Title: Blood for Bananas: United Fruit, Racial Politics, and the Overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz
Hook Paragraph: In April 2013, former Guatemalan dictator General Efrian Rios Montt stood trial for the crime of genocide committed against indigenous Mayans during the early 1980s. Survivor Tiburcio Utuy recalled his captivity by Guatemalan military forces in the town of Sacapulas where he and others were tortured: “The shoes, the belts were piled two meters high and wide, you could see the traces of people who had been killed there.” Forensic anthropologists testified that exhumed bodies revealed evidence of violent deaths of children, systematic rape of women, and mass beheadings. In other words, the evidence of genocide was overwhelming. But after testimony that lasted four weeks, a judge granted the defense’s request to annul the trial on technical grounds. The prosecution was expected to appeal the annulment. The genocide occurred amidst 36 years of conflict in Guatemala during which over 200,000 people died. Despite horrific levels of violence, the US administration of Ronald Reagan openly backed Rios Montt’s regime, claiming that his anticommunist stance was essential to US foreign policy in Central America. The trial’s annulment raises questions about pressure from current US officials eager to prop up current Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, who was an army commander during the genocide. The trial also raises historical questions about the deeper legacy of violence against indigenous people and other peasants in Central America and the role of imperial powers, including the United States, in condoning that violence.
Thesis Paragraph: The trial over Rios Montt’s late Cold War genocide campaigns in Guatemala and recent violence in Central America is not new or without historical roots. This violence is the predictable extension and likely outcome of a history of regime change and economic imperialism in Central America. The roots of this violence lie not only in US anticommunist imperatives during the Cold War but more deeply in the history of US economic demands for food products and raw materials on the region in the early twentieth century. While US corporations sought to control and profit from the flow of tropical products including sugar, coffee, and coca out of the region, it was United Fruit Company and the banana that became the symbol of US ties to the region. United Fruit Company infused its economic desires for banana profits with a racialized campaign designed to assure white consumers in the US that unfettered access to bananas and to Central American products more broadly was paramount to peace and security in the hemisphere. In reality, United Fruit’s brutal agricultural policies spurred massive resistance in Guatemala, which culminated in the popular election of Jacobo Arbenz. In reaction, United Fruit convinced US government officials and the American public that it was in the national security interests of the US to support Arbenz’ overthrow in 1954.
I. The Creation of Modern Guatemala
- A. This section will discuss the late nineteenth century formation of Guatemala’s export economy, with particular focus on coffee.
- B. Using Grandin’s The Blood of Guatemalaas its basis, this section will also explore the emergence of class divisions among indigenous Guatemalans.
- C. Elites struggled to maintain ethnic solidarity amidst changing economic conditions.
II. United Fruit and the Selling of US Empire
- A. This section will discuss the role of the US-based United Fruit Company in furthering the class divisions begun decades earlier in the coffee industry.
- B. It will also reveal how United Fruit advertising campaigns in the first three decades of the 20thcentury further embedded the US public in the interests of the company. This made it easier for the US government to side with United Fruit when challenged by Guatemalan workers or politicians.
- C. Discusses Food Value of the Banana as an early attempt at food marketing.
- D. Discusses creation of “Great White Fleet” and US tourism as part of United Fruit’s overall strategy of extending US imperialism.
- E. United Fruit’s emphasis on race (i.e. Great White Fleet) matched its racialized policies on the banana plantations, where brutal working conditions abounded.
III. Guatemala’s Fleeting Democratic Moment
- A. Section discusses the rise of Jacobo Arbenz as a reform politician, including his challenge to racialized labor policies of United Fruit.
- B. United Fruit’s intense opposition to Arbenz’s policies of land redistribution and restoration of land to indigenous people.
- C. American press portrayals of Arbenz as a dangerous communist stooge softened the public to the idea of his removal by the CIA.
IV. The Overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz
- A. The details of the coup and its immediate results
- B. Not far enough? – The American Anti-Communist Perspective
V. Conclusion: The legacy and lessons of Arbenz’s overthrow
The deep history of United Fruit’s politics of race and economic imperialism and the US-backed 1954 coup against Jacobo Arbenz reverberate in Guatemala today. Following the installation of Castillo Armas as the preferred dictator, United Fruit resumed exploitation of Guatemala’s agricultural and labor resources. The continuation of the Cold War after the coup and the perpetuation of anticommunist foreign policy ultimately informed the administration of Ronald Reagan’s decision to back any over more brutal Guatemalan dictator – Efrian Rios Montt – during the last years of the Cold War. Rios Montt’s death squads continued, albeit to extreme ends, the policies of repression and exploitation begun by United Fruit and its political allies, including Armas. But as late as September 2015, a new chapter in Guatemalan politics began to unfold. Amidst corruption scandals, the Guatemalan Congress stripped president Otto Perez Molina of immunity from prosecution – thus opening the door for a potential trial not only for corruption but for his active role in carrying out the genocide against Mayans in the 1980s. It may very well be that in the event of such a trial, that the prosecution brings to bear the lessons of this 20th-century history of race and imperialism in Central America.
La Prensa San Diego, April 26, 2013.
Greg Grandin, The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 130-158, 198-219.
United Fruit Company, Food Value of the Banana: Opinions of Leading Medical and Scientific Authorities (Boston: United Fruit Company, 1917), 1.
Catherine Cocks, Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 34, 37.
Jason Colby, The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 8, 119.
Piero Gleijeses, “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz,” Journal of Latin American Studies 21, 3 (1989): 453; Stephen M. Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives,” The History Teacher 34, 1 (2000): 64.
New York Times, November 8, 1953; Gleijeses, “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz,” 479.
Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala,” 63.
Milton Bracker, “The Lessons of the Guatemalan Struggle,” New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954.
Elisabeth Malkin and Azam Ahmed, “President Otto Perez Molina Is Stripped of Immunity in Guatemala” The New York Times, September 1, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/02/world/americas/guatemala-votes-to-strip-its-president-of-immunity.html(accessed January 6, 2016).