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Roots of Contemporary Issues

Blood For Bananas: United Fruit’s Central American Empire

***Lindsey Morey is the author of Blood For Bananas. She completed this project in Fall 2014 as part of Dr. Clif Stratton’s inaugural Digital History Project for History 105, which included an emphasis on visual and web-based presentation. Formatting requirements will vary among sections of History 105 and 305.

On March 10, 2014, Chiquita Brands International announced that it was merging with the Irish fruit company, Fyffes. After the merger, Chiquita-Fyffes would control over 29% of the banana market; more than any one company in the world today. However, this is not the first time in history these companies have been under the same name. Chiquita Brands and Fyffes were both owned by United Fruit Company until 1986. The modern merger marks their reunion and continued takeover of the banana market [1]. United Fruit Company was known for its cruelty in the workplace and the racist social order they perpetuated. Though Chiquita and Fyffes are more subtle in their autocratic tendencies, they continue many of the same practices of political and social manipulation as their parent company once did [2].

Advertising has been one of the most prominent forms of manipulation conducted by both the two modern companies and United Fruit. In the mid-twentieth century, United Fruit Company embarked on a series of advertising campaigns designed to exploit the emotions and sense of adventure of a growing American middle class and furthered the racial polarization and political tension between the U.S. and Central America, all for the sake of selling their bananas.

United Fruit initiated its first advertising campaign in 1917. By this time the company had well establish plantations in various countries in Central and South America. All they needed now was to interest the American people in trying new, exotic things in order to sell the bananas they were producing. At this time in American history, it was thought that advertisements should target consumers’ rationale, not their emotions, so United Fruit hired scientists to author positive reviews about bananas whether they were true or not. One of these publications, Food Value of the Banana: Opinions of Leading Medical and Scientific Authorities, offered a collection of articles by prominent scientists that promoted the nutrition value, health benefits, and even taste of the banana [3]. Today we know that bananas are good for us, but in the early 1900s, there was no way for these scientists to determine the nutrition value and other properties they claimed to have researched. However, Americans appear to have believed the scientists, for United Fruit’s banana sales began to soar.

Fig. 1

Beginning in the 1920s, everything began to change. A successful young propagandist named Edward Bernays changed American advertising forever [4]. Bernays discovered that targeting people’s emotions instead of their logic caused people to flock to a product. His first experiment in this type of advertising was for the American Tobacco Company. Bernays thought that cigarette sales would sky rocket if it was socially acceptable for women to smoke, so at an important women’s rights march in New York City, Bernays had a woman light a cigarette in front of reporters and call it a “Torch of Freedom” [5]. Soon, women all over the United States were smoking cigarettes. After this initial public relations stunt, companies all over America began using emotionally-loaded advertising. United Fruit was no different. They launched an advertising campaign revolving around their new cruise liner called “The Great White Fleet” [6]. This cruise liner sailed civilians to the United Fruit-controlled countries in Central and South America to appeal to Americans’ sense of adventure and foster a good corporate reputation with the American people. When the cruise liner docked in a country, cruisers often toured one of United Fruit’s plantations. During this tour, the tourists would only be shown small areas of the banana plantations, theatrically set up to present the plantation as a harmonious place to work, when, in reality, it was a place of harsh conditions and corruption [7]. Their advertisements were key in swaying the American people to set out on an exotic adventure with the Great White Fleet. The flyer to the right (Fig. 1) describes Central America as a land of pirates and romance. The advertisement even portrays it as the place where “Pirates hid their Gold.” By giving the American tourists a false sense of the romanticism of Central America, they sold more cruise tickets, and through association, more bananas.

