevedores are aware of the long history of foreign intervention and imperialistic attitudes toward the population of this Caribbean coast. People here have fought long and hard for their rights. Remember, Costa Rica is the original Banana Republic and Limón is where the United Fruit Co. opened for business in 1899.
The mastermind, Minor C. Keith, built the railroad from the Central Valley to the Atlantic port of Limón off the backs of Jamaicans and other islanders, Chinese, and Italian workers. In fact, the first strike in Costa Rica came during the construction of that railway.
Initially, Keith used Chinese labor under contract provisions that would send them home to China after the job was completed. Their salaries were a fifth of the going wage—something Keith would become famous for—and they lived and worked in miserable conditions. Their strike, in 1874, was one of the first in the country.
The Chinese were replaced by black islanders and things went according to Keith’s plans until they got a better offer when Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, began his crazy Panama Canal project. Jamaican workers abandoned Keith for Lesseps who paid five dollars a day, five times what Keith was paying. Keith then imported 2000 Italian workers in 1887 who quickly threw down their shovels and picks.
Before coming to the steaming jungles of Costa Rica, most of those workers were active in farm labor unions in Europe. And why Keith thought organized workers born at the foot of the Alps would work for a pittance in suffocating conditions of the tropics, no one knows. Fortunately for Keith, Lesseps soon went broke in Panama and the Jamaican workers returned.
Once the railroad was completed, Keith branched out into banana plantations— 800,000 acres given to him, tax-free, by the government in exchange for his railroad work. If this sounds to you like the proposed giveaway to the Chinese for their Zona Franca, you are not alone.
Blacks who live in Limón are descendants of the United Fruit legacy. Through oral history, they remember those days and the brutal tactics of the Octopus, as United Fruit Co. became known. Thomas P. McCann, in his book, An American Company: The Tragedy of United Fruit, puts it succinctly: [United Fruit was] a new form of business enterprise: the multinational company …in many instances more powerful and larger than the host countries in which it operated… they bought protection, pushed governments around, kicked out competition, and suppressed union organization.
It sounds very familiar to the multinational companies of today. We can all thank Minor Keith for the business model that brought us Big Oil, Big Banks, and now, Big Terminals.
By 1926 the majority of bananas were grown by independent producers, but, because of the railroad, United Fruit still controlled the docks, the loading, shipping, and marketing of the fruit.[In the name of brevity for this blog post, I’ll skip a whole bunch of history including Costa Rica leaning toward Communism, a little thing like a Revolution, and the country’s ultimate turn toward Socialism.]
The Costa Rican Central Government finally nationalized the railway and the port in 1966, turning its maintenance over to the Administración Portuaria y de Desarrollo Económico de la Vertiente Atlántica, which is a mouthful for anyone, and is better known by its acronym, JAPDEVA [pronounced hap-day-va]. The people on this Atlantic coast felt proud of their country owning and controlling a port that once was operated by an oppressive and dictatorial multinational corporation.
JAPDEVA is Limón. Or it was Limón until it began negotiating with the Dutch for a 30-year contract for the new terminal, a loss of jobs, and a land giveaway to the Chinese.
So, Mr. Editor, there are many historical and personal reasons the dockworkers of Limón do not support the port expansion. You need to read your history books.