United Fruit Company

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Entrance facade of old United Fruit Building on St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana

The United Fruit Company was a major United States corporation that traded in vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beans & tropical fruit (primarily bananas and pineapples) grown in Third World plantations and sold in the United States and Europe. The company was formed in 1899 from the merger of Minor C. Keith's banana-trading concerns with Andrew W. Preston's Boston Fruit Company. It flourished in the early and mid-20th century and came to control vast territories and transportation networks in Central America, the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Ecuador, and the West Indies. Though it competed with the Standard Fruit Company for dominance in the international banana trade, it maintained a virtual monopoly in certain regions.

The company had a deep and long-lasting impact in the economic and political development of several Latin American countries. Critics often accused it of exploitative neocolonialism and described it as the archetypal example of the influence of a multinational corporation on the internal politics of the so-called "banana republics" (a term coined by O. Henry). After a period of financial decline, United Fruit was merged with Eli M. Black's AMK in 1970 to become the United Brands Company. In 1984, Carl Lindner, Jr. transformed United Brands into the present-day Chiquita Brands International.


[edit] Corporate history

In 1871, U.S. railroad entrepreneur Henry Meiggs signed a contract with the government of Costa Rica to build a railroad connecting the capital city of San José to the port of Limón in the Caribbean. Meiggs was assisted in the project by his young nephew Minor C. Keith, who took over Meiggs's business concerns in Costa Rica after Meiggs's death in 1877. Because he was looking for cheap food to give to his workers, Keith had begun planting bananas along the train route in 1873. Soon after, he learned how successful was the importation of bananas to the United States, and, once the railroad was complete, decided to transport the bananas to his natal country. It did not take him too long to see the success of his idea, but his ambition led him to take advantage of the workers by paying them extremely low wages. The workers left when exposed to very low quality conditions. This was not exposed until years later, when the United Fruit Company took possession of almost all the lands in Guatemala.

When the Costa Rican government defaulted on its payments in 1882, Keith had to borrow £1.2 million from London banks and from private investors in order to continue the difficult engineering project. In 1884, the government of President Próspero Fernández Oreamuno agreed to give Keith 800,000 acres (3,200 square kilometers) of tax-free land along the railroad, plus a 99-year lease on the operation of the train route. The railroad was completed in 1890 but the flow of passengers proved insufficient to finance Keith's debt. On the other hand, the sale of bananas grown in his lands and transported first by train to Limón and then by ship to the United States proved very lucrative. Keith soon came to dominate the banana trade in Central America and along the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

In 1899, Keith lost $1.5 million when the New York City broker Hoadley and Co. went bankrupt. He then traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, where he arranged the merger of his banana trading concerns with the rival Boston Fruit Company. Boston Fruit had been established by Lorenzo Dow Baker, a sailor who, in 1870, had bought his first bananas in Jamaica, and by Andrew W. Preston. The merger formed the United Fruit Company, based in Boston, with Preston as president and Keith as vice-president. Preston brought to the partnership his plantations in the West Indies, a fleet of steamships, and his market in the U.S. Northeast. Keith brought his plantations and railroads in Central America and his market in the U.S. South and Southeast. At its founding, United Fruit was capitalized at $11,230,000.

In 1901, the government of Guatemala hired the United Fruit Company to manage the country's postal service. By 1930, the Company had absorbed more than 20 rival firms, acquiring a capital of $215,000,000 and becoming the largest employer in Central America. In 1930, Sam Zemurray (nicknamed "Sam the Banana Man") sold his Cuyamel Fruit Co. to United Fruit and retired from the fruit business. In 1933, concerned that the company was mismanaged and that its market value had plunged, he staged a hostile takeover. Zemurray moved the company's headquarters to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was based. United Fruit went on to prosper under Zemurray's management; Zemurray resigned as president of the company in 1951.

Corporate raider Eli M. Black bought 733,000 shares of United Fruit in 1968, becoming the company's largest shareholder. In June 1970, Black merged United Fruit with his own public company, AMK (owner of meat packer John Morrel), to create the United Brands Company. United Fruit had far less cash than Black had counted on and Black's mismanagement led to United Brands becoming crippled with debt. The company's losses were exacerbated by Hurricane Fifi in 1974, which destroyed many banana plantations in Honduras. On February 3, 1975, Black committed suicide by jumping out of his office on the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building in New York City. Later that year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission exposed a scheme by United Brands to bribe Honduran President Oswaldo López Arellano with $1.25 million, and the promise of another $1.25 million upon the reduction of certain export taxes. Trading in United Brands stock was halted and López was ousted in a military coup.

