Financial Times (London) journalist Chapman’s insider account of United Fruit as the template for the modern multinational company often gets mired in the minutiae of a century’s worth of dubious business practices.
Unlike Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2007), which examines the international dissemination of the banana and its genetic precariousness, Chapman focuses on the rise of the United Fruit Company as an experimental laboratory for capitalism throughout the hemisphere. Two brothers from Brooklyn, Henry and Minor Keith, seized on Costa Rica’s idea to build a railroad through the country by the early 1870s, although they had no idea how treacherous the malarial swamps would prove. Minor Keith bought up plantations in Colombia and Panama and eventually merged with Andrew Preston’s Boston Fruit Company in 1899, which was scrambling to meet the U.S. demand for bananas. As a monopoly, and with control of the railroad and labor, sweet deals were made with the compliant dictators of the countries involved. Russian-Jewish emigrant Sam Zemurray ran the company for the next 50 years, moving into Honduras. Coups in the so-called banana republics (a term first used by O. Henry in his 1904 novel Cabbages and Kings) such as Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua were staged by United Fruit hand-in-hand with U.S. government forces. Strikes against exploitative labor practices turned violent, such as the massacre in Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1928, immortalized by Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Protecting American interests against incursions by the communists became the overriding concern, which drew in the CIA. Chapman links the company’s demise to the dark forces of Watergate and insurrections in Nicaragua and Grenada, among others, and demonstrates how today’s accepted business practices—including the use of propaganda (“public relations”), slave-like labor conditions, branding, packaging and political lobbying—originated with United Fruit.
A thorough though occasionally murky business study.