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Yes, we have bananas

June 29, 2016
topic:Economic Inclusion
tags:#bananas, #Capitalism, #Communism, #Cuba, #Germany, #U.S., #USA
located:Cuba, Germany, USA
by:Andrew Scheinman
‘Hold our hands and take us to Banana Land!’ chanted East Berliners, unwittingly evoking a United Fruit Company advertisement as the most momentous political event of their lives unfolded. As the Berlin Wall fell, East Germans—accustomed to waiting hours whenever bananas appeared behind the Iron Curtain—swarmed over to their Western brethren, images of the fruit in tow, trading their few Deutschmarks for a meagre bunch. Even today, any lengthy queue in Berlin raises the pithy question, ‘Gibts Bananen oder was?

Austerity the norm in the Communist Eastern Bloc, the exotic banana emerged as a symbol of green grass on the other side of the Cold War fence. Yet how is it that this one curious yellow fruit, native to Southeast Asia and sourced from tropical Latin America, could come to embody Western capitalism to the Eastern Bloc?

Nowadays, the imparted symbolism has all but vanished. Bananas are prevalent and cheap throughout Berlin, as they are in every major city and minor settlement in the old Western Bloc, to say nothing of their abundance and significance elsewhere. That they are available for mere cents in countless grocery markets, delis, convenience stores, and bodegas across Europe and North America—even at gas stations that source no other produce—is remarkable, if unsettling. Oftentimes bananas are cheaper than fruit grown nearby despite the vast distance they travel from their tropical soil. For this reason, perhaps, Americans eat an astonishing twenty-five pounds of banana per person each year, more than apples and oranges combined. Americans are even using bananas for their hair. And this is no coincidence; entwined with the industrial history of the United States is that of one of its most prominent products, the banana riding shotgun as the young nation grew into a capitalist superpower.

America’s United Fruit Company (resurrected today as Chiquita Brands International), was an exemplary capitalist behemoth borne of nineteenth-century industrialism, employing every trick in the book now considered de rigueur for monopolies, from coups d’état and marriage of state to vertical integration, monoculture, and propaganda, even devising some of these strategies from scratch to get more bananas into American mouths. With hands in just about every economic and political development in Latin America for a century, the company and its countless arms became known asEl Pulpo,or the Octopus—guiding railroad construction in Costa Rica, regime change in Honduras and Guatemala, and the Colombian banana massacre later depicted by Gabriel García Márquez inOne Hundred Years of Solitude. Even the Cuban Missile Crisis—an event known to be the closest mankind has ever come to its own demise—was in part a product of the United Fruit Company. Eventually dominating ninety percent of the American banana market, United Fruit epitomized the unfettered free market economy, its product denoting the same capitalist capabilities that the Eastern Bloc would come to desire.

Before United Fruit, the fruit industry was composed of countless small orchards selling apples, grapes, and cherries to nearby towns. The United Fruit Company, however, concocted new advertising methods to produce desire, a notion then unknown in agriculture. At the turn of the century, when the McKinley Era zeitgeist rang of nouveau imperialism, United Fruit chartered four new navy ships. Now carrying passengers as well as cargo, the Great White Fleet conjured images of the mysterious tropics, attaching yet more exoticism to the humble banana. In the meantime, increased supply allowed the banana to shift from a bourgeois to utterly proletarian product. Improved public access led United Fruit to launch a campaign touting the health benefits of the fruit, creating a turn-of-the-century version of contemporary acai and goji berries—i.e. the world’s first superfood. It even extolled the benefits of banana consumption in treating Celiac Disease. Seemingly overnight, sales skyrocketed, so much so that even today some of the more erroneous claims remain in health manuals. Notably, Preston convinced customers via the press that the Gros Michel variety, or Big Mike—the variety Keith adopted for its resilient skin and unabashed sweetness—was actually the best cultivar. A first in the food industry, consumer demand, interest, and imagination were manufactured alongside the product.

