60 years after the general strike in Honduras — ‘May is the road to victory’

This article was first published in Honduras in 1963 and was recently translated into English by Lucy Pagoada-Quesada. Amaya was a much-revered author and journalist whose novel “Prisión Verde” exposed the wretched conditions on the U.S.-owned banana plantations, where he worked as a young man.

What historical significance does May have for the people of Honduras? Is it transcendent just because of the festivities on International Workers’ Day, during which workers around the world lift their collective fists to greet their class brothers and sisters with the voices of proletarian internationalism?

Why do we get emotional at the sublime memory of the events that occurred in Honduras in 1954, when the workers on the North Coast organized and lifted themselves from their humiliating condition of slaves to their position of free and conscious men? What can we discover in the road that started in May and continues into our future?

Our objective is to answer these questions that arise on this new May First. There are dates in our young history that sometimes are overlooked because the ruling circles in our society drape a miraculous veil of silence over them. One of those is May, the seismic month in which the Honduran workers unleashed the strikes of 1954.

Why is such a proletarian epic minimized, when it should parallel other great patriotic events in our history?

May has imprinted into the future a shining blueprint for the great victory of the humble in Honduras.  May is the road of struggle, with the perspective of great success for the Honduran people. May is already an ideal, a revolutionary program, a method of action for the masses, their class demands and national liberation.

Sociopolitical view of the times before the strikes

Today, not one Honduran worker is ignorant of the fact that May is the month in which International Workers’ Day is commemorated all over the democratic and socialist world. In the capitalist sphere it is still a time for struggle and demands for emancipation, mostly under very difficult conditions of divisions and repression provoked by reactionary forces and imperialism. In the socialist sphere, on the contrary, May is already a month of great popular celebration in which millions of people march, marking the list of accomplishments in the construction of a just society which is a concrete and beautiful realization of the international workers’ movement.

For a long, long period of time, the struggle of International Workers’ Day was eliminated from the civic calendar of Honduras and the popular masses were not able to celebrate it, due to the ban imposed by the reactionary regimes, whose class hatred was reflected in a sharp despotism. There weren’t any rights for the workers, just the obligation to produce benefits for the North American monopolies and the local oligarchies and to starve in misery under the boots of the plantation foremen, executioners and hired guns. In Honduras, neocolonialism flourished with the increasingly putrefactive and submissive traitors’ groups and their daily shameful and anti-patriotic behavior.

In those years, which many of us remember (and some who do remember do everything possible to forget, so that the new generation will ignore the past), the powerful reactionaries serving the Yankee monopolies didn’t allow the workers to organize their unions, let alone create their own political party, which in the decade of the 1920s had already functioned for a short period of time. They didn’t tolerate any demonstrations by the workers or the celebration of May Day.

Then the workers and the alert among the democratic intellectuals became determined to gain the most elementary democratic liberties, among them the right to unionize. While Honduras had signed the agreement on workers’ rights with the Organization of American States and the United Nations, the country did not honor these rights. All the progressive elements were considered “Communists.” They were repressed, imprisoned and deported to Guatemala and other countries.

In those days, the dictatorship was carried out through the National Party. The Liberal Party, its historic rival, was in the opposition. Even without being organized, the Liberal Party supported the working people, those most affected by the regime, and helped them struggle for their demands.

In the class struggle that took place, particularly on the north coast of Honduras, the agricultural workers — banana workers known as “los campeños” — were in the vanguard. Different tendencies existed.

One side was stimulated by bourgeois circles — landowners and semi-bourgeois liberals — who had a definite anti-dictatorial character (anti-Carías, anti-Gálvez), but from the position of traditional warlordism.

Those on the other side were trying to cut down the struggle’s class essence, change its anti-monopoly character, which was the vital objective of the workers. They called us the liberal leaders. “Let’s not touch the gringo companies because that is anti-political; tomorrow, when we are in power, we will put our hands on them as they deserve,” they said. Many among us would accept this in good faith. Others doubted it, in spite of our limited political experience. We suspected treason, as history later demonstrated.

The struggle continued for decades in the shadows, with its natural characteristics of ebb and flow and the particular feature that the working class, the peasants and other workers would march as an appendage or sociopolitical reserve of ruling and parasite classes.  The tendency towards political independence of the workers would present itself as very weak because of the lack of cohesiveness, cultural backwardness and the sickness of warlordism.

