books business development fair trade globalisation

Jungle Capitalists – the story of United Fruit

A Story of Globalisation, Greed and Revolution Jungle Capitalists – a Story of Globalisation, Greed and Revolution’ is the extraordinary story of the United Fruit company and their dealings in Central America.

The company began almost by accident in Costa Rica, with a railway constructor called Minor Keith growing bananas to sell to his workers. Once the railway line was in place and bananas could be shipped to the coast for export to the States, Keith realised he’d stumbled upon a remarkable business model. Over the next few years, railway lines were offered to many Central American governments in return for land, and exemption from taxes. The end result was huge plantations in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua, the ‘Great White Fleet’ delivering to New Orleans and Boston, and a highly profitable emerging market for the banana.

As time went on, and the fortunes being made by the banana magnates failed to trickle down to the countries growing the fruit, there was unrest, and this is where United Fruit developed an unusual speciality – regime change. If the usual bribery and blackmail wasn’t enough to keep the land grants and tax breaks, the company would pay local rebels, or hire in mercenaries. The governments of Honduras and Guatemala were overthrown. The attempt to overthrow Cuba in the Bay of Pigs invasion was a memorable failure.

The company gets its comeuppance, which is always satisfying for such a story. United Fruit overstretched itself and collapsed in scandal and the suicide of its CEO in the 1970s. It was sold off in pieces, and lives on in a much smaller size as Chiquita.

What’s interesting about United Fruit is the way it pioneered a number of business practices in poorer countries that are followed by plenty of others today. Having read a lot on oil recently, I was struck at the similarities – government troops in Colombia intervened to violently quash a worker protest on a United Fruit plantation in 1929, and a massacre ensued. Today, local and US troops patrol Colombia’s pipelines, massacres have been carried out in the name of oil companies in Nigeria. In 2003 there was a failed coup in the tiny West African island of Sao Tome, an attempt to seize control of its extensive off-shore oil deposits. Were ExxonMobil involved, hoping a corrupt military government would be easier to work with than the democratically elected president? Perhaps we’ll know in a few years time, if the secrets of the oil companies are ever told.

Another aspect to the story is the United States’ casual disregard for the sovereignty of other countries when their business interests are a stake. The CIA feature regularly in the United Fruit story, and the company wielded considerable political clout, not least in the 1950. John Foster Dulles, a former lawyer for United Fruit, was Secretary of State. His Brother, Allen Dulles, was head of the CIA. It was during that era that the government of Guatemala was overthrown, ostensibly to prevent a communist uprising of course, but also because United Fruit had just lost some of their land concessions. Again, I can’t help thinking of oil, and the fact that Condoleeza Rice, a woman with a Chevron oil tanker named after her, has the power to overthrow countries and start wars in her role as National Security Advisor.

Finally, United Fruit are notable for pioneering PR. They were clients of Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and not coincidentally the godfather of public relations. Applying the principles of Freudian psychology to advertising, Bernays developed the ideas of product placement, celebrity endorsement, and selling things with sex. For United Fruit, he publicized their (occasional) philanthropic endeavours in Central America, made educational films and radio programmes, and set up a MiddleAmerica Information Bureau to inform journalists about the realities of life in the growing regions. He encouraged United Fruit to donate to the exploration of the archaeological ruins that had been uncovered in the course of their jungle-clearing. Around this time United Fruit also developed the cartoon pin-up of Senorita Chiquita Banana, the singing, dancing banana, pre-empting characters from Ronald McDonald to Coco the monkey. Of course, these are all tricks we’re very familiar with today. You can’t spend long in a Starbucks without finding some assertion of their good works in developing countries, despite the fact that you have to specifically ask for Fairtrade at the counter. And of course the educational film. I collect short films, and the one below is one of my favourite bits of corporate propaganda.

Anyway, I recommend Jungle Capitalists. Peter Chapman tells the tale like a spy thriller, and it’s an easy and engaging read. There are some asides about the crisis in banana genetics (see this earlier post), and the consumer discovery of the banana is particularly fascinating, with bananas on display in exhibitions, served as delicacies, and celebrated in song. The book could have done with a bit of an update on the state of the world fruit business today and the whole Fairtrade issue, but I guess you can’t cover everything.


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