Bananas: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World

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9781841958811: Bananas: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World
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If you only read a handful of nonfiction books this year, [Bananas!] is among your recommended five portions.” The Observer

In this gripping exploration of corporate manuevering and subterfuge, Peter Chapman shows how the importer United Fruit set the precedent for the institutionalized power and influence of today's multinational companies. Bananas! is a sharp and lively account of the rise and fall of this infamous company, arguably the most controversial global corporation ever from the jungles of Costa Rica to the dramatic suicide of its CEO, who leapt from an office on the forty-fourth floor of the Pan Am building in New York City. From the marketing of the banana as the first fast food, to the company’s involvement in an invasion of Honduras, the Bay of Pigs crisis, and a bloody coup in Guatemala, Chapman weaves a dramatic tale of big business, political deceit, and outright violence to show how one company wreaked havoc in the banana republics” of Central America, and how terrifyingly similar the age of United Fruit is to our age of rapid globalization.

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From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

A climactic scene in Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, takes place during a strike by Colombian banana workers when armed forces acting at the behest of "the banana company" herd 3,000 people into the town square of Macondo and open fire on them:

"The captain gave the order to fire and fourteen machine guns answered at once. But it all seemed like a farce. It was as if the machine guns had been loaded with caps, because their panting rattle could be heard and their incandescent spitting could be seen, but not the slightest reaction was perceived, not a cry, not even a sigh among the compact crowd that seemed petrified by an instantaneous invulnerability. Suddenly, on one side of the station, a cry of death tore open the enchantment: 'Aaaagh, Mother'. . . . They were penned in, swirling about in a gigantic whirlwind that little by little was being reduced to its epicenter as the edges were systematically being cut off all around like an onion being peeled by the insatiable and methodical shears of the machine guns."

The only survivor is a boy, who lives to tell "with precise and convincing details how the army had machine-gunned more than three thousand workers penned up by the station and how they loaded the bodies into a two-hundred-car train and threw them into the sea." The terrible scene is fiction, but it is based in fact; indeed, Living to Tell the Tale is the title García Márquez gave to his memoir, published in 2003. In December 1928, Colombian Army troops, acting in the interests of the United Fruit Company, opened fire on striking workers in the town of Ciénaga, near the author's native town, Aracataca. He was only a few months old at the time, but the story of the massacre was told over and over and worked its way into the core of his memory, just as stories of the Civil War became central to the consciousness of William Faulkner.

García Márquez significantly overstated the number of dead -- the count has long been in dispute, with estimates ranging from 47 to 2,000 -- but he in no way underplayed the importance of the slaughter in 20th-century Latin American history. In the minds of millions, it came to symbolize the tyrannical role of United Fruit in the region and to cast the company as the leading actor in what came to be known as "Yankee imperialism" in "banana republics." Though many other depredations were committed by or in the name of United Fruit, which was commonly known as El Pulpo, "the octopus," this one quickly entered Latin America's psyche and has remained there ever since.

Peter Chapman, in this once-over-very-lightly history of United Fruit, gives the massacre only a few paragraphs. This is scarcely surprising in the context of the rest of the book, which can be called a work of history only in the most permissive sense of the term, but it's very surprising in the context of Chapman's determination to bash United Fruit -- and by extension the United States -- at every turn. Bananas -- in England it was published as Jungle Capitalists: A Story of Globalisation, Greed and Revolution -- is basically a rant, so one would think that the bloodbath in Ciénaga would have inspired him to heights of indignation, yet his description of it barely rides above the perfunctory.

Chapman is a British journalist who has covered Latin America in print and on air, and now writes for the Financial Times, including a blog about sports. His previous book, The Goalkeeper's History of Britain, was well-received, which makes the shortcomings of Bananas all the more disappointing and unexpected -- especially its prose, which is utterly lifeless, even when Chapman attempts to flay United Fruit and the many other malefactors who populate these pages.

United Fruit, Chapman claims, "set the template for capitalism, the first of the modern multi-nationals." It "started with a few bananas grown at the side of a railway line and became a global power." It "was greedy and controlled millions of acres of land, only a relatively small part of which it used. In countries of many landless small farmers, it kept the rest to keep out competitors and for a 'rainy day.' In and around its plantations it had fifteen hundred miles of railways, a good number of which its host countries built and paid for." Its "Great White Fleet of refrigerated ships, 'reefers', comprised the world's largest private navy." Et cetera. Chapman's determination to tar United Fruit with the brush of multinational rapaciousness knows no end:

"Like multi-national companies today, United Fruit made alliances when and where it could to survive. It sought out malleable elements: politicians with whom it could cut a deal and presidents-in-exile awaiting their call to sail back to power. United Fruit might even help find a boat. Its efforts showed that as long as it did not unduly offend the contemporary mores of its home base, then it could probably get away with much overseas. Its levels of bribery in Honduras in the 1920s did prompt a debate in the US Congress, which concluded that that was the way business was done in such parts of the world."

The company came into being in March 1899, under the leadership of Andrew Preston as president and Minor Keith as vice-president, but it was Keith who really ran this "brooding presence across six lands: Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic." Others eventually were absorbed in its grasp, most notably Honduras, where a military coup in 1911 -- engineered by United Fruit with the complicity of the United States -- brought into power a government friendly to the company's interests and established "conspiracy and violence" as important weapons in its control of the region.

All of this is beyond dispute, though whether Chapman has got all the details right must be left to scholars of Latin American history. United Fruit had much to do with introducing "banana republic" and "gunboat diplomacy" into the English language, and even more to do with establishing many Latin American countries as client states that did the company's, and Washington's, bidding. It isn't a pretty story, and the persistent success of left-wing and populist demagogues in Latin America leaves no doubt that the combination of United Fruit's greed and Washington's ill-considered policies established anti-Americanism as a powerful political force south of the border. Only now, as Washington reaches south with free-trade agreements, does much of Latin America look north with more friendly eyes, but the myopia of the present Congress with regard to these agreements puts that in jeopardy. There is ample reason to fear that Hugo Chávez is not the last of his breed.

In this sense, Chapman gets it more or less right. But his arguments about United Fruit and multinational corporations are shakier. For one thing, United Fruit was unable to sustain its empire. Eventually it was brought down by mismanagement, antitrust actions, competition, changed political circumstances here and to the south, and diseased bananas. Its successor, Chiquita, is by Chapman's admission no more than a "surviving remnant." United Fruit may have been an international corporate monopoly for a long time, but eventually it collapsed, which should serve as an object lesson in the vulnerability of businesses that operate in lawless and wholly self-serving ways.

Beyond that, Chapman skips too lightly over the difference in international business then and now. To be sure there still are companies that exploit the human and natural resources of foreign countries, especially in the Third World, and that use lobbying and political contributions for highly questionable ends. That, to paraphrase Chapman, is the way business is done in this and other parts of the world, an unpleasant but inescapable reality. But the multinationals aren't all malevolent, and they must answer to more stringent laws than United Fruit ever faced. Contrary to what Chapman would have us believe, there aren't any United Fruits today, which isn't an apology for the multinationals but a simple statement of fact.


Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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