Project Title – Blood For Bananas: United Fruit’s Central American Empire
1. Bracker, Milton. “The Lessons of the Guatemalan Struggle.” New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954.
Some US observers of the 1954 coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz felt that the overthrow only partially addressed the “problem of communism” in Central America. Writing in the New York Times Magazineon July 11, 1954, staff reporter Milton Bracker argued that American liberals critical of the recent military overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz fail to fully understand the “tangible” and “deadly” communist threat “gripping a volcanic republic in the heart of the Americas.”  Bracker identified three key lessons of the 1954 coup. First, he argued that not all Latin American anticommunists are motivated by the same principles that motivate American anticommunists. Here, Bracker seems to suggest that while US anticommunism proceeds more or less democratically, Latin American anticommunism has tendencies toward repression. US officials, he warned, must be careful with which Latin American governments they associate. Second, Bracker claimed that Latin Americans are even more wary of US intervention than of communism and thus, US anticommunist policy in Latin America must proceed cautiously. He recalled past abuses of Guatemalan workers by the US-based United Fruit Company as one of the primary reasons Latin Americans deplore “embarrassing legacy” of US intervention. But Bracker denied any direct US involvement in the overthrow of Arbenz. Still, Bracker offered a third lesson: from the perspective of Latin Americans, their own internal national political struggles always superseded concerns about grand ideological battles between the United States and the Soviet Union. He recommended that the US engage in a propaganda campaign to “convince the Latins, who already outnumber us and are growing much faster, that our [capitalist] way of life is better than the Communists’ way of life.” Ultimately, Bracker’s take offers critical insights into popular American perceptions about the US government’s role in supporting anti-communist, pro-corporate policies in Central American during the first decade of the Cold War.
2. Colby, Jason M. The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.
Colby begins The Business of Empirewith the brief account of a labor strike and uprising by black West Indian banana workers on United Fruit’s Cayuga plantation in Guatemala in December 1909. United Fruit demanded that the Guatemalan government meet the strikers with brutal force in order to deter other workers from revolting. Though the strike ended peacefully in part because of British pressure on the Guatemalan government to use restraint, it nonetheless offers a glimpse of the deeper history of race relations within the Central American banana industry, then and now dominated by international (mostly US) corporations. But Colby cautions against the assumption that the uprising that was, in part, conditioned by the practices of segregation on United Fruit land in Central America (as well as the Panama Canal Zone), simply a case of transplanting Southern racial practices to US commercial spaces abroad. Instead, Colby suggests that the practices of racial segregation and other forms of racial and labor oppression practiced by United Fruit was in fact born in the tropics and conditioned by empire. Ultimately though, racial hierarchies became paramount to the ways in which global banana production functioned across borders and oceans.
3. Gleijeses, Piero. “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz.” Journal of Latin American Studies 21, 3 (1989): 453-480.
Gleijeses offers a concise yet complex treatment of Jacobo Arbenz’s land reform and public works (modernization and infrastructure) policies during the early 1950s. Without any North American or World Bank capital forthcoming, Arbenz sought to generate the necessary funding through land reform. While Arbenz was not a Communist himself, he surrounded himself with Communist Party members and increasingly sought their advice. Gleijeses contends that Arbenz came to see land reform as the necessary catalyst for an agrarian revolution in Guatemala. As such, the secretive nature of his land reform bill, which he kept from his official cabinet during its drafting phase, immediately angered the landed elite, government officials, and of course US officials in Washington, which came to see Arbenz as an enabler of Communist influence. Gleijeses also notes that Decree 900 (the land reform bill) offered landed elites to disseminate propaganda among the peasants they ruled over, claiming that the Decree called for the “collectivization of their wives and children.” Thus, despite the fact that peasants stood to gain much from Arbenz’s reforms, United Fruit and its local elite allies diminished the enthusiasm that Arbenz counted on to push through his reforms. Gleijeses offers this project much needed historical detail and nuance regarding the crafting and reception of Decree 900 as well as United Fruit’s role in the events of the 1950s.
4. Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Grandin’s sprawling history of the place of the indigenous K’iche community in modern Guatemala covers two centuries from the mid-18thto the mid-20thcentury. It’s an urban history that examines the transformation of Quetzaltenango into a modern city inhabited by a population whose primary set of relationships rested on the idea of community, shared history, and cohesive social identity. Grandin focuses on the work of K’iche elites, who by the late nineteenth century, struggled to adapt and define the emerging coffee export economy that threatened to undermine communal relations so prevalent for centuries. To do so, they developed a set of notions about ethnicity and ethnic identity that they saw as deeply connected to the progress of the modern Guatemalan nation. This “alternative national vision,” as Grandin points out, failed to challenge seriously the emerging class divisions brought about by export capitalism. Grandin ends the book with the coup of 1954 and argues that the division along class lines of K’iche resulted in the elites’ violent opposition to Arbenz’s agrarian reforms that would have alleviated the dire poverty of the peasant class. Of particular importance to this study will be chapters 6 and 8, which discuss the relationship among race, nation, and capitalism in the first half of the 20thcentury – the period leading up to the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954.
5. McConahay, Mary Jo. “Who Says There Was No Genocide?: Guatemalan Dictator on Trial.” La Prensa San Diego, April 26, 2013.
In this contemporary news article, McConahay reports on the recent and unprecedented genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrian Rios Montt. The trial, which featured dozens of surviving witnesses to the atrocities, found that Montt had ordered the Guatemalan military to systematically torture and kill indigenous Mayans living in Guatemala. McConahay stressed the importance of the relationship between Montt’s Guatemala and the United States in delaying any real chance of justice for the remainder of the 20thcentury. Particularly during the 1980s, when the genocide unfolded, Montt’s government was a close ally of US President Ronald Reagan, whose administration ruthlessly sought out right-wing allies willing to hunt down Communists. McConahay’s article offers an important contemporary vantage point from which to explore the deeper Cold War relationship between the United States and Guatemala.
6. Streeter, Stephen M. “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives.” The History Teacher 34, 1 (2000): 61-74.
Streeter raises, among others, two important questions germane to this project: “What role did the [United Fruit Company] play in the [1954 US intervention in Guatemala?” and “did anticommunism serve merely as the pretext for overthrowing a nationalist regime that threatened US hegemony?” Streeter answers both questions by examining how previous historians have approached the same questions, offering insight into political, economic, and social factors that have shaped those interpretations. He identifies three kinds of interpretations – realist, revisionist, and post-revisionist – that have competed over how the US public understands and remembers the 1954 US intervention. Realists, on one hand, have tended to see Soviet expansion as a real threat. The US intervention, in their minds, was ultimately justifiable in the context of the Cold War. Revisionists, on the other hand, have blamed the intervention on anticommunist hysteria among US Cold warriors, and thus see the government as simply acting in the interests of United Fruit irrespective of any real Soviet expansion. Post-revisionists, Streeter contends, have been concerned with the “cultural and ideological influences that warped Washington’s perception of the Communist threat.” Some post-revisionists have minimized the role that United Fruit played in the intervention and have instead argued that anticommunism was so rampant within the Eisenhower administration that it would have moved to overthrow Arbenz without the influence of United Fruit. This project will in part use Streeter’s article to assess whether or not this particular post-revisionist argument holds water, or whether or not historians ought to allow United Fruit a more integral role in the coup.