The grand Republican house overlooking the main square of Ciénaga has seen better days. Its pale ochre walls are cracked and wooden floors peeled away by termites. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful building and a crumbling vestige to the days of the banana trade.
As the midday sun rises over this coastal town, time stands still. The clock hands of the church dial haven’t moved in a century. Maybe it’s the heat and the corrosion from the salty breeze, but in Ciénaga, it is always a few minutes past six, even when the bright glare of the sun turns every hue and tone into a blinding white. As locals scurry for shade dressed in flowing cotton beneath a canopy of colorful umbrellas, there is decorum in the decay for Ciénaga was the capital of Colombia’s failed enterprise with colonialism.
A short drive west of Santa Marta’s tourist enclave of El Rodadero you enter the banana-growing zone of the Magdalena department. Crossing the suspension bridge over one of Ciénaga’s waterways you quickly find yourself hemmed in by plantations, wooden huts and the emblems of the United Fruit Company’s banana “Republic.” Water towers loom over an expanse of green and the old train tracks of the multinational’s transportation network cut through the wind swept shanties that have sprouted up on the outskirts of Ciénaga. The landscape is one of blistering realities and lush imagination.
In 1899, the United Fruit Company set up operations in Colombia as part of an expansion process, which included much of Central America and the Caribbean. While the country was deeply divided between Liberals and Conservatives, United Fruit quickly began reaping the benefits of the business, creating with its capitalist venture a new middle class of costeños employed by their U.S. corporate governors. The conversion of much of the coast into plantations gave rise to unions and a rural proletariat. Ciénaga was the town at the heart of the business and, during much of the early 19th century the landowners of the Magdalena grew wealthy by renting out land to ‘La Unite.’
With United Fruit came the food commissaries, the postal service, telegraph stations and the train. Merchants arriving from the Middle East on steamships brought with them fine silks, carpets and Parisian drapes. The banana boom of the 1920s spawned an age of indulgence and opulence. While Liberals snubbed their noses at the staunch conservatives values of Ciénaga’s inhabitants, the poor became more disgruntled at their servitude and in 1928, banana workers and peasants went on strike.
The site of the 1928 banana massacre is commemorated today in a statue of a machete-wielding banana worker. Looming over Ciénaga’s outdoor market, the iron monument casts a shadow over tents selling gaudy underwear and Tupperware: mandatory items of modernity at the heart of ‘Macondo.’
The towns of Ciénaga, Aracataca, Sevilla and Río Frio form part of a literary landscape immortalized by Colombian Nobel Laureate, Gabriel García Márquez in his legendary work ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.’ Describing life in his imaginary town Macondo, García Márquez, recounts how a “leaf storm” sets in and disturbs the town’s peaceful ways. For many academics, the “leaf storm” represents the arrival of United Fruit. The word Macondo was also the name of a banana farm operating near Gabo’s childhood home of Aracataca. In his landmark novel, García Márquez also recounts the infamous massacre by the Colombian Army of the striking banana workers and one whose official death toll, like Macondo, eludes even the most thorough of historians.
Touring the land of literature offers the traveler a chance to step back in time and appreciate that which still stands of the United Fruit Company. In Sevilla – an hour’s drive south of Ciénaga – you can wander the decaying housing compound where the managers and expat staff of the American multinational once lived. Green painted picket fences and grand front porches remind the visitor of a quaint 1950s American suburb. There is no Revolution Road here, nor revolutionaries: just empty lanes and family homes transplanted in the tropics. The train still stops in Sevilla though, carrying coal in its containers rather than freshly-cut bananas.
In Aracataca and Rio Frio, many well-crafted façades of the American imperial days still stand. Beaten by the rains from the Sierra Nevada and painted with the bright color logos of beer and soft drink manufacturers, there is a sense that in every fan ventilated room and corner store, there are still those who remember a time when the land was united, for better or for worse, by fruit.