After Black's suicide, Cincinnati-based American Financial, one of billionaire Carl H. Lindner, Jr.'s companies, bought into United Brands. In August 1984, Lindner took control of the company and renamed it Chiquita Brands International. The headquarters was moved to Cincinnati in 1985.

Throughout most of its history, United Fruit's main competitor was the Standard Fruit Company, now the Dole Food Company.

[edit] Reputation

The United Fruit Company was frequently accused of bribing government officials in exchange for preferential treatment, exploiting its workers, contributing little by way of taxes to the countries in which it operated, and working ruthlessly to consolidate monopolies. Latin American journalists sometimes referred to the company as el pulpo ("the octopus"), and leftist parties in Central and South America encouraged the Company's workers to strike. Criticism of the United Fruit Company became a staple of the discourse of the communist parties in several Latin American countries, where its activities were often interpreted as illustrating Lenin's theory of capitalist imperialism. Major Latin American writers sympathetic to more independence from foreign governments and corporations, such as Carlos Luis Fallas of Costa Rica, Ramón Amaya Amador of Honduras, Miguel Ángel Asturias of Guatemala, Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay, Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, and Pablo Neruda of Chile, denounced the Company in their literature.

The business practices of United Fruit were also frequently criticized by journalists, politicians, and artists in the United States. Little Steven released a song called "Bitter Fruit" about the company's misdeeds. In 1950, Gore Vidal published a novel (Dark Green, Bright Red), in which a thinly fictionalized version of United Fruit supports a military coup in a thinly fictionalized Guatemala.

[edit] Ships of United Fruit Company's Great White Fleet

SS Abangarez, a United Fruit Company banana carrier, c. 1945
  • Admiral Dewey , Admiral Schley , Admiral Sampson & Admiral Farragut (1899) U.S. Navy surplus after Spanish-American War - Each carried 53 passengers & 35000 bunches of bananas.[1]
  • Venus (1903) United Fruit Company's first refrigerated banana reefer ship[1]
  • San Jose, Limon & Esparta (1904) first banana reefers built to United Fruit design - San Jose & Esparta were sunk by U-boats during World War II.[1]
  • Atenas (1909) class of thirteen 5000-ton banana reefers built in Ireland[1]
  • Pastores (1912) 7241-ton cruise liner became USS Pastores (AF-16)[2]
  • Calamares (1913) 7622-ton banana reefer became USS Calamares (AF-18)[2]
  • Toloa (1917) 6494-ton banana reefer[1]
  • Ulua (1917) 6494-ton banana reefer became USS Octans (AF-26)[2]
  • San Benito (1921) 3724-ton banana reefer became USS Taurus (AF-25)[2]
  • Mayari & Choluteca (1921) 3724-ton banana reefers[1]
  • La Playa (1923) banana reefer[1]
  • Telda, Iriona, Castilla & Tela (1927) banana reefers[1]
  • Aztec (1929) banana reefer[1]
  • Platano & Musa (1930) banana reefers[1]
  • Chiriqui (1932) 6963-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Tarazed (AF-13)[2]
  • Jamaica (1932) 6968-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Ariel (AF-22)[2]
  • Veraqua (1932) 6982-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Merak (AF-21)[2]
  • Talamanca (1932) 6963-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Talamanca (AF-15)[2]
  • Quiriqua (1932) 6982-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Mizar (AF-12)[2]
  • Antigua (1932) Turbo-electric cruise liner providing 2-week cruises of Cuba, Jamaica, Colombia, Honduras and the Panama Canal Zone.[1]
  • Oratava (1936) banana reefer[1]
  • Comayagua, Junior, Metapan, Yaque & Fra Berlanga (1946) banana reefers[1]
  • Manaqui (1946) bulk sugar ship[1]

