For humankind, basic resources have always been a reason to begin conflicts. Take the example of agriculture; since its discovery, ancient human tribes fought each other for the most fertile piece of land. The deadly diamonds market has split apart entire countries in Africa resulting in the creation of criminal self-defense groups that have threatened international peace. Oil has also played its role by destabilizing the Middle East and giving rise to some of the most dangerous terrorist organizations. But who would have imagined that something as simple as bananas could shift the course of international trade, to the extent of constructing coup d’états, forging revolutions and inspiring some of the most serious guerilla armed groups.
Bananas, that famous sweet fruit that we all have every morning for breakfast. But bananas would be as strange as guavasteen if it weren’t for the one of the icons of American Imperialism: the United Fruit Company. The UFC was the largest and most profitable company to produce, sell and transport bananas from Central to North America. Its plantations took place in every Central American country along with Colombia and Ecuador. Its influence reached such a level in the US, that at some point, virtually every member of Congress had a stake in the banana company.
Relating bananas to politics sounds simple, absurd and even ridiculous when you think of it. However, during the 20th century, the banana market played a huge role in the United States economy. Its impact on the American stock market reached a level high enough for the US government to authorize various intelligence operations in order to shift Central American politics in line with the “banana interests”. As Peter Chapman mentions in his book “Bananas”: “the United Fruit Company had possibly launched more exercises in regime-change on bananas’ behalf, than had even been carried out in the name of oil”.
In the late 19th century, various American entrepreneurs found themselves roaming in the jungle of Central America in search of inexpensive opportunities. The recent opening of its markets made it an attractive and cheap area for foreign entrepreneurs to invest. By the end of the century, these entrepreneurs owned vast pieces of land after they discovered an unknown, bizarre fruit that could easily be transported to the US with no risk of perishment. However, the lack of infrastructure in Central America obliged them to construct its own railroads and telecommunications in order to ease its production and transportation. As a consequence of these heavy investments, by the beginning of the 20th century, they not only owned the local countries’ land, infrastructure and workers, but also their governments.
The outstanding success of bananas in the United States, skyrocketed the size of the investments in Central America, turning these countries into what was known as banana republics (not the clothing retailers). The term banana republic was first used by American writer Oliver Henry to refer to a politically unstable country with an economy dependent upon the exportation of a sole limited resource, usually bananas. A country where social classes are stratified and the export of such product is only controlled by the country’s ruling plutocracy and bourgeoisie. In turn, the banana republic governments – aware of their countries dependence on bananas – helped the UFC to appropriate multiple parcels of land. For the UFC, no piece of land should remain available to any potential competitor. Their main business strategy was the acquirement of thousands of acres in order to leave no land accessible to any other fruit company, even if these acres had no purpose to the company. At some point, the United Fruit was only using one third of the land that it owned. During a time when land was the main food provider for the lower classes, the United Fruit Company left millions of locals with no land and no means of survival.
Some specific countries were notoriously affected by the United Fruit Company operations. The UFC carried the heaviest vote in decision-making by controlling their main pieces of infrastructure and their largest percentage of jobs created. For an organization whose only purpose was the reduction of costs to increase profits, human rights outside its country of origin (USA) were an obstacle to achieve its goal. So the UFC began to use its immense influence in line with its interests, at the expense of the people.
“We chose Guatemala as our starting point because it was politically the weakest country at that time” – United Fruit Company employee.
The United Fruit Company was so big, so influential and so dominant, that locals began to call it El Pulpo (The Octopus) for its multiple arms that could reach even the most hidden spots. A good example of its domination was Guatemala’s coup d’état. In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz was named president of Guatemala. Arbenz installed a series of agrarian reforms that aimed to the distribution of land to locals. He nationalized significant amounts of unused land from the UFC and redistributed it to peasants. As a response, the UFC spent millions of dollars lobbying the United States government in order to reverse the situation. Their key play was the portrayal of Arbenz as a communist leader that could threat US capitalist interests. Consecutively, the US government in times of the Cold War could not afford a communist leader in its backyard and therefore in 1953, the CIA was authorized to commence Operation PBSUCCESS. This operation overthrew Arbenz and imposed a more right-wing leader in line with the US interests. The regime-change operation involved severe violence and was later called a new form of economic imperialism. Among the civilians fighting on the coup was a 25-year old Ernesto Che Guevara, who had been convinced by this conflict of the necessity of armed struggle against imperialism. This will later wind up to the Bay of Pigs.
After the coup, Guatemalan sovereignty was shattered leaving thousands of people homeless and landless. Years later president Bill Clinton apologized for the CIA intervention, so no hard feelings.
“Always remember they were more than three thousand” – Arcadio Buendia (One Hundred Years of Solitude protagonist when referring to the death toll of the Banana Massacre).
If we go back in time a few years more and travel south Latin America. We find ourselves in the north-Colombian jungle. The small town Cienaga or, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez would call it: Macondo. Facing the Caribbean Sea and sharing waters with Haiti and Jamaica, Cienaga enjoys optimal weather for the plantation of tropical fruits. Its rapid access to water and its ideal climate made Cienaga an icon for the United Fruit Company. However, this weather turned deadly when combined with deplorable working conditions and multiple diseases spread by mosquitoes. It was not long until workers felt unsatisfied with their work at the United Fruit. The 16-hour work shifts were inhumane, especially at temperatures above 35 degrees. Their salaries in the form of food-coupons were frustrating since these could only be exchanged for basic goods in the same UFC food shops. So by 1928, the banana workers decided to go on strike. Their claims were 8-hour work shifts and a change in salaries from food coupons to real cash. The strike rapidly turned into the largest labor movement to ever set foot in Colombia.
At the end of November 1928, a telegram was sent from Bogota to Washington describing the situation and making more than one mention of the “communist” group that was forming in the town of Cienaga. As a response, by the beginning of December, the US sent an armed fleet to Colombian coasts in order to “protect” American citizens and the interests of the United Fruit Company.
On December 5th, during a strike gathering in the main square of Cienaga, the Colombian army – afraid of a North American invasion- arrived in a matter of seconds to the scene, blocking every street and covering every rooftop. After a five-minute warning, they opened fire against the strikers. Hundreds (maybe thousands) were murdered with no discretion towards women or children.
A telegram dated January 16th, 1929 was sent from the US Embassy in Bogota to the US Secretary of State in Washington stating: “I have the honor to report that the Bogota representative of the UFC told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand” (there are diverse sources specifying a higher number of murders).
In hope of a prompt forgetter, the corpses were later removed and thrown into the sea with help of the UFC transports. However, scars remained within society. The massacre resulted in the formation of self-defense groups that would later turn into guerrilla arm groups. Yes, one of them was the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, aka FARC. After decades of violence and repression, FARC turned into one of the most violent threats to Colombia and the USA. Kidnapping and drug trafficking were their main methods of self-financing. They set the entire Colombia (and nearby countries) under a curtain of terror for over 50 years and were labeled a terrorist group by the CIA. Their terrorist operations finally ended on August 2016 after current president Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace agreement. They are now a political party.
New York City, USA
Fast forward a few years and we find ourselves in 1974, New York. The era of President Nixon, the Vietnam War, The Beatles music and hippies all around. The era when corporate raider Eli M. Black was the largest UFC shareholder, but also the era when Hurricane Fifi hit the coasts of Central America. Fifi crushed a significant amount of banana plantations in Honduras, resulting in huge losses to the UFC.
As a result, the UFC needed a way to reduce its operation costs and shareholder Eli M. Black had a strategy to do so. A strategy involving huge levels of corruption. The same strategy that would later end his life as a way to express his remorse.
On February 3rd, 1975, pedestrians walking on Park Avenue in New York City were shocked by the sudden fall of a human body. This was Eli M. Black committing suicide from his office on the 44th floor of the Pan Am building. After a thorough investigation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission exposed a scheme where M. Black bribed the president of Honduras Oswaldo Lopez Arellano, concerning a reduction in export taxes. Apparently, Black killed himself two weeks before the scheme was to be published. Trading in the United Fruit stock was halted, and Lopez Arellano was later ousted in a military coup.
After this episode, the United Fruit Company decided to rebrand the entire organization by changing its name to Chiquita Company (the little company in Spanish) as a way to cover its tracks. They moved their US headquarters outside New York City and hoped that customers would quickly forget about their evil past. Fortunately for Chiquita, that was exactly what happened. Chiquita Brands International still operates in and outside the United States, it is one of the largest banana distributors in Europe and still obtains most of its products from Central and South America.
Humankind may soon forget history chapters if there is nothing to remind us about these outstanding situations that even affect our everyday lives. If something as simple as bananas can have this impact in the world, what can’t? Is the United Fruit Company leaving us a lesson about economic dependency? As Colombian colonel Aureliano Buendia states in One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Look at the mess we’ve got ourselves into just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas.”