The Atlantic Railroad and United Fruit


By the mid-1800's, Costa Rica realized it needed an Atlantic Port to facilitate coffee export to Europe . When Tomas Guardia declared himself Chief of State in 1871, he decided to build a railway to Limon. He contracted Henry Meiggs , a North American who had built railways in Chile and Perd . Meiggs went to England to secure loans for the project. He obtained 3,4000,000 sterling pounds, of which only 1,000,000 actually arrived. These loans caused the first foreign debt in Costa Rica 's history.

Costa Rica 's population wasn't large enough to provide the project with the necessary labor force, so thousands of Jamaican, Italian, and Chinese workers were recruited. After an optimistic start, it soon became evident that it was going to be a slow, dangerous, and costly process. Construction of the railroad claimed some 4000 workers' lives, cost the equivalent of eight million dollars, and lasted 19 years. The jungle proved itself a formidable and deadly barrier.

Meiggs' nephew, Minor C. Keith, became the director a few years after the project started. The railroad he inherited was constantly beleaguered by Severe shortages of funds, so he started experimenting with banana production and exportation as a way to help finance the project. When he realized that the banana business could yield very profitable results, Keith made a deal with the new president, Bernardo Soto, in 1884. In return for a grant from the Costa Rican government of 800,000 acres of untilled land along the tracks, tax-free for 20 years, and a 99-year lease on the railroad, Keith would renegotiate the project's pending debts to England , and complete construction at his own expense.

By 1886, Keith had settled the financial problems with England . He spent the next four years laying the last 52 miles of track that climbed through the steep, treacherous valley of the Reventazon river. Relations between Keith and the labor force weren't good. In 1888 Italian workers organized the first strike in Costa Rica 's history, demanding prompt payments and sanitary working and living conditions.

The railroad was completed in 1890. Until 1970 it was the only route from the Meseta Central to Limon. And, until the line was closed in late 1990, it was still the major means of transportation for many people who lived in the tiny towns it passed. Children took the train to school; it served as an ambulance for the sick and as a hearse for the dead.

After they finished the railway, many Italian workers settled in Costa Rica 's highlands. Chinese workers settled in various parts of the country. The Jamaicans stayed on the Atlantic Coast and started working on the banana plantations which Minor Keith established on his 800,000 free acres. The development of banana plantations where there had been jungles forced the Indians to move up into the mountains.

In 1899, Keith and a partner founded the United Fruit Company. La Yunai , as it was called, quickly became a legendary social, economic, political and agricultural force in many Latin American countries. Costa Rican author Carlos Luis Fallas describes- work conditions on the steamy plantations in his book Mamita Yunai , and Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells what it did to the imaginary town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although Costa Rica was the smallest country where United worked, United possessed more land here than in any other country. Costa Rica became the world's leading banana producer.

The year 1907 was United's peak year in Costa Rica , but by 1913 it was facing serious problems. Panama disease had infected banana trees; United's employees began protesting unfair working conditions. A 1913 strike was broken by the Costa Rican government--two strike leaders were chased into the plantations and killed.

The Company initiated a new policy: it would lease company land to independent growers and buy bananas from them. Tensions with workers grew; a 1934 strike led by two young San Jose communists, Manuel Mora and Jaime Cerdas , finally brought better working and living conditions. They maintained the original demands of 1913, and added to the list regular payment of salaries, free housing, medical clinics on plantations and accident insurance. United wouldn't talk with the strikers, but the planters leasing land from United did, and convinced United to sign an agreement.

In the late 30's a new disease, Sigatoka, infected banana trees up and down the coast. In 1938 United started to pick up and move west to the Pacific lowlands.

United lasted as long as it did on the Atlantic Coast only because it possessed so much land. Banana trees deplete soil of its humus and nitrogen. The clay soils of rainforest areas compact easily when the jungle is cut and they are cultivated. Since the soil could last only five to eight years, United used a plot of land until it didn't produce anymore, and then would move on to virgin land.

Minor Keith ended up a very wealthy man who married the daughter of one of the presidents of Costa Rica . Most profits from the banana industry went to the foreign owners of the production, shipping and distribution networks that made export possible.

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