Part 1 -
We grow up believing our coffee is transported to the local grocer by Juan Valdez, who walks alongside his mule Conchita with burlap sacks of harvested coffee beans. We picture someone like Carmen Miranda in a sunny, warm, distant place balancing bananas on her head.
In America, our carefully crafted corporate perceptions of food don’t really change much after we grow up. Oh sure, we may substitute the divine images of Juan Valdez and Carmen Miranda with more mortal visions of nameless brown-skinned faces, but we still cling to the fiction that these people labor under lazy, tropical, carefree days.
Frankly, most of us don’t really care where our food comes from or who delivers it, as long as it’s fresh. And that’s just how corporations and their Madison Avenue image makers like it.
There are three corporations that distribute bananas: Dole Food, Chiquita and Del Monte, and all three of them are guilty of exploiting workers in developing nations. But one company, Chiquita Brands International, dominates the banana business.
United Fruit Company
Chiquita Brands, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the successor to the United Fruit Company and is the leading distributor of bananas in the United States. Chiquita Brands International Inc. was originally formed in 1871 by U.S. railroad entrepreneur Henry Meiggs as the United Fruit Company.
In the 1930s, under the dictatorship of Jorqe Ubico, United Fruit Company held ownership of roughly forty-two percent of Guatemala’s land. Not only was the land exempt from taxes and import duties, the three main businesses in Guatemala — United Fruit Company, International Railways of Central America, and Empress Electrica — were owned and controlled by United Fruit Company. And almost eighty percent of all the country’s exports went to the U.S.
In the early 1950s, a small percent of elite landowners owned the majority of the arable land. In a continuation of the liberal polices that began with the election of Juan Jose Arevalo to the presidency in Guatemala, an attempt was made under an agrarian reform law to redistribute large estates — 160,000 acres of uncultivated land owned by United Fruit Company — into small farms.
Arevalo began a a string of social programs including social security and health care, and maintained power despite several coup attempts by right-wing military forces. Arévalo was succeeded by Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán who was elected president in 1951.
During this time period in Guatemala, United Fruit owned all of Guatemala’s banana production and monopolized banana exports; United Fruit also owned the telephone and telegraph system, and virtually all of the railroad track. But president Guzmán challenged United Fruit’s stranglehold on the country by redistributing United Fruit land, and competing with United Fruit in the production and export of bananas.
United Fruit, Eisenhower and the CIA
Unbelievably, the corporate business elite within United Fruit were able to dictate U.S. government intervention in Guatemalan affairs. “Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ law firm had prepared United Fruit’s contracts with Guatemala; his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, belonged to United Fruit’s law firm; John Moors Cabot, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, was the brother of a former United Fruit president; President Eisenhower’s personal secretary was married to the head of United Fruit’s Public Relations Department.
“In 1954, Eisenhower and Dulles decided that Arbenz finally had to go, and the US State Department labeled Guatemala “communist”. On this pretext, US aid and equipment were provided to the Guatemalan Army. The US also sent a CIA army and CIA planes. They bombed a military base and a government radio station, and overthrew Arbenz Guzmán, who fled to Cuba.” Part 2