Early in the twentieth century, the Guatemalan government invited Minor Keith, known for his Costa Rican railway, to construct the remaining portion of the Guatemalan equivalent. Aware the country was insolvent, Keith proposed the deal he received in Costa Rica—Atlantic banana land as payment: Keith would take profits for a decade, whereupon the Guatemalan government would take over. Environmental conditions, however, willed dozens of delays in construction, causing the Guatemalan government to attempt contract termination after three years. Flexing its multinational muscles, the United Fruit Company simply threatened to leave the country—competing builders may have had the savoir-faire to piece together a railway, but no other enterprise could promise a complementary banana industry. Shortly thereafter,El Pulpo dominated Guatemalan infrastructure, taking control of the entire economic process and never paying taxes. Following Costa Rica, Guatemala became the second ‘banana republic,’ a complete captive of United Fruit.

Banana republicanism, seen as a boon to those Stockholm Syndromed countries under the United Fruit flag, began to bleed throughout the continent. All the while, imperial attitudes took hold in the United States, inducing President Roosevelt’s obsession with the idea of a Panama Canal. 1903 saw Panamanian insurrectionists nominally take control of their country from Colombia. Backed by American and United Fruit Company ships, their alleged sovereignty was questionable: Roosevelt took the south for his canal as United Fruit secured the north, expanding its nation of plantations. When the naïve American Banana Company set up near the northern edge of the country, Costa Rican soldiers—effectively United Fruit mercenaries—materialized, seizing its holdings. Despite the Supreme Court proceedings that followed, the case was considered, ‘beyond jurisdiction,’ and thrown out. Roosevelt Era trust-busting seemed not to apply beyond American borders. By 1910, United Fruit owned Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama.

Meanwhile, blight ravaged Company plantations—now highly susceptible monocultures of Gros Michel—and Caribbean governments ceased their appeasement in fear of banana republicanism. Back in the United States, one Sam Zemurray—the so-called Banana Man—entered the frame selling overripe bananas no other company wanted directly from the railway via telegraph advertisement, a practice riddled with risk but extraordinary rewards. Needing stable backing, Zemurray proposed to United Fruit a clandestine partnership: the Company would take his debt, and in response he would deliver Honduras. There, Zemurray purchased vast expanses of virgin forest, expecting the same tax concessions banana planters received elsewhere. However, up the coast from the blighted banana republics, Honduras saw the pattern and rejected his forays. Following a revolution three years earlier, the United States took hold of custom houses and installed J.P. Morgan as the central banking agency—thus it was J.P. Morgan that vetoed tax concessions for the Banana Man. In response, Zemurray went to Washington, arguing to no avail that, as a lone entrepreneur, he was the face of American capitalist enterprise. Not taking no for an answer, Zemurray hired a boatload of mercenaries to overthrow the American-supported Honduran regime. Only later, as Zemurray collected his tax concessions, was it obvious that the lonesome opportunist had anything to do with the United Fruit Company and its veritable banana Empire.

The United Fruit Company continued to capture the American spirit, evolving its image as a benevolent giver of commerce to the savage jungle, affordable luxury to city folk. Expanding its plantations in Guatemala, United Fruit discovered and preserved the Mayan ruin Quiriguá, reported by the likes ofNational Geographic. Comment back home admiringly matched the ancient stone civilization to the new banana civilization that replaced it. Demand for bananas seemed boundless— in 1900, Americans were eating fifteen million bunches a year; by 1910, forty million and growing. When in 1913, President Wilson attempted to set a banana tax,The New York Timesjoined the rally against it, maintaining that the urban poor were ‘entitled to their little luxuries.’ Besides, Bolshevik unrest overseas had Americans doubling down on their capitalist structures, and, with the poor enjoying said little luxuries, government restriction slipped out of vogue.

Beginning with the banana industry lull of the First World War, United Fruit launched an assault of advertisements on the home front, including the 1917 booklet,‘The Food Value of the Banana.’Including a simple factsheet, ‘Points about Bananas,’ the volume was direct, listing ‘Nutritious,’ ‘The poor man’s food,’ ‘The children’s delight,’ and ‘Produced without drawing on the Nation’s resources,’ among other attributes. Shortly thereafter, test kitchens sponsored by the banana behemoth championed a breakfast of corn flakes with sliced banana, an image still ubiquitous today. Dozens of documents were published touting the nutritional benefits of bananas for children or proposing intriguing ways of serving the fruit (‘bananas and bacon, guaranteed to start conversation’). Some were yet more absurd: stories in which, for instance, a Norwegian hikes from Oslo to Christianssand, growing stronger every day from his Spartan banana diet. United Fruit immortalized the fictional yet very real ‘Banana Land’ in film, radio programmes, and magazine articles, all peppered with mystical images of scantily clad women, machete work and veranda life.

