The Banana Wars
United Fruit Company was founded in the United States in 1899. Their primary focus was growing bananas in Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama (when Panama was still a department/state in the Republic of Colombia) for export to the North American market. By 1901, the company had already become so influential that the government of Guatemala hired it to manage their National Postal Service. It was, in large part, this single company that launched the protracted and tragic saga of U.S. military intervention in Central America—intervention driven by a popular belief in Manifest Destiny and a protectionist policy focused on U.S. companies with interests in Latin America. The dozens of dirty little wars that America instigated in Central America and the Caribbean during this period had a profound influence on how the people of that region came to view the United States—indeed, how they view the U.S. even today. The Army, Marines, Navy, and CIA (after it was established in 1947) were all active in these overt and covert wars, putting right-wing dictatorships and military juntas into power, and keeping them in power as long as they cooperated with American business interests.
Perhaps the most significant initial event was in 1903, when separatists in the Department of Panama, with United States backing, declared independence from Colombia. The U.S. sent troops to support the rebels, and Colombia lost its northernmost department and control over the Isthmus of Panama. America claimed United Fruit interests in Panama were at risk. But, more importantly, the U.S. hoped to purchase the still-under-construction Panama Canal from the French, who had all but thrown in the towel on the project. That same year, U.S. troops also intervened in Honduras and the Dominican Republic protecting United Fruit’s financial interests. And in the following year, the 22-year illegitimate Guatemalan president and strongman Manuel Estrada-Cabrera granted United Fruit a ninety-nine year concession to construct and run, at a sizeable profit for the company, the country's only significant rail line, from Guatemala City to the Caribbean port of Puerto Barrios. Estrada-Cabrera was removed from office by the National Assembly, who declared him mentally incompetent. He was later jailed for corruption.
In 1912, the U.S. invaded Nicaragua to protect United Fruit, and in 1912 and 1924 they reinvaded Honduras. U.S. troops invaded Haiti in 1914, the Dominican Republic in 1916, and Cuba in 1917. In the latter case, American occupation on the island lasted until 1933. In 1920, U.S. troops landed in Guatemala to fight the so-called “unionists”—agriculture workers fighting for fair compensation and decent working conditions. In 1924, Standard Fruit Company was established as a serious competitor to United Fruit. Little by little, America’s banana companies and the U.S. government converted Central America’s nations into puppet or client states.
In 1944, Juan José Arévalo, a writer and professor of ethics, became Guatemala's first democratically elected president. He was elected following a popular uprising against the U.S.-backed dictator Jorge Ubico. Some historians mark this the start of the long-running Guatemalan civil war. Arévalo remained in office until 1951, surviving a phenomenal 25 coup attempts. In 1947, with Arévalo’s support, the country’s first National Labor Code was made constitutional law. It was largely aimed at improving conditions for workers at the banana plantations, most of who were indigenous people. United Fruit denounced the new law as "communistic," threatening to pull out of Guatemala. Arévalo’s successor, President Jacobo Arbenz, declared that 210,000 acres of uncultivated lands owned by United Fruit should be expropriated and distributed to landless peasants. For a while, it looked like the people of Guatemala might have a more democratic and supportive government.
United Fruit was infuriated and lobbied the U.S. Congress heavily, playing the “anticommunist card.” By 1949, U.S. senators had begun denouncing the Guatemalan government, accusing them of not doing enough to protect American corporate interests. Early in 1954, United Fruit cooked up a fictitious “Report on Guatemala,” which claimed the country’s agrarian reforms were being directed by Moscow. Samuel Zemurray, President of United Fruit, circulated the report in the U.S. Congress. Zemurray’s assertions that Guatemala was spreading “Marxist ideas” throughout the continent prompted proclamations of communist infiltration by conservative congressmen. Although there was no real evidence to support those claims, in June that same year President Eisenhower agreed to use military bases in Nicaragua and logistical support from the CIA to overthrow President Arbenz. Guatemalan Colonel Carlos Castillo thus attacked the government in what his supporters called "the liberation war against communism." With U.S. help, he succeeded in forcing Arbenz into exile. Within a few months, a rigged election put Castillo into office as the new President of Guatemala. United Fruit was given back all the land that Arbenz had expropriated, plus an $11 million tax windfall as consolation. Efraín Ríos-Montt, who later became one of Guatemala’s most hated presidents, played a role in support of Colonel Castillo during the coup.