United Fruit’s unethical practices extended far beyond their manipulative advertising. They were also well known for their extremely racial politics in the workplace. They had employees from many different racial groups, and they would pit them against one another to control revolts that would otherwise be aimed at the company [8]. American whites would get the most prestigious jobs, like managers and financial advisers, while people of color got the hard labor. The company made a rigid distinction between Hispanics and West Indian workers. They administered different privileges and punishments to each ethnic group , and if one group were rewarded, the managers told them it was because they worked harder than the other group. If a punishment PRUnitedFruitFig2was administered, management would say it was the other group’s fault [9]. This gave the two groups something to focus their anger on, so they didn’t revolt against the company due to poor working conditions. United Fruit used the Great White Fleet to further these racial tensions. If the name was not obvious enough, all the ships were painted bright white and all the crew members wore pristine white uniforms [10]. The Fleet went so far as to encourage the passengers to wear white. The advertisement to the left (Fig. 2) further embodies the racial tensions experienced by the Americans and the United Fruit laborers. The large, white, American ship dwarfed the small, run-down, brown ship, symbolizing the power and prestige the whites had over the locals. The Central Americans in the corner of the picture are looking in awe of the massive ship, and are dressed in tropical garb to satisfy the need to appeal to the American people’s idealized version of the tropics. This is not only an advertisement, but a work of propaganda.

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Fig. 3.

The United Fruit Company continued to advertise throughout the mid twentieth century until they found a new use for their public relations skills. A politician named Jacobo Arbenz was elected president in Guatemala, one of the Central American countries occupied by United Fruit [11]. Arbenz was a strict nationalist, and all he wanted was for his people to stop suffering in poverty. One of the most prominent issues in Guatemala, at the time, was scarcity of land. When United Fruit invaded Guatemala, they bought out many of the local farmers to acquire land for their plantations. This did not leave room for the peasants, who relied on farming as the sole source of their income. Arbenz created an agrarian reform that took land from the company and gave it back to the poor farmers that needed it [12].  United Fruit was outraged by this reform. They immediately launched a propaganda campaign led by Edward Bernays to convince the United States government and its people that Arbenz was a communist dictator [13]. In a 1953 article by the New York Times, Guatemala was describes as “operating under increasingly severe Communist-inspired pressure to rid the country of United States companies” [14]. United Fruit was manipulating the media to make it sound like the agrarian reform was only created because Arbenz was being influenced by the Soviet government to sabotage America’s economic imperialism in Central America. Since it was during the Cold War, association with communists was a serious accusation. The United States’ aggressive stance toward communism encouraged them to take immediate action. The CIA hired civilian militias from Honduras to come into Guatemala and start a war against Arbenz and his followers. United Fruit also convinced U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to threaten Arbenz because Eisenhower and many other prominent American government officials had stock in United Fruit [15]. With these pressures, Arbenz feared for his life and submitted his resignation.

However, this did not satisfy United Fruit. They wished to make an example of Guatamala, so their other host nations wouldn’t dare oppose them. They had the CIA pay off the Guatemalan military so they would let the Honduras militia win [16]. After the victory, the leader of the Honduran militia, Castillo Armas, was appointed as president of Guatemala and Armas was a puppet of United Fruit Company for the rest of his term [17]. He returned all of United Fruit’s confiscated land, and gave them preferential treatment in all Guatemalan ports and railways. The company continued to influence the media of North and Central America to justify what they had done. They called Armas the “Liberator” and told the inspiring tale of how he freed Guatemala from its communist ties. They also destroyed what was left of Arbez’s reputation by calling him “Red Jacobo,” further tying him to the Soviets [18]. A New York Times article written in 1954 states that, “President Castillo Armas is continuing to act with moderation and common sense,” and “Jacobo Arbenz, anyway, is a deflated balloon, hardly likely to cause any more trouble” [19]. The media praised Armas for his good policy making, yet most of his policies were proposed by United Fruit or the American government. United Fruit and American controlled media also made Armas into a war hero to increase his acceptance and popularity with the Guatemalan people. Arbenz was made to look like an easy defeat to give the American people confidence in the ability of their government to eliminate communist threats.