None of these advertisements hinted at the increasingly ruthless tactics used to tame Latin American Banana Land. Late in 1928 saw a protest of thirty-two thousand United Fruit workers in Santa Marta, Colombia rallying for shorter hours, medical treatment, and better wages, and thus pinned as communists and anarchists. Keen to protect its American capitalist interests in this banana land, i.e. the United Fruit Company, the United States sent troops to Santa Marta, ostensibly to deter subsequent violence alongside the sizeable Colombian military. On December 6, 1928, strikers and their families were gathered in a small banana town called Ciénaga to demonstrate when machine guns opened fire, killing scores. By January, the United Fruit Company itself announced that the Santa Marta strike saw more than a thousand killed by the Colombian military. Colombians and Americans alike equated the strike’s suppression with nothing less than the defeat of Communism. Some had other ideas—Gabriel García Márquez critiqued the conspicuously capitalist Santa Marta massacre in his fictionalOne Hundred Years of Solitude. At demonstrations six months later, others noted, ‘skeletons and skulls adorned with bunches of bananas were freely displayed.’

Nearing the middle of the century, United Fruit continued to exemplify the multinational capitalist experiment, equating its product with no less than Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness at the end of the Second World War. By the 1940s, the Brazilian singer, dancer, and actress, Carmen Miranda, was the ideal ‘Good Neighbour,’ a representative of one region not directly involved with the War. Various of her tropical songs picked up popular steam, such as ‘That Night in Rio.’ In her image was the cartoon Señorita Chiquita Banana born, the de facto mascot for United Fruit, her vibrant Latin dress and straw hat embodying the new American spirit. Srta. Banana was soon ubiquitous: songs and jingles were everywhere (in one day, a radio station played her jungle a reported 657 times), schoolchildren and mothers alike adored her, and she was otherwise omnipresent in commercial media. For United Fruit, Señorita Chiquita Banana symbolized the promise of capitalism—affordable luxury for everyone—at a time when the drab utility of Communism was morphing into something akin to evil.

As McCarthyism took root in the United States, United Fruit gripped the support of the American government, often crying Communism when Central American plantations were threatened. In 1951, the new Guatemalan president, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz—a populist familiar with the plight of the poor—promised to shatter unproductive landholdings kept by United Fruit and others, allotting them to those of modest means. Attempting to change Guatemala from something of a feudal state to one of capitalist enterprise, Arbenz was nonetheless accused of furnishing Communism.El Pulpoturned to friends Allen and John Foster Dulles of the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department, respectively, who landed in office with President Eisenhower. Their resultant ‘Report on Central America,’ alleged that Arbenz aimed to seize the Panama Canal for Communism, prompting government intervention. The Dulles procured a pigheaded diplomat as ambassador and placed CIA Agent Howard Hunt in charge of stoking the flame with ‘Operation Success.’ Hunt slipped into Guatemala, creating radio broadcasts and dropping letters that conveyed political unrest, while stray bullet holes and smoke convinced staged journalists of the strife. Carlos Castillo Aramas, who had tried a similar coup, materialized on a United Fruit plantation in northern Honduras, from which he and a group of Guatemalan exiles marched over the border. CIA radio reported a large force storming in, people flocking to it like a parade—in reality, the militia killed mules, leaving corpses on the road to imply gruesome battles. Journalists stayed in hotels, coerced to do so for their own security, appearing only once Aramas took power. American planes dropped bombs to stir confusion among the Guatemalan military, ultimately convincing Arbenz to surrender.

