On December 6th, 1928, banana plantation workers from the town of Macondo, Colombia, who are in the midst of a general strike over their abhorrent working conditions, gather in the city square to await the arrival of the province’s civil and military leader. In the crowd are three thousand men, women, and children. Thus far, their foreign employer has dodged their demands with the skilled maneuvering of lawyers who argue that their complaints are invalid because they do not legally exist. On this day, however, the crowd expects acknowledgment. They have strength in numbers; their existence cannot be ignored. They wait by the train tracks for the military leader’s promised arrival.
The train arrives as promised, but no general steps out. Instead, an official reads from a decree that narrowly defines the existence of the crowd: “a bunch of hoodlums.” He gives the crowd five minutes to disperse. No one moves. When the time has expired, a volley of gunfire erupts from all corners of the square, and all but one of the three thousand men, women, and children are gunned down. In the eerie silence that follows the massacre, their bodies are piled onto trains and dumped into the sea. Any trace of their existence is wiped clean.
Or, at least, so writes Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. In reality, some semblance of this massacre did occur in the very real town of Cienega, Colombia, at the hands of the Colombian army and the United Fruit Company. Marquez’s retelling takes many liberties with the official versions of the event. Most notably, he imagines a literal amnesia descending over the town and wiping the event from everyone’s memory, leaving the ranting of the sole survivor, strike leader José Arcadio Segundo, to go blissfully unnoticed. Of course, no such magical disease could ever have afflicted the town of Cienaga. But, like all parts of the narratives surrounding this massacre, the amnesia described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez treads a thin line between fiction and reality.
We know that, on December 6th, 1928, banana plantation workers from the town of Cienaga, Colombia—in the midst of a general strike against: the United Fruit Company’s bans on small agriculture, failure to comply with social insurance legislation, and payment in the form of vouchers valid solely in company stores—did indeed gather in a square to await that arrival of the province’s civil and military leader. We know that the company did indeed refuse to listen to its workers on the grounds that their temporal status meant they were not actual employees. We know that General Cortes Vargas did indeed arrive, only to read a directive accusing the strikers of various infractions, labeling them a “cuadrilla de malhechores,” proclaiming the right for public forces to use arms against them, and giving them five minutes to disperse before opening fire.
But we do not know how many of those workers died; the numbers range from nine, as official José Gregorio Guerrero reported, to as many as two thousand, as liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán reported. And we cannot know exactly why General Vargas gave the order to fire: interpretations range from a spontaneous defense of Colombian sovereignty to premeditated collusion with the United Fruit Company.
It is not due to any form of amnesia that the historical narratives about the banana massacre are riddled with these inconsistencies. Instead, such discrepancies are an inevitable result of the uproar that followed the massacre, which propagated a number of different versions of the event. The facts and figures of the massacre came to be thoroughly obscured, it seems, by politics.
After the massacre, the Colombian government, under President Miguel Abadía Mendez, attempted to minimize potential backlash by blaming the strike on foreign agitators. General Vargas penned his own interpretation of the incident, which he presents in a tone that feels jarringly impartial when compared to the evocative prose wielded by Marquez. Vargas excuses his own actions by emphasizing the radical ideology of the strikers; for example, he points to an anarchist pamphlet that supposedly threatened the lives of North Americans living in the region. “We have proceeded in each and every one of our actions, during this time of danger to the peace and tranquility of the Republic, with all of the wisdom, prudence and energy of which we are able and which the circumstances require,” he asserts. Most importantly, Vargas claims that there were two North American ships stationed nearby, prepared to dispatch troops into the region if the situation were to be perceived as dangerous for the interests of the United States. The order to shoot was a defense of Colombian sovereignty. And the true enemy, by extension, was the United States.
Although President Mendez was decidedly conservative, his government was not particularly repressive; as a result, a significant volume of press coverage slipped through its limited attempts at censorship. Several competing narratives emerged, which contradicted that of General Vargas. National newspapers actively reported on the situation, and many gave their overt support to the labor movement. Survivors were also able to share their stories and the definitively non-amnesic public responded to their accounts by adopting a generally grave perception on the situation. Most prominently, strike leader Raúl Mahecha spoke at a communist convention in Monetevideo, where he directly implicated the government for the tragedy and accused it of pandering to foreign influence: “This is how the reactionary government of Colombia, to meet the interests of a foreign company, has murdered native workers demanding better living conditions and more humane working conditions in the hell that is the banana plantations.”