[edit] History in Central America

The United Fruit Company (UFCO) owned vast tracts of land in the Caribbean lowlands. It also dominated regional transportation networks through its International Railways of Central America and its Great White Fleet of steamships. In addition, UFCO branched out in 1913 by creating the Tropical Radio and Telegraph Company. One of the company's primary tactics for maintaining market dominance was to control the distribution of banana lands. UFCO claimed that hurricanes, blight and other natural threats required them to hold extra land or reserve land. In practice, what this meant was that UFCO was able to prevent the government from distributing banana lands to peasants who wanted a share of the banana trade. The fact that the UFCO relied so heavily on manipulation of land use rights in order to maintain their market dominance had a number of long-term consequences for the region. For the company to maintain its unequal land holdings it often required government concessions. And this in turn meant that the company had to be politically involved in the region even though it was an American company. In fact, the heavy-handed involvement of the company in governments which often were or became corrupt created the term "Banana republic" representing a "servile dictatorship".[3]

UFCO had a mixed record on promoting the development of the nations in which it operated. In Central America, the Company built extensive railroads and ports and provided employment and transportation. UFCO also created numerous schools for the people who lived and worked on Company land. On the other hand, it allowed vast tracts of land under its ownership to remain uncultivated and, in Guatemala and elsewhere, it discouraged the government from building highways, which would lessen the profitable transportation monopoly of the railroads under its control.

In 1954, the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was toppled by U.S.- backed forces lead by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas[4] who invaded from Honduras. Assigned by the Eisenhower administration, this Arbenz government’s military opposition was armed, trained and organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency[5] (see Operation PBSUCCESS). The directors of United Fruit Company (UFCO) had lobbied to convince the Truman and Eisenhower administrations that Colonel Arbenz intended to align Guatemala with the Soviet Bloc. Besides the disputed issue of Arbenz's allegiance to Communism, UFCO was being threatened by the Arbenz government’s agrarian reform legislation and new Labor Code.[6] UFCO was the largest Guatemalan landowner and employer, and the Arbenz government’s land reform included the expropriation of 40% of UFCO land.[7] U.S. officials had little proof to back their claims of a growing communist threat in Guatemala[8], however the relationship between the Eisenhower administration and UFCO demonstrated the influence of corporate interest on U.S. foreign policy.[9] The American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was an avowed opponent of Communism whose law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell[10] had represented United Fruit. His brother Allen Dulles was the director of the CIA. The brother of the Assistant Secretary of State for InterAmerican Affairs John Moors Cabot had once been president of United Fruit. Ed Whitman who was United Fruit’s principal lobbyist was married to President Eisenhower's personal secretary, Ann C. Whitman.[11] Many individuals who directly influenced U.S. policy towards Guatemala in the 1950s also had direct ties to UFCO.[12] The overthrow of Arbenz, however, failed to benefit the Company. Its stock market value declined along with its profit margin. The Eisenhower administration proceeded with antitrust action against the company, which forced it to divest in 1958. In 1972, the company sold off the last of their Guatemalan holdings after over a decade of decline.

Company holdings in Cuba, which included sugar mills in the Oriente region of the island, were expropriated by the 1959 revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro. By April 1960 Castro was accusing the company of aiding Cuban exiles and supporters of former leader Fulgencio Batista in initiating a seaborn invasion of Cuba directed from the United States.[13] Castro warned the U.S. that "Cuba is not another Guatemala" in one of many combative diplomatic exchanges before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Despite significant economic pressure on Cuba, the company was unable to recoup cost and compensation from the Cuban government.[13]

[edit] Banana massacre

One of the most notorious strikes by United Fruit workers broke out on 12 November 1928 on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, near Santa Marta. Historical estimates place the number of strikers somewhere between 11,000 and 30,000. On 6 December, Colombian Army troops under the command of General Cortés Vargas opened fire on a crowd of strikers gathered in the central square of the town of Ciénaga. The military justified this action by claiming that the strike was subversive and its organizers were Communist revolutionaries. Congressman Jorge Eliécer Gaitán claimed that the army had acted under instructions from the United Fruit Company. The ensuing scandal contributed to President Miguel Abadía Méndez's Conservative Party being voted out of office in 1930, putting an end to 44 years of Conservative rule in Colombia. The first novel of Álvaro Cepeda Samudio, La Casa Grande, focuses on this event, and the author himself grew up in close proximity to the incident. The climax of García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is based on the events in Ciénaga, though the author himself has acknowledged that the death toll of 3,000 that he gives there is greatly inflated.[14]

