Chiquita Must Pay for Its Crimes in Latin America

Klas Lundström / Jacobin
Chiquita Must Pay for Its Crimes in Latin America Chiquita might finally be held to account for its ties to a far-right paramilitary group in Colombia. (photo: Getty)

It’s been 70 years since the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala ousted President Jacobo Árbenz. He was punished for standing up to Chiquita — but today, the firm might finally be held to account for its ties to a far-right paramilitary group in Colombia.

In the Quran, the banana is presented as a fruit of paradise. But anyone who’s ever set foot on a banana plantation knows that such a place is nothing of the kind. For thousands of banana workers — whose conditions are entwined with health-hazardous pesticides, venomous snakes, mosquitoes carrying diseases, life-drenching humidity, and lethally poor wages — the plantation is the dead end of wider global ills.

On June 27, 1954, banana capitalism captured global attention when the United Fruit Company (later Chiquita), the CIA, and the Guatemalan military succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz. It was the result of a tight-knit conspiracy known as Operation PBSuccess, launched by US president Dwight D. Eisenhower in August 1953 and conducted by Carlos Castillo Armas, a right-wing military commander who ousted Árbenz with funds from the CIA and the United Fruit Company. This latter controlled more than 40 percent of Guatemala’s land and was exempted from paying taxes and import duties.

The turmoil in the Guatemalan capital occurred due to an earlier social earthquake in which the political focus was finally turned toward the vast majority of the population. The latter had long been victims of what Piero Gleijeses, a prominent US foreign policy professor, calls a “skewed land tenure system that rotted the Guatemalan countryside.”

Árbenz had been elected president in 1951, in culmination of a period known as the “Guatemalan Revolution,” after the ruling junta resigned in 1944 and allowed free elections. His campaign promises soon led to “Decree 900,” an agrarian reform passed in the Guatemalan congress on June 17, 1952. It paved the way for the redistribution of unused land while expropriating terrain belonging to major landowners to use in a nationwide land distribution program.

The United Fruit Company became known as “El Pulpo” (“the Octopus”). In The Banana Empire: A Case Study of Economic Imperialism, a pioneering socioeconomic critique of the company’s imperialistic business model published in 1935, Charles David Kepner and Jay Henry Soothill had written that it “throttled competitors, dominated governments, manacled railroads, ruined planters, choked cooperatives, domineered over workers, fought organized labor, and exploited consumers.”

“Decree 900” was hailed by Guatemala’s political left, trade unions, and social movements, whose lobbying had been intensive and successful. It in fact conformed with reform packages deemed “essential to economic development” even by the World Bank. A US embassy report in May 1951 spoke of a rapid distribution of land to more than a hundred thousand peasant families, “amid little violence and without affecting production.”

To many, the law was nothing short of a miracle. Árbenz’s administration handed a real chance of life to thousands upon thousands of landless peasants, starved laborers, and displaced indigenous groups. They greeted the land reform as the first crack of light to end the long dark night of European colonialism, debt labor, and humiliation in the hands of American capitalists. It was giant leap from serfdom and exploitation to citizenship and dignity.

According to eminent Guatemalan intellectual and sociologist Mario Monteforte Toledo, “in the meetings that President Árbenz had with the representatives of the Asociación General de Agricultores to discuss agrarian reform, he knew more about the country’s agrarian problems than they did.” But his rule was not to last.

United Fruit Company

The understanding of peasants’ conditions shown by Árbenz and his administration also clashed with the profit expectations of the United Fruit Company. The growing discontent among American capitalists and the US State Department was thus hardly a surprise. Árbenz’s reform policy had a broad sweep, but he stood in a weak position.

“The United States was, at the time, virtually the only source of private capital available to a Central American country,” Gleijeses reports.

Adding to Árbenz’s poor odds, Guatemala’s Communist Party became one of few allies on which the president could rely for his “pet project,” the agrarian reform. More established political parties feared that radical change would unleash uncontrollable forces, and end the social and political dominance of a small export-oriented oligarchy rooted in both European colonialism and subsequent American imperialism. The regional elites’ power, influence, and capital was rooted primarily in coffee, and then on agricultural commodities, like the banana.

An uprising against the harsh reality and the exploitation of American imperialism was bound to happen sooner or later. The enduring scarcity of survival commodities, even as the same commodities were being exported for large dollar profits, illustrated the need for change. But such hopes also ran up against the dominant power structures in Washington, where Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had ties to the United Fruit Company through his New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. Dulles’s brother, Allen, was the director of the CIA and had personally served on the fruit company’s board of trustees and profited personally from the banana production through his stockholdings.

In the Oval Office, President Eisenhower’s private secretary, Ann Whitman, was married to Ed Whitman, a public relations officer and producer of the propaganda film Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas — a coproduction by the CIA and the United Fruit Company.

In it, we are told that Central America, and primarily the Panama Canal — which the narrator, an American man seated at a desk next to a fruit basket, hails as a haven for US enterprise and a “strategic waterway of the free world” — will never come under Communist control. This is said to be thanks to the “Church with its Christian customs and traditions, which continues to be a bulwark against atheistic Communism,” albeit often funded by US dollars. The United Fruit Company, according to Whitman’s film narrative, fought bravely at the front line of the Cold War.

The US-backed governments that continued to rule in Guatemala until the mid-1990s launched a large-scale military campaign against their political opponents — both