Arguably, the most influential narrative that emerged to explain the tragedy was that of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Gaitán was a young and relatively inexperienced parliamentarian at the time of the massacre, but he quickly rose to prominence within Colombian politics by adopting a firm stance against the government and pressing for official enquiries into the event. Gaitán’s narrative was nearly as dramatic as the one advanced by One Hundred Years of Solitude. He delivered fiery speeches marked by moral righteousness and a sense of urgency to congressional debates and before public crowds, accusing the government of collusion with the United Fruit Company: “ So premeditated was this monstrous crime, that the workers were maliciously concentrated in the city of Cienaga…because the city had signed an agreement with United, which had accepted certain points…” He punctuated his own points by bringing out the skull of a child supposedly killed during the massacre and imbued his story with sensationalism by referencing a report of the rape of a mentally retarded girl by the soldiers who had perpetuated the massacre.
The effect of Gaitán’s pointed narrative was not immediate. Ultimately, President Mendez was exonerated by a senate committee for his suppression of the strike. By the time of the election of 1930, however, Gaitán’s retelling of the “Matanza de las bananeras” had contributed to a perceptible shift in Colombian politics. The conservative party lost public support and faced continuous strikes and demonstrations, while the liberal party gained the strong backing of the labor movement and all of the corresponding economic and political force it had come to wield thanks to popular outrage over the banana massacre. The reform-minded liberal Olaya Herrera assumed the presidency in 1930, while Gaitán continued to rise to prominence until his assassination immediately before the 1950 election, for which he had been a favorite. The period of relative stability sustained between 1930 and 1950 came to a tragic end with Gaitán’s assassination, which launched the beginning of popular uprisings by the liberal lower classes, infamously known as the “Bogatazo,” and the subsequent era of violence known as “La Violencia.”
Today, the story of the banana massacre continues to inhabit popular consciousness far beyond Colombia, thanks to Marquez’s version. Yet this literary narrative is one informed by politics; after all, Marquez himself identifies with the politics of Gaitán, which are echoed throughout his own retelling. But One Hundred Years of Solitude does not simply add yet another political spin to a vague series of events whose resonances can still be felt in Colombian politics to this day—it adds another, higher dimension to the massacre by immortalizing it in a work of literature. And, as it does so, it brings its readers’ attention to the role of memory.
Returning to the amnesia that affected the inhabitants of Macondo—it’s clear that it stands in sharp contrast to the actual outrage that followed the heavily reported events in Cienaga. We know that Marquez’s account of the massacre is fictionalized because we know that it is impossible for an entire town to experience event-specific amnesia—but does this make Marquez’s version of events any less powerful than those that purported to tell the truth?
At the same time, Marquez’s choice to invoke a plague of amnesia that allows an oppressive system to perpetuate its abuses gives his narrative another clear point: history can be manipulated, and this manipulation can be powerful. The characters that appear throughout One Hundred Years of Solitude must grapple with a multitude of difficult circumstances that they cannot control, but, along the way, Marquez provides them with the powerful weapon of memory. For generations, the Buendía family endures on the foundation of its memories.
In more ways than one, memory defines the characters of One Hundred Years of Solitude. All of them craft their own personalities based on their outstanding capacity to remember and synthesize the experiences of past generations. The entire town of Macondo similarly constructs a cohesive sense of identity by cultivating its memories of the triumphs and travails of the past. But the novel itself, as a work of literature, reminds us that memories can be distorted. Through the experience of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, we are able to observe the complexity of memory by watching it reconstruct or wreak havoc on the lives of others. Although many other novels stop there, providing us with characters who seem to dwell safely in the realm of fiction, the narrative of One Hundred Years of Solitude bumps up against that of history and pushes us to recognize that this realm is not so safe after all.
Image Source: Flickr/Chris Drumm