General Cortés Vargas, who issued the order to shoot, argued later that he had issued the order because he had information that U.S. boats were poised to land troops on Colombian coasts to defend American personnel and the interests of the United Fruit Company. Vargas issued the order so the US would not invade Colombia. This position was strongly criticized in the Senate, especially by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who argued that those same bullets should have been used to stop the foreign invader.[citation needed]

The telegram from Bogotá Embassy to the U.S. Secretary of State, dated December 5, 1928, stated: “I have been following Santa Marta fruit strike through United Fruit Company representative here; also through Minister of Foreign Affairs who on Saturday told me government would send additional troops and would arrest all strike leaders and transport them to prison at Cartagena; that government would give adequate protection to American interests involved.”[15]

The telegram from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, date December 7, 1928, stated: “Situation outside Santa Marta City unquestionably very serious: outside zone is in revolt; military who have orders "not to spare ammunition" have already killed and wounded about fifty strikers. Government now talks of general offensive against strikers as soon as all troopships now on the way arrive early next week.”[16]

The Dispatch from US Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated December 29, 1928, stated: “I have the honor to report that the legal advisor of the United Fruit Company here in Bogotá stated yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military authorities during the recent disturbance reached between five and six hundred; while the number of soldiers killed was one.”[17]

The Dispatch from US Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated January 16, 1929, stated: “I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.”[18]

Guerrilla movements in Colombia like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have argued that the development of communism in Colombia was triggered in part by events like these, which it calls "state terrorism". The Banana massacre is said to be one of the main events that preceded the Bogotazo, the subsequent era of violence known as La Violencia, and the guerrillas who developed during the bipartisan National Front period, creating the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia.[citation needed]

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Carl, Robert, CAPT USNR "The Banana Navy" United States Naval Institute Proceedings December 1976 pp. 50-56
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Silverstone, Paul H., U. S. Warships of World War II Doubleday and Company (1968) p.329
  3. ^ Big-business greed killing the banana - Independent, via The New Zealand Herald, Saturday 24 May 2008, Page A19
  4. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 343. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  5. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 340. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  6. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 337. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  7. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 337 Harvard University Press, 1998.
  8. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 342. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  9. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 340. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  10. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 338. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  11. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 338. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  12. ^ Shoultz, Lars: "Beneath the United States", page 337. Harvard University Press, 1998.
  13. ^ a b Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, 867
  14. ^ Bucheli, Bananas and Business: The United Fruit Company in Colombia, 1899-2000, 132
  15. ^ Telegram from Bogotá Embassy to the U.S. Secretary of State, dated December 5, 1928
  16. ^ Telegram from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, date December 7, 1928
  17. ^ Dispatch from US Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated December 29, 1928
  18. ^ Dispatch from US Bogotá Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated January 16, 1929

[edit] References

[edit] See also

[edit] Further reading

  • Bucheli, Marcelo (July 2008). "Multinational Corporations, Totalitarian Regimes, and Economic Nationalism: United Fruit Company in Central America, 1899-1975". Business History 50 (4): 433–454. doi:10.1080/00076790802106315. 
  • McCann, Thomas P (1987). On the Inside. Beverly, Massachusetts: Quinlan Press.  Revised edition of An American Company (1976).
  • McWhirter, Cameron; Michael Gallagher (May 3 1998). "How 'el pulpo' became Chiquita Banana". The Cincinnati Enquirer. 
  • Neruda, Pablo. Canto General.  "La United Fruit Co."
  • Schlesinger, Stephen; Kinzer, Stephen (1982). Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. 
  • Striffler, Steve (2002). In the Shadows of State and Capital: The United Fruit Company, Popular Struggle, and Agrarian Restructuring in Ecuador, 1900-1995. Durham, N.C.; London: Duke Univ. Press. 
  • Vandermeer, John; Perfecto, Ivette (2005). Breakfast of Biodiversity. Oakland, California: Institute of Food an Development Poliy. ISBN 0-935038-96-X. 

[edit] External links

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