The illusion of the American dream – interview with Honduran labour activist Marcial Caballero

28 November 2014

As part of its Workers Empowerment (WE) project, Fairfood International has been working with the Dutch trade union federation CNV International since 2008 to support selected labour union confederations in the Global South. Since 2013, we have been working withthe trade union CGT Honduras offering support with a campaign to improve working conditions in the Honduran melon industry. This led to a landmark four-party agreement with the Honduran Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Health and the melon producer Grupo Agrolíbano in September 2014.

Following on from her recent photo diary from Honduras, Ines del Real Tovar took the time to interview CGT Honduras Deputy General Secretary Marcial Caballero. He describes a life of labour activism, the struggles facing farmers in Honduras, such as land grabbing and state violence, and the ongoing fight to empower workers so they can have their own version of the ‘American dream’.

Could you tell me about your childhood and background in the workers’ movement?

There were 10 brothers and sisters in my family. For many years, my father worked for the same company in the Sula Valley, but he was dismissed after taking part in the strike of 1954. During that period, the workers’ movement in Honduras was starting to grow stronger. Juan Manuel Gálvez was the president at the time, but he was ousted in a coup de êtat by the army.

I grew up in a very fertile region in the north of Honduras, where they liked to say ‘a mule was worth more than a person’. Workers didn’t have any rights and many people thought they weren’t worth the price of a coffin when they died. This led workers to unionise, go on strike and fight for their rights. However, companies reacted by dismissing them. As the fight continued, workers achieved successes, such as access to healthcare and social security benefits. This was a historic moment in the country.

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I was a child when this was occurring and I remember after the strike my father’s situation only worsened. Companies would not hire him any more, because he had been involved in the strike. In the Sula Valley where we lived, the government authorised big companies to use land, and the companies permitted locals to use plots of land that were of no commercial value. This was how we were given some marginal land.

However, my brothers and I wanted to work for companies. I was barely 18 when I started working on a banana plantation, under the supervision of an acquaintance of my mother. These were hard times, as my father died and I had to help my mother to feed my younger brothers and sisters.

I worked hard and progressed within the company. I also got involved in the workers’ movement. I attended their meetings and learned about unionisation and workers’ rights. However, I was enlisted in the army, where I stayed for three years.

In 1975, I returned from the army to look after my mother who was very ill. The company I had worked for wouldn’t employ me again, so I started to work on my family’s plot of land, but a company claimed ownership of our land. Thanks to my past experience in the worker’s movement, I called on other farmers to help fight for our right to the land together. We formed an organisation called ‘Liga campesina’, which was part of a national agrarian movement.

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These were also hard times. They kicked us off our land. When we tried to return they beat us up and threw some of us in jail. I was even accused of being a traitor and organising a farmers’ guerrilla movement. In 1976, I participated in a march called ‘The March of Despair’. A lot of farmers’ movements took part in it, protesting against land grabbing. We appealed to ordinary citizens and asked them to boycott the upcoming elections, as we knew the elections wouldn’t be fair, because the army was in power. I was severely beaten during this march and put in prison.

As you can imagine, I’m very aware of the struggles that farmers have to go through.

After going through so much struggle and trouble, what drives you to continue working?

MC: As long as there is injustice, we have to keep fighting. I will probably die before the fight is over, but farmers deserve the right to a fair salary, decent housing , access to health care, etc. They talk about the ‘American dream’, but I don’t understand why one has to leave for the US or Europe to be able to get a job and a piece of land to work on. Land should be given in every country. This should be the dream.

What needs to be done to help farmers achieve what you call the American dream?

MC: First, there has to be a structural change. The resources are there, but people need to be able to have access to them. Education should be affordable, so that people can develop fully. How many farmers are represented in the government? Seventy per cent of our population is rural, but you don’t find farmers or rural communities represented in government. This has to change.

The way society is structured ensures farmers cannot go to university or become educated. A minority makes sure that only the rich can access education and, therefore, powerful positions in society. They only think of farmers when they are running for elections. The people that are currently in government are supposed to represent the farmers, but they don’t do so. They have a diploma from university, but that doesn’t mean they know the realities of the rural communities. They can’t respond to the needs of farmers and they only focus on responding to the needs of big multinational companies, who only want to produce for export. These policies don’t ensure that the food needs of our country are met. We are producing food to feed the US or Japan, but we’re not producing food to feed ourselves.

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What has been your hardest moment during your years as an activist?

MC: As an activist, I’ve been very disappointed by companies committing human rights abuses, and when the law was not applied. People have been killed for fighting for their rights or they have been put in jail for crimes they did not commit. Fortunately, in the eighties there was an amnesty for political prisoners and these men were released.

What are your dreams for the future?

MC: I still dream for a better country and I continue the fight for my family, so that they have access to education, and so that they don’t have to see and go through as much injustice as I did. I have two sons in Spain and one in the US. Four of my brothers have emigrated to the US. My hope is to see my family have a better future in Honduras. I hope the people of my country can live in dignity.

Marcial Caballero Deputy General Secretary