Thursday, October 09, 2008

Guatemala in the good ol' days

Thanks to Scott for this short compilation of old films shot in Guatemala. It includes footage of the 1930 opening of the now defunct northern railway linking Guatemala City with the Atlantic coast. The well-dressed folk in the foreground are contented funcionarios of the United Fruit Company.

Under Minor Keith UFC's modus operandum in Central America was to offer to build a railway in return for the gift of massive banana estates alongside the route. In Guatemala however, the majority of the line and the port of Puerto Barrios itself had already been built with public money. This didn't stop United Fruit from twisting the arm of President Estrada Cabrera, so that in 1904 the dictator signed over to them all the rolling stock, stations and telegraph lines as well as Puerto Barrios and the railroad itself.

UFC's rep in the country, one Percival Farquahar, was to insist at a grand dinner thrown by the German Legation that no bribes had been involved prior to the signing of this contract. The oligarchs laughed, but in truth Cabrera Estrada's inducement turned out to have been but a handfull of railway shares. (According to Peter Chapman, no more than the price of a drink!) At the time a sudden flood of Brazilian coffee into world markets had left the Guatemalan government in queer street.

In Honduras the government tried to strike a different deal with an independent American railroad constructor called John C. Trautwine, offering to reward him for every mile of line completed. As a result the railroad wound its way around the coastal plane never quite beginning the ascent up to Tegucigalpa, which remained isloated atop its escarpment, whilst Trautwine retired home a wealthy man...his railroad incomplete.

Judging by this film, bus travel in Guatemala City was a lot more civilised in the 30s! One has to suspect that it reflects some of what García Márquez has described as the "falso esplendor" of the Banana Company.

1 comment:

scott said...

Excellent post. I didn't catch on the the UFC connection!

I too was amazed at the be-hatted ayudante...wonder if they still called out so musically!