Day 446: Blood-Bananas

originally published March 21, 2013

Summing up the extensive history of the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita, the banana people) in a thousand words without glossing over a handful of jaw-dropping incidents won’t be easy. Nor do I anticipate an easy slide into my routine of bacon-inspired smartassery and Star Wars references. I do, however, expect that once this day’s endeavor is complete, I won’t ever again be able to bite into a Chiquita banana without tasting the spilled blood of thousands whose lives were crushed beneath the heels of this corporate giant.

That’s a little grotesque, sorry. But this is far from the hitch-up-your-bootstraps family business success story. Instead it’s a tale of how one corporation elbowed its way to the front of the fruit market, leaving death and devastation and a tanker full of broken laws in its wake. And we owe it all to this guy:

That’s Costa Rican president Próspero Fernández Oreamuno, who took over the keys to the country in mid-1882. His predecessor had hooked up with American railroad tycoon Henry Meiggs to construct a section of track to connect San José and the port of Limón. Right around the time of Oreamuno’s election, Costa Rica ran out of money and defaulted on their payments. To make things right, Oreamuno gave Meiggs’ nephew (Mieggs had already punched his ticket to the train station in the sky) 800,000 acres of Costa Rican land. Minor C. Keith, the nephew, was thrilled.

Okay, naming your kid ‘Minor’ seems a bit cruel. You’re almost asking for him to grow up with a complex, a need to prove himself via whatever ruthless and amoral means he should find available. I’m not going to say that this is exactly what Minor C. Keith did, but it’s totally exactly what Minor C. Keith did.

Minor had been experimenting with growing bananas in the area, and now he had a massive slab of land upon which to do so. The train operation – which Minor had also been given as part of the default deal – made nothing, but bananas were a huge hit in the US. After a merger of Minor’s company with the Boston Fruit Company, the United Fruit Company was born.

United Fruit spent the early part of the 20th century racking up an impressive reputation for bribing government officials, paying almost no taxes, scooping up any and all competitors to ensure a monopoly, and treating their workers like that which the rinds of their bounty were destined to become: garbage. Through their shady connections with various conservative governments in Central America, United Fruit and the two other corporate banana-slingers (Standard Fruit, now Dole, and Cuyamel, which merged with United in 1930) affected policy decisions, and ensured their interests were served.

(there’s always money in the banana republic)

Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala… everywhere they could grow bananas and tilt the government in their favor, United Fruit was there. Workers were paid next to nothing, and their ability to buy available land was minimized by United Fruit and their buddies. The fruit corporations claimed that hurricanes and other natural phenomena meant they needed extra land – back-up land – in order to ensure their business was maintained. They knew how to manipulate land use rights in these nations, and they paid off whomever they needed to in order to ensure everything they did was, as much as it mattered, legal.

When workers would strike, they’d risk being shot. On November 12, 1928, the Colombian army opened fire on a crowd of strikers in the town of Ciénaga. The official stance of the army was that the strikers were in face communist revolutionaries, poised to revolt. General Cortés Vargas, who gave the order to open fire, claimed he did so because he’d heard the US government was set to land on Colombian shores to violently defend the interests of the United Fruit Company. The death toll was somewhere between 47 and 2000, depending on whose story you believe. It wasn’t pretty.

Communist leaders all over Central America were eager to oust the reigning governments, in a large part because of the banana-vice that gripped their nations at the mercy of United Fruit and their ilk. They came to see the fruit companies as the perfect symbol of Karl Marx’s claims of capitalist imperialism. And they were right.

Corporate raider (a job that sounds way more bad-ass than it actually is) Eli M. Black bought a chunk of the company in 1968, but found that he wasn’t particularly adept at managing it. In 1975 he pulled a Waring Hudsucker and leapt from the window of his 44th-floor office in the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building in Manhattan. A Cincinnati-based financial company scooped up the broken company, rebranded it Chiquita, and everyone lived happily and morally ever after.

Well, except for the human rights violations that appear to be ongoing. Workers in Manaus, Brazil were forced to work through hurricane conditions in order to meet their production quotas. Complaints and grievances were shuffled under the rug. A Justice Department investigation resulted in a $13 million settlement being paid to the mistreated workers. And that wasn’t the only time Chiquita had to tussle with the Justice Department.

Between 1997 and 2004, a Chiquita subsidiary forked over several million dollars to a few paramilitary groups in Colombia in exchange for protection in the banana harvesting zone. Three of those organizations happened to be on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Paying money to terrorists is something the American government frowns on, unless they’re the ones doing it. (I’ll probably end up on some sort of watch-list for that joke)

The case was settled in the US, with Chiquita being fined $25 million for kicking sand in the face of the law. The case may still be getting passed from desktop to desktop in Colombia though, and rumor has it some of the company’s current and former board members may be called to answer for their crimes down South America way. The militia groups they paid off weren’t particularly friendly with the reigning local government either, and that could mean extradition and something less than a white-collar spa-prison for some of the suits who are or were at the top.

I wouldn’t count on it though. Chiquita has spent more than a century wriggling out of trouble, and keeping just barely on the warm side of the law.

Something to think about next time you peel back the pale yellow flesh of a banana and hear the anguished cries of the oppressed.

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