Eventually, the United Fruit Company’s image as the perfect capitalist backfired. Following the Guatemalan coup, revolutionaries like Che Guevara used United Fruit’s ruthlessness to justify their widespread protests, Guevara himself pursuing increasingly violent means. Accused of losing the Cold War, United Fruit found itself facing the American Department of Justice. Desperate to prove itself, the Company launched yet another campaign, asserting itself the exemplary capitalist; newspaper articles implying Communists plagued the Department of Justice, a movie calledWhy the Kremlin Hates Bananas, and other media hintedEl Pulpowas on its last legs.

Without the heavy-handed American government behind it, United Fruit began to lose control of its banana republics. The new Costa Rican president declared himself a Social Democrat and capitalist, modelling his nation after Switzerland—a country even United Fruit could not pin as Communist. Around the same time, trusty Big Mike monocultures were hit by a series of setbacks—intense hurricanes, expensive chemical treatments, and progressive blight all but destroyed crops. Slow to shift to the Cavendish, United Fruit was losing profit along with its overseas power.

Cuba was the nail toEl Pulpo’s coffin. Speaking out at Guantánamo, revolutionary dictator Fidel Castro named the United Fruit Company a ‘grave social problem.’ Despite never being a true banana republic, Cuba was nonetheless tied toEl Pulpo. The Company considered itself the manifestation of American business on the island, its sugar cane and banana plantations a historic presence. Castro, a child of United Fruit (which, perhaps not coincidentally, financed his education), saw it as nouveau imperialist, producing but never purchasing from Cuba. United Fruit’s sixty million dollar losses combined with looming Communism saw Howard Hunt again taking action. His Operation Success was restructured as ‘Operation Zapata;’ the United States accordingly expected a replay of the Guatemalan invasion, exiles parading as American forces freed the populace from their tyrant. On April 17, 1961, seven American ships—including two from United Fruit’s Great White Fleet— reached the Bay of Pigs on the Zapata peninsula of Cuba. Famously, the American invaders and Cuban exiles were decimated, defeated within three days.El Pulpo’s power had waned to nothing, its incredible coups reduced to company humiliation, to say nothing of the United States itself. By the following year, Castro solidified Communist support. Later, the Soviet Union sent nuclear missiles to the island in what would become the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That this Crisis, the crux of the battle between capitalism and Communism, had anything to do with bananas remains a mystery to most.

Though United Fruit’s pairing of the banana with capitalism never quite wore off, its hold over the fruit’s image eventually did. During the hippie movement, the banana was caught in the crossfire between generations, famously immortalized on Andy Warhol’s cover to The Velvet Underground’s debut album and countless Srta. Banana T-shirts. A floundering United Fruit tried to restore its own reputation but completely misread the zeitgeist. It shunned the newfound popular alternative culture, aligning itself with the older generation of President Nixon. With its history of military intervention, United Fruit was against all ideas of ‘peace and love,’ dismissing Vietnam War protests alongside the growing trend of smoking bananas. Meanwhile, things continued to go south in Central America, as a 1974 hurricane ripped through banana plantations. After the company president threw himself out of New York skyscraper window, the United Fruit Company quietly disappeared, reincarnated a decade later as Chiquita.

Still, the transformation of the banana from life-sustaining fruit to capitalist symbol was long since complete. From tropical jungles to Boston and New Orleans to East Berlin, the strange yellow fruit came to define the brazen twentieth century capitalism of the industrial United States of America and its United Fruit Company. America’s unabashed capitalism spread to every corner of the Western Bloc during the Cold War, its images and ideas impressed upon the world. To this day, Banana Land is everywhere.

A longer version of this story by Andrew Scheinman was first published on Contemporary Food Lab. Published by FairPlanet with courtesy by Contemporary Food Lab.

Article written by:
Andrew Scheinman
Cuba Germany USA
Still, the transformation of the banana from life-sustaining fruit to capitalist symbol was long since complete.
From tropical jungles to Boston and New Orleans to East Berlin, the strange yellow fruit came to define the brazen twentieth century capitalism of the industrial United States of America and its United Fruit Company.
United Fruit’s pairing of the banana with capitalism never quite wore off, its hold over the fruit’s image eventually did.
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