United Fruit Company

The text of this post (but not the images) is an excerpt from the book ‘Stuffed and Starved’ by Raj Patel, p.108-109.

Take, for example, one of the first products in the modern food system – bananas. Bananas are biologically well-suited to an international food system. Robust, with their own packaging built on, bananas are able to withstand shipment over long distances and still be a viable product at the other end. The United Fruit Company, founded in 1899, was the world’s largest banana merchant.

A vintage magazine ad: at the top a smiling cartoon girl holds two bananas, and the title is: 'Help yourself- HAVABANANA! - enjoy these 4 happy breakfast ideas!' Below are 4 images: a bowl full of bananas, oranges, and grapes, two milkshakes in glasses with a straw, a bowl of cereal with banana pieces which have been placed in the shape of a daisy, and a pancake with banana pieces placed on top of it in the shape of a smiling face. At the bottom is the United Fruit Company logo.
A vintage ad for bananas from the United Fruit Company. Source: vintageadbrowser.com.

Most famously, the United Fruit Company used its connections in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations – especially through the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, whose law firm had represented the company – to argue that Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, was about to become a communist. The reason? Arbenz Guzmán had in mind to buy unused land from the United Fruit Company to give to landless peasants, at the artificially low price at which the Company had declared the land’s value on its tax returns. In response, the president authorized in 1954 a CIA-backed invasion of Guatemala, Operation PBSUCCESS. The resulting war claimed 200,000 lives, over 40 years.

The complicity of the United Fruit Company in Central American poverty has rarely been acknowledged in the US. It is a history that has been erased. Indeed, the phrase by which most people come to know banana exporting countries in Central America and the Caribbean reflects not a history of rapacity and violence, but the comically inept regimes installed by the corporations. Such countries are known not as victims of empire, but as ‘Banana Republics’. It’s a taint which sullies the reputations of these countries’ citizens, rather than reflecting back on the cause of their impoverishment. It is, in short, a textbook case of blaming the victim.

Today, the United Fruit Company has been rebranded as the warmer, fuzzier ‘Chiquita Brands’. Through public relations exercises and ‘fair trade’ schemes, the company has worked hard to earn a slightly more favourable taste in our mouths. Not that it deserves it. The company recently paid a US$25 million fine as part of a guilty plea in its funding of paramilitary death squads in Colombia.

A photograph of a bunch of bananas against a black background. One of the bananas has a blue and yellow Chiquita label.
A bunch of bananas, with a Chiquita sticker. Original photo by N734LQ, who placed it in the Public Domain.