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Atlas Shrugged in Panama

September 5, 2011

One of the epic novels that I chewed through recently was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the 1,200 pager where Rand lays out her political philosophy while staging a battle between industrialists, the big business owners, and looters, her term for the socialist government that she imagines taking over the economy in the name of “public good.” Effectively, as the government creeps in on the interests and properties of the largest companies, the owners go on strike, disappearing right after they destroy all the means of production to make it difficult to rebuild without their knowledge and management skill.

While I’m pretty sure no such strike has ever taken place, I do wonder if the United Fruit Company read Atlas Shrugged, when they packed up and left Panama in 1999. While I have NOT fact checked this story, I’m telling it as it was told to me: from the perspective of Tomas, a farmer in my community that used to work for the bananero (banana company) before it abandoned its plantation on the western-most peninsula in Panama.

As we are wandering around his farm and he his teaching me how to take care of plantain and banana trees, I asked him why he stopped working for the banana company. He clearly thinks that I don’t know what a labor union is, because he starts by explaining what the term means. He says, “Now imagine, I am the owner and I hire you, Yesi, to work on my plantation. You, in turn, decide to talk to all of the other workers about how workers deserve more money despite the fact that we made good money.” It surprises me that Tomas sympathizes with the company and not with the workers – he was a worker afterall! But if there is one thing I can say about the campesinos around here it is that they are tough – hands thick and calloused from years of work, and they have the highest regard for having the ability to grow their own food. Tomas is exemplary of this attitude; he works hard and reaps what he sows.

So the labor union starts making demands from the company, and during years where a conservative government is in power, they rest easy. But, when a labor-friendly government is in power, then they have to yield a little more to labor’s demands. Same song and dance,

different country, right? Finally the labor union decides to go on strike. You know what the company does? They went through and injected alllllllll of their banana trees with a poison to kill them. They then call the press and the government and said, “Check it out, you guys go on strike, we will take your means of production.” It was a HUGE eff-you to the labor organizers and was taken straight out of the Atlas Shrugged handbook.

While that strike was eventually resolved, the banana company still decided to leave the plantation within a few years because they were unsatisfied with the union pressure. I’m sure it is not the first, nor the last, example of a company that supported a regional economy and then, when conditions turn unfavorable, closing up shop to move to another region where they will have fewer restrictions placed on operations. The workers formed a cooperative to manage the business, but it failed after a short while.

Alas, Tomas and his family returned to Chichica and bought land to farm on with the money he saved from working on the plantations. I think Ayn Rand would quite like him.

To be frank, Atlas Shrugged had a big impact on how I view my work here. The author rants about how people should not apologize for ability and that those who acquire things based on need, instead of merit or effort, are the looters of society, looting from those who rightfully made it. In other words, a person’s success is based on their effort. How American, right? So as I wander through this comarca land assessing people’s needs, and asking ‘what is that you need to pull yourself out of poverty?’ I have to remind myself that it is not hand-outs or donations that actually enable people to develop (have a sustained food supply and not die prematurely). But rather, it is an attitude – like Tomas, or Alberto, or Valerio or many of the farmers I’ve met here. You have to want to make your life better and be willing to expend the necessary effort to get there. Meanwhile, I’m developing projects that encompass both routes – a hand-out (wood-conserving stoves and seeds) and business training (because sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know and information is power).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sally O permalink
    September 11, 2011 7:18 pm

    Jess, as always, I am in awe of your writing. I love to read what you are doing and learning from the people there. Enjoy your visit w/ Jane and Bruce!
    lots of love, Sally

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