Rebuilding the Gateway

A cartoon in The New Yorker once showed a woman who answered the phone in a fashionable Manhattan apartment turning to her husband and saying, “It’s your tally man, he’s tallied your bananas.” As the banana industry returns to New Orleans, we can assume that there will again be tallymen on our streets. In deference to the Harry Belafonte song we can only say, “Day-O.”

There was a time when New Orleans could claim to be the “Gateway to the Americas” with some credibility. As recently as the 1970s, three Central American airlines, Lacsa (Costa Rica), Sasha (Honduras) and Taca (El Salvador), flew non-stop between here and Central America. Banana boats sliced across the Gulf to gather their cargo. The New Orleans influence in Honduras and Guatemala was so large that next to the capitol city of Tegucigalpa, New Orleans had the largest Honduran population. Former mayor deLesseps Morrison was such a booster of Central American that President John Kennedy made him the Ambassador to the Organization of American States, a diplomatic group focused on Pan-American relationships. When the wealthy in those countries fell ill their hospital of choice was Ochsner on Jefferson Highway, which even had its own hotel for foreign visitors. Near the corner of Canal and Basin streets stands a statue of Simon Bolivar, liberator of Latin America.

Much of the relationship between New Orleans and Central America had to do with geography, but muscle was a factor, too. Through United Fruit, which was headquartered locally, forces in New Orleans had enormous influence over the governance and business of much of Central America. Early revolutions were often organized here. (Benito Juarez raised money locally before his conquest of Mexico.)

Geographically we’re still the Gateway to the Americas, but practically we are not. Houston and Miami emerged as major international airports serving the Latin American markets. The international carriers disappeared in a spike of mergers. Continental, United and American airlines moved into the market. In the age of containerization New Orleans lost the banana trade to Gulf Port.

Our city’s greatest connection to Hispanic America was Cuba. New Orleans and Havana were such natural trading partners they seemed like twins separated at birth. No city was as victimized by the Cold War as was ours when the embargo was implemented. For five decades, both cities have lost economic possibility because of limited trade between them. For several years during the early Castro regime the only connections between Cuba and New Orleans were CIA-funded broadcasts over WWL radio’s powerful signal, which was targeted at the island.

Now things are changing. The diplomatic ice between Cuba and the United States is melting. The banana business is returning to the city. This month, Copa Airlines will begin non-stop service four times a week from New Orleans to its home base in Panama City, Panama. (It is the only continuing non-stop service to Latin American from here.)

We will never be the No. 1 gateway to the Americas; Houston and Miami took that claim once passenger jets provided more transportation than boats. We can, however, be the most historically important gateway and the one to which people from other countries will most want to travel. Having the banana business back helps, too.

May the tallymen have bunches of bunches to tally.



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