The American banana market has changed little since the early 20th century. A handful of large companies control over 80% of the banana market, and this exclusivity allows them to get the best land, transport prices, and political climate to grow their bananas [20]. Now that two large banana companies, Chiquita and Fyffes, have merged together to reform United Fruit’s past monopoly, the market has become even more exclusive. Both companies use their enormous influence to target Americans’ sense of adventure in their advertisements and influence the governments of the countries they occupy, just like their predecessor, United Fruit. Today, racial polarization does not play as large of a role in Chiquita and Fyffes. The companies still exploit their workers, but they no longer use racial tensions as a form of labor control. Laws and regulations have moderated the merged companies’ cruelty, but they still find ways to abuse their influence and power.

Footnotes

[1] Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2014.

[2] “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 28, 2010, http://www.coha.org/peeling-back-the-truth-on-the-guatemalan-banana-industry/.

[3] United Fruit Company, Food Value of the Banana: Opinions of Leading Medical and Scientific Authorities (Boston: United Fruit Company, 1917), 1.

[4] Stuart Ewen, PR!: A Social History of Spin (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 3.

[5] Ewen, PR!, 4.

[6] Catherine Cocks, Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 37.

[7] Cocks, Tropical Whites, 34.

[8] Jason Colby, The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 119.

[9] Colby, The Business of Empire, 8.

[10] Cocks, Tropical Whites, 1.

[11] Piero Gleijeses, “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz,” Journal of Latin American Studies 21, 3 (1989): 453.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Stephen M. Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives,” The History Teacher 34,1 (2000): 64.

[14] New York Times, November 8, 1953.

[15] Gleijeses, “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz,” 479.

[16] Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala,” 63.

[17] “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas.”

[18] Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala,” 63.

[19] New York Times, September 11, 1954.

[20] Berman, Gillian. “Next Chapter In The Global Banana Trade’s Bloody History: ‘Walmartization,’” Huffington Post, March 10, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/10/worlds-largest-banana-company-_n_4935955.html.

Bibliography

Secondary:

Berman, Gillian. “Next Chapter In The Global Banana Trade’s Bloody History:’Walmartization.’” Huffington Post, March 10, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/10/worlds-largest-banana-company-_n_4935955.html.

Cocks, Catherine. Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Colby, Jason M. The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 28, 2010. http://www.coha.org/peeling-back-the-truth-on-the-guatemalan-banana-industry/.

Evans, Peter and Vanessa Mock. “Chiquita and Fyffes to Merge, Creating New Global Top Banana: U.S., Irish Companies’ All-Stock Merger Deal Valued at $1.07 Billion.” Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2014. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304704504579430490167267928.

Ewen, Stuart. PR!: A Social History of Spin. New York: BasicBooks, 1996.

Gleijeses, Piero. “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz.” Journal of Latin American Studies 21, 3 (1989): 453-480.

Gruson, Sydney. “U.S. to Re-Examine Guatemalan Role: Arrival of New Envoy Portends Policy Changes Toward Red-Supported Regime.” New York Times, November 8, 1953.

Streeter, Stephen M. “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives.” The History Teacher 34.1 (2000): 61-74.

Primary:

Gruson, Sydney. “U.S. to Re-Examine Guatemalan Role: Arrival of New Envoy Portends Policy Changes Toward Red-Supported Regime.” New York Times, November 8, 1953.

“Guatemala Without Arbenz.” New York Times, September 11, 1954.

United Fruit Company. Food Value of the Banana: Opinions of Leading Medical and Scientific Authorities. Boston: United Fruit Company, 1917.

Illustrations:

Figure 1. 1916 advertisement for the United Fruit Company Steamship Service, 1916, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Fruit_Company#mediaviewer/File:United_Fruit_Ad_1916.jpg.

Figure 2. Great White Fleet, United Fruit Company, 1928, http://www.ediblegeography.com/spaces-ofbanana-control/.

Figure 3. Time Magazine: Guatemala’s Arbenz, 28 Jun. 1954, http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/arbenz.htm.