Banana republic

Eating bananas has become a national pastime in Britain, with the quintessential tropical fruit having overtaken the apple as Britain’s number one fruit. Most of us put bananas on the weekly shopping list, feel glad that we have eaten one of our five fruits a day, and that’s it. However, the humble banana has made some men millionaires and some men very poor. In fact the production of this ‘harmless’ fruit has peeled away the social fabric of many Central American countries and wreaked havoc upon its people.

{{ quote The production of this ‘harmless’ fruit has peeled away the social fabric of many Central American countries }}

For example, Limon, a small city in Costa Rica is the third biggest supplier to Europe. In 1998 Costa Rica produced 115 million boxes with an export value of $670 million dollars. On July 2001, in order to prevent the expansion of the banana plant disease known as black sigatoka, 1,000 hectares of plantations were destroyed in the South Pacific area of Costa Rica. Workers are paid according to how many bananas they process and quality of the bananas produced. Quality and speed is the mantra that dominates most plantations while employees are constantly reminded of the requirements that out supermarkets have for ripe, delicious fruit. While conditions have improved for workers, some are paid below the minimum wage and are not paid for overtime.

To put this all in context, most Central American countries are desperately poor. The Honduran city of San Pedro Sula boasts of the highest rate of AIDS in the region while Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America. Poverty and destitution are combined with political instability, civil strife, increased illiteracy and a growing resentment towards the US. All in all, being a Central American citizen can be tough.

To go back to where it all first started, during the twentieth century the United States became a global leader and one of the richest countries in the world. A few miles south of its border, the economically poor but resource-rich Central America was to become the US’s prime target of exploitation. The plush, fertile grounds of Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala provided the backdrop for greed, corruption and war that would see the destruction of the credibility of US entrepreneurs and cause consumers around the world to rethink where their food comes from.

The American United Fruit Company was the first major fruit company to establish itself in Central America. Since this time its notorious and seedy reputation surpassed itself, to the extent that in the 1980s it underwent a serious face lift – it now runs under the name of Chiquita International. Together with Dole, also known as Standard Fruit, and Del Mont these major transnational corporations make up the ‘big three’ banana producers in the region and provide fifty six per cent of the world’s bananas. American entrepreneurs who first arrived in Central America proclaimed themselves to be innovators and beacons of change. They provided new opportunities, jobs and infrastructure for what they perceived as a ‘backward’ and ‘underdeveloped’ society.

Despite the promises of the entrepreneurs, life on the banana plantations was harsh and workers had few rights. High-ranking US employees and their families lived in ‘zonas americanas’ designated by fences and gated entry points. With golf courses and swimming pools North American employees lived in luxury. In contrast, Honduran workers were housed in six-unit wooden barracks lacking indoor plumbing and electricity. The barracks were crowded and poorly ventilated which resulted in high rates of respiratory illnesses and often malaria hot spots. Francisco Portillo, a worker from an Honduran banana plantation, recalled: “We lived in the rooms packed like hens…you lived like an animal”.

Besides the ill-treatment of Central American workers, banana production has had profound effects upon the land. The expansion of banana farms led to the dependence on the monoculture banana crop, when previously there had been a variety of plants and low population densities. As bananas increasingly became cultivated on a large-scale basis, forests were cut down and wastelands drained. These actions completely altered the wildlife and natural habitats that had been left untouched for so long. Cattle ranchers found themselves losing land that would eventually be used for growing bananas, Indians lost their communal lands and a reformed tax structure burdened them with tax obligations. This resulted in the abandonment of subsistence farming and entry into a large labour system. Society became ordered according to the needs of banana production; in essence, the banana became more important than the human.

The downside of focusing on one cash crop was illustrated when Panama disease, first detected by United Fruit in 1916, wiped out many of the banana plantations. In response, the companies abandoned the area, leaving labourers unemployed, isolating the region and halting access to export markets for non- company banana growers. Historian John Soluri said: ‘As the fruit companies redirected their railroads toward disease free lands, they left many communities facing economic crises.’ United Fruit and other multinational banana producers viewed the land and the people of Central America as commodities that could be used and then discarded without thinking about the negative consequences for the local population.

One reason for the success of United Fruit was its ability to forge healthy alliances with the Central American dictators. The absence of democratic institutions helped the multinational corporations to maintain their power as they joined dictators who disregarded the poor majority. The overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz by US-backed forces in 1954 sparkles on the list of crimes that US mercenaries have committed in Guatemala. For press purposes, United Fruit convinced then-President Eisenhower that Colonel Arbenz was intending to align Guatemala with the Soviet Bloc and therefore needed to be deposed. In reality, United Fruit had been worried by Arbenz’s wish to introduce a new labour code and agrarian and land reforms which would regulate United Fruit and expropriate forty per cent of its land. Alfonso Bauer Paiz, Minister of Labor and Economy under Arbenz said: ‘The United Fruit Company is the principal enemy of the progress of Guatemala, of its democracy and of every effort directed at its economic liberation’. United Fruit used such rhetoric to convince the US that Arbenz was a threat to the freedom of the Guatemalan people. The subsequent CIA-led coup ‘Operation Success’, only brought about painful repercussions of civil strife, increased poverty and a growing resentment towards the US. Historians Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer believe that due to ‘Operation Success’ ‘movements toward peaceful reform in the region were set back, dictators were strengthened and encouraged, and activists of today look to guerrilla warfare rather than elections as the only way to produce change’.

Despite the many complications the destruction of democracy was a huge success for United Fruit. Between 1900 and 1951 it earned US$825,000,000. While North American entrepreneurs displayed no mercy in their quest for success and dollars, the fortunes of the Guatemalan people remained desperate. In 1941 the Office of Strategic Services described Guatemala as a ‘primitive, impoverished Indian population ruled by an absolute dictator, a national economy largely dependent on two export crops, coffee and bananas, and a general agricultural backwardness which leaves four fifths of the land totally uncultivated’. Only in hindsight has there ever been the slightest sense of remorse for the atrocities committed. Sam Zemurray, president of the Cuyamel Fruit Company between 1899 and 1929 says ‘all we cared about were dividends. I feel guilty about some of the things we did’.

Rene de Leon Schlotter, leader of Guatemala’s center-left political party Christian Democrats, criticised the US in 1976, saying: ‘With its policy of supporting dictatorships, the United States has collaborated in the strengthening of these regimes and burdened our people with debts, often for the most superfluous programs. With its policy of military and police assistance, the United States has collaborated in the acts of repression, and consequently in the violation of human rights’. By interrupting the political and economic processes in Central America in the early twentieth century, the effects of banana production of poverty, illiteracy and resentment towards the US are still felt in those countries today

Banana production in Central America is a typical example of the problems that many developing countries face, in particular the battle between the domination of corporate culture and the survival of small local farmers and interests. While large Western corporations are allowed the unfettered acquisition of foreign land and resources, the interests of the people of those countries are pushed to the periphery. In this sense the banana is more than just a fruit, and its turbulent past could perhaps prompt us to think about what we eat. Maybe it can make us resist the selfish fast food world which clouds our vision and wipes out the man that first picked the banana from its tree… Maybe.

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