But the people of Honduras never gave in to the bloody and brutal dictatorship of the feudal landowners (Carías), nor the demagogy of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie (Gálvez). One day that history must be rewritten.

Why did U.S. imperialism promote a change in government in Honduras in 1940? Wasn’t the gang of Mr. Tiburcio [Tiburcio Carías Andino, founder of the National Party and twice president of Honduras] loyal enough in its commitments to the monopolies?

Loyal he was, and is today, even though with a relative and subjective resentment that at certain moments appears objective and praiseworthy. But his resentment is not for lack of loyalty to the Yankee lords but rather for excess. In reality, they imposed a new president on Honduras [in 1948] due to the end of World War II, with the crushing of fascism by the anti-Hitler coalition in which the Soviet Union played a central role. A “new world” had been offered of liberties and welfare, but since that welfare did not enrich our countries, the people had decided to violently overthrow the many dictatorships fathered by the “good neighbor.”

In Honduras, our people had also courageously decided to overthrow the dictatorship, beginning in 1944, after the democratic forces in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and other places were overthrown by the despotic bayonets supported by the U.S. Embassy.

However, the popular struggles continued through those years under dangerous threat, which is why the imperialists decided, in an apparent change, to elevate Dr. Manuel Gálvez, minister of war under the dictatorship and former lawyer for the banana monopolies, to the presidency in place of Gen. Tiburcio Carías.

Besides what is expressed here, other important causes existed: With the new conditions that existed, in which a high spirit of insurrection prevailed in the popular masses, the ironfisted politics of the feudal landowners resulted in a provocation towards revolution.

That is why the more astute elements of the National Party saw the urgent necessity to create a new type of political approach, which they called “national conciliation.” This was the thinking of the merchant bourgeois class, with the approval of imperialism. Under this regime a transcendent demarcation occurred internally in the National Party, which later would split the party. Alongside the tough political line of the feudal landowners, a “reformist” tendency surfaced, promoting a policy more in accordance with reality, a policy that for the bourgeoisie and the monopolies was a step forward in calming down the anger of the popular masses.

However, the struggle of the people could not be stopped by the policy of “containment and holding back” and of “national conciliation” because the conditions of exploitation and misery for the workers continued to be the same. Nevertheless, the way in which the oppressed masses were struggling was also changing. They were less violent, so for certain sectors of the opposition, like the liberal oligarchy that the regime needed to attract, favorable conditions were established so the struggle could be taken to a more fertile terrain. They succeeded in taking away the longings of the liberal leaders by giving them some concessions and bureaucratic positions. As a result, the workers were repressed in their anti-monopoly actions, and an open confrontation started against the recently formed Honduran Democratic Revolutionary Party (PDRH).

This party came into the political arena elevating a new and patriotic flag of national unity with a clearly anti-imperialist sentiment.  Mr. Julián López Pineda, an anti-communist theorist and spokesperson for the monopolies, initially ridiculed the party, baptizing it with the derogatory nickname “the twenties.” But later, when the PDRH was supported by the advanced sectors of the working class and projected an outstanding militancy and political clarity to the masses, the party became a serious headache to the regime.

Then Mr. Julián had to throw away his anti-communist weapon against the PDRH and the government began to employ violent methods of repression, showing that “national conciliation” had no patriotic meaning for the workers and the progressive elements; it was the same old dictatorship. However, the proletarian struggles were adopting other organizational forms of clandestine struggle; the government was pushing the workers to struggle in the shadows.

At the beginning of the decade of the 1950s, the workers continued without legal unions and without a party of their own. Then May First began to be celebrated in unusual conditions: hiding in the banana plantations, at beaches by the sea, at an isolated farm of a progressive friend — meetings were organized in clandestine locations to commemorate the day.

The conditions of the people became desperate even as the foreign monopolies were sending millions of dollars to the United States and the oligarchies were receiving their part of the shared capital gains. During this time, the banana companies started to pay rent taxes — a type of sly bribery by which princely new concessions were awarded. The economic situation was prosperous, but misery gripped the working class, the peasants and other layers of society.