When the coup took place, a 25-year old Argentinian lad by the name of Ernesto Guevara happened to be living in Guatemala, working as a doctor and bookseller. As he witnessed the helplessness of the people against the CIA-backed Castillo coup, he became convinced that positive change in Latin America would only be possible through armed revolution. Guevara volunteered to organize resistance militias against Castillo's corrupt National Guard. But when he realized he was facing an inevitable defeat, “Che” Guevara fled from Guatemala to Mexico. While there, he encountered another political refugee, from Cuba, who was to become one of his closest friends, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro went on to become the most influential revolutionary socialist leaders in Latin America, both inspired to their calling as a result of U.S. hegemony in the region.
Some say it was the Castillo coup that marked the start of Guatemala’s long civil war. It was certainly the event that, once again, took all power away from the people. In 1957, the Guatemalan military ousted Castillo, and Luis González was installed by the military junta as acting president. González lasted only three months before he too displeased the junta and was removed, with Guillermo Flores being appointed acting president. In Guatemala, the military made presidents and the military destroyed presidents. From the 1950s through the late 1970s, the average tenure in office of a President in Guatemala was less than 24 months, and the CIA played a role in shaping most of those transitions.
In 1947, the influence of United Fruit reached an apex when, after being the dictator of Honduras for thirteen years, President Juan Vicente Carõas voluntarily handed the presidency over to his vice-President and United Fruit lawyer, Juan Manuel Galvez. United Fruit and the government of Honduras were practically one and the same—just the way American imperialists and the Honduran oligarchy liked it.
During World War II, United Fruit reduced its operations to a minimum level because of the presence of German submarines in the Caribbean. During this time, the company hired cartoonist Dik Browne (creator of “Hagar the Horrible”) to create a cartoon based on the popular Brazilian singer and movie star Carmen Miranda. The “Miss Chiquita Banana” cartoon, which ran with a catchy Latin beat jingle, spearheaded the company’s advertising campaign once the war was over. It was the beginning of many decades of highly successful marketing efforts that brought bananas into the mainstream food culture of North America.
In 1958, United Fruit expanded its business interests by acquiring the rights to explore for petroleum and natural gas in Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. In November that year, Fidel Castro took power in Cuba after a hard-fought guerrilla war against President-Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista had been, by most reckoning, a 20-year puppet of the U.S. government. One of Castro’s first moves was to nationalize United Fruit’s holdings in Cuba.
In 1963, United Fruit began divesting itself of early ownerships and, to a great extent, the banana business. As the company reshaped itself, it bought A&W Root Beer and Foster Grant. Around the same time, Fulton City, Kentucky, celebrated the first International Banana Festival, sponsored by Standard Fruit and Dole (with no participation by United Fruit), and the city declared itself the Banana Capital of the United States. Go figure.
In 1967, the year Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia, Gabriel Garcia Marquez published the first edition of Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) in Buenos Aires. Part of the novel was inspired by the 1929 strike of Colombian banana workers against United Fruit.
In 1969, Eli Black, chairman and CEO of AMK, a conglomerate that included John Morrell meat company, made the third largest transaction in Wall Street history by buying 733,000 shares of United Fruit in a single day. Black became the largest shareholder of the company. United Fruit and AMK merged the following year. The new company was named United Brands. Eli Black was in born in Poland as Elihu Blachowitz. He trained to be an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a role he fulfilled for a congregation in Woodmere, New York, before launching his business career with Lehman Brothers, followed by the American Securities Corporation, and then AMK. He was widely viewed as a swashbuckling corporate raider and Wall Street darling.
In 1974, the governments of Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama formed the Union de Paises Exportadores de Banano—The Organization of Banana Exporting Countries—to defend the interests of their countries against United Brands and other American government-backed businesses in Central America, to maintain higher prices on their crops and to adopt common policies. United Brands threatened unsuccessfully to pull out of the region.
In 1975, the Security Exchange Commission accused United Brands of bribing the President of Honduras, Osvaldo Lopez Arellano, with $2.5 million in exchange for an illegal reduction in the export taxes on bananas. The investigation also revealed that during Eli Black's leadership of United Brands, the company had given European officials $750,000 in bribes. Things weren’t looking good for Eli. Shortly thereafter, he committed suicide by jumping from the 44th floor of the Pan Am building in New York City. His portly body exploded like a ripe watermelon when it hit the sidewalk. Twenty years later, his suicide would be the inspiration for the classic scene in the Coen brother’s film, The Hudsucker Proxy.
Six years after Eli Black’s death, a young marine biologist named Odel Bernini, living in Seattle, Washington, made a decision that would set him on an extraordinary and unexpected journey into the lands once controlled by United Fruit.