Tag Archive for Limón

Total Destruction to Tourist Mecca: Limón

Rio Estrella

Rio Estrella

On April 22, 1991, at about 3PM—three years before my first trip to Grape Point*— a 7.7 magnitude quake that killed 65 people and injured hundreds of others, tore through Limón province. 22 seconds of shaking knocked out bridges, buckled steel girders like toothpicks, destroyed roads, split pavement open like melons, and twisted railroad tracks into spaghetti. It razed thousands of houses and businesses alike. It would take Limón province years to recover.

Years later my friend Miss Olga told me about that grim day. She said she crawled out of her house on hands and knees for safety. Instead, the earth opened up like a gaping maw and then closed again right in front of her. She escaped injury, but a neighbor lady broke her arm and had to be medevacked. She was transported to the Rio Banano, lifted over the river by crane, and then air-lifted to Limón.

Any tourists on the southern Caribbean coast were cut off. Eventually they were evacuated by small air transport, and food drops were instituted for those who stayed behind.

International Rescue Corps Workers

International Rescue Corps Workers

By the time I arrived in ’94, temporary bridges had been erected but the roads were still in total disarray. The train tracks, once Limón’s only connection with the Central Valley, lay wasted and made rail travel impossible. It has yet to be rebuilt.

It was dark by the time we left Limón. I thought we would be another half hour to our destination. That is what the distance indicated, anyway—55 kilometers, or about 35 miles and how long could that possibly take?

We began running into cavernous holes in the road, so many potholes it was hard to know where the pavement ended and the chuckholes began. They were deep and oncoming cars simply disappeared into them. Their lights vanished only to re-emerge on our side of the road. everyone picked their way through the gaping craters. Whenever we met other cars, we stayed our course rather than move over. Sometimes there would be three cars abreast as we navigated the obstacle course. But you could not drive any faster than about five miles an hour. No one was going to get in a wreck. The road was the wreck!

We struggled on through the night. Over four hours later we came to a little town of Old Harbour, or Puerto Viejo. I couldn’t see anything but little white lights twinkling like jewelry in the jungle night. After we passed through town, headed for Grape Point, we slowed as the road got worse, though I hadn’t thought that possible.

typical bridge of the day

Typical bridge of the day

The one-lane mud track was as red and slick as potting clay, and the truck sashayed back and forth as we crept forward. We stopped for any oncoming traffic, moving off the road to allow them to pass, but careful not to get too far out of the ruts and end up mired in the ooze. The bridges we crossed that night were nothing more than planks laid down over enormous logs. At one point A. got out and replaced the dislodged decking before we could cross.

Out the truck windows dense green foliage crowded the road on either side; occasionally a branch would slap the side of the truck. I heard insect sounds: cheeps, shrill police whistles, clicks, and a bug so alien I knew I’d landed in a truly foreign world. It was a high-pitched metallic and penetrating sound that punctured the night like a submarine’s sonic echo. PING! It left a faint echo in its wake. PING!

Those bugs still catch my ear at night, but so much has changed since that first trip.

It took Limón and Talamanca years to recover from that earthquake. In the late ‘90s an Italian firm contracted with Costa Rica to replace all of Limón’s sewer system, sidewalks, and gutters. They also created a new esplanade in the center of town where these days tourists, debarked from the frequent cruise ships, meander and shop for curiosities.

The many bridges between Limón and Puerto Viejo were slowly replaced or repaired, and the road was eventually repaved, although the area around the Bananito River took them years to control. For a long time that train bridgesection of road was often washed out–closed–causing a long detour through the banana plantation country, over railroad bridges, and fording small streams.

Now a trip from our house to Limón takes about an hour, and to Old Harbour, fifteen minutes- tops. The slippery clay road from Port to Manzanillo was paved in 2001.

There are more tourists here now, more expats living along these shores, more drugs, more crime, and yet…. there are conveniences that come with progress. Our old Jeep would certainly be dead by now had the roads not been improved, and fresh veggies arrive from the Central Valley three times a week. But… I’ll write more about food next time.

 

Here is a YouTube video showing the extensive damage of the Limón Earthquake.

And, if you have about 25 minutes and want to know what it was like to ride the train from Limón to San José, you can watch this YouTube video.

* A. Had been coming to Costa Rica since the late 80s, but my first trip to Grape Point was in 1994.

Moin: Are Limón Dockworkers Crazy?

APM TerminalsI 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.”

Jobs.

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.protesters-burn

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.