Peter Chapman – Bananas


For many, the biggest problem with history, despite the interesting facts and compelling story, is how it is relevant in real life and how the information just consumed can be used today. Often, this is a hard question to answer, especially if one begins to read more specialized literature. Yet, often, the men and women who synthesize decades of research into great reads often have more to give than the original monographs or essay collection. Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World is more than just the history of the banana (although it is just that!). Chapman, who has been based in Mexico and Central America for the BBC and now writes for the Financial Times of London, weaves the story of United Fruit, bananas, and United States/Central American relations into a singular narrative. While saying nothing new, for newcomers the story is incredible and will, more than likely, draw one into further reading.

At the heart of Bananas, is the story of bananas. To be more specific, the origins of the United Fruit Company, which single-handedly created demand for a fruit that it basically invented and harvested from the bowels of Central America. In 1870, tiny Boston Fruit Company head Andrew Preston was introduced to Captain Lorenzo Baker, who provided Preston with “Jamaica Yellows,” the banana that would alter Central American history. The advent of steam technology and the rise of the US financial market coalesced at the closing decades of the nineteenth-century prompting Boston Fruit to expand into United Fruit with ships importing bananas from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Honduras.

United Fruit is remembered for its part in the overthrow of democratically-elected Jacobo Arbenz, but its effect was felt well before its apogee in 1954. United Fruit prospered throughout the early twentieth century, even into the 1930s because of its monopolies in countries like Honduras and Guatemala. United Fruit owned vast tracks of land, much of it sterile and unused. It owned exclusive access to railroads built specifically for hauling bananas. The latter was a legacy going back to colonial days when powers would connect hubs of imperial capital with sea access (in short, the tracks begin in the banana fields and travel straight to the ships docked at the harbors awaiting sail for the US East Coast), disconnecting cities from one another. Because of this division, United Fruit was able to pursue harsh labor practices, something Chapman does not go into extensively in his work. Without a pertinent labor movement between countries (or even small villages) the exploited banana laborers were left to fend for themselves, and they did (a clear example is the “Banana Massacre” in Santa Marta, Colombia in November of 1928 in which 11 to 30,000 were killed).

Because of its size and its brazen arrogance, United Fruit was about influence both the United States and the countries from which it derived its profits. Chapman makes it clear that some of this influence can be attributed to characters (wonderfully rendered by Chapman) such as Minor Keith, Samuel Zemurray and Eli Black, the last CEO of United Fruit, who leaped to his death in 1971. With its hands in the halls of government (Secretary of John Foster State Dulles’ law firm represented United Fruit and Allen Dulles, the secretary’s brother, was head of the fledgling CIA), United Fruit would promote equitable trade deals, markets wide open for their taking, and an ideology that provided a convenience to the rise of communism at the dawn of the Cold War.

United Fruit played its hand in two of the most influential moments in the middle of the twentieth century. In 1954, it was United Fruit land that was seized by Arbenz to be redistributed. He rationalized that the land was feral (United Fruit owned huge swaths of land, much of it unused) and it would promote the liberal reforms that had begun after the fall of dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944. The United States cried “communism” and provided Castillo Armas with guns, money and bombing raids to bring down Arbenz. In what would become standard, the US bent Guatemala’s will and Arbenz left the country disgraced, strip-searched on his way out of the country.

Unlike Guatemala, Cuba, after its revolution, was able to appropriate United Fruit landholdings. United Fruit was accused by Fidel Castro of harboring and aiding exiles of the former regime of Fulgencio Batista. This would prove more than correct. In 1961, John F. Kennedy launched an invasion of Cuba from the Bay of Pigs. Honduras, where coffee was never king and is still the land of bananas, provided the spring board for troops. The US did not provide any military support and Cubans repelled the exiles and crushed the counterrevolution. “Cuba is not another Guatemala,” Fidel warned. United Fruit was never compensated for its lost property.

The company does not exist today in the same vein as during its heyday. A combination of a terrible harvest, overpriced shares declining rapidly in value and a diluted brand that would soon by directly implicated in the two incidents mentioned before as Richard Nixon would prompt a review of the CIA and many branches of government. Eli Black, the last owner of United Fruit, killed himself by jumping off the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building in New York City. United Fruit existed no more.

The strength of Chapman’s work is that the United Fruit Company is not just an interesting tale in the history of Central America and the longer tale of Western imperialism but continues to be relevant today. United Fruit Company is now Chiquita. It has, for all intents and purposes, gone native in order to dispel its former life as a rogue corporation that overthrew governments and murdered workers. But it is not United Fruit’s transformation to Chiquita that is impressive.

Multinational corporations actively take out pages from the United Fruit playbook. It is increasing difficult to overthrow governments but companies can wield such a sway that decisions are made with executives in the room or the corporation in mind. The ubiquity of advertising was also a standard of United Fruit – seen today as the Chiquita woman and previously in Hollywood shorts that misconstrued the culture of Central America and prompted critics, taking the phrase from O. Henry, to label these degenerate and seemingly vapid societies nothing more than banana republics (literary). The deals it cut with the US government are perpetuated today. Free trade and neoliberalism are the mantras of the moment. Fair trade and the fair distribution of land, or otherwise, is often shunned as being against the free market and capitalism. Chapman, in this final chapter entitled “United Fruit World,” asserts that actions of corporations today have role models. United Fruit was not the only corporation in the United States but it played a large role in US foreign policy history.

In short, United Fruit is an example (and the continued avarice of our economic and corporate players today) of a logic that went awry.

We continually put ourselves in a position to be surprised. We assume the best, elevate people to pedestals and celebrate their friendship with presidents. We are shocked when it is revealed that we have been ‘sold’ a lie. Then we get embarrassed and try to forget, as we did with United Fruit.

“Bananas cannot go beyond their genes,” Chapman states. Chapman cites some scientists who believe that by 2013 the banana will disappear due its inability to reproduce without the aid of human beings – for it is was us, after all, who created the banana and it is us, after all, who create and shape history. Although the banana’s life may be in jeopardy, it is clear the mentality of corporations (influenced by United Fruit’s successes), as evidenced by our most recent collapse, will not.


~ by Daniel on May 14, 2009.

2 Responses to “Peter Chapman – Bananas”

  1. Many thanks, Daniel

  2. What is les examined though are the close connections of the board members and the shareholders with elite political families in the US of the day. The money was Rockefeller whose grandson was to become VP and other Senators and active members of the admin sat on the board directing the coup. You might find my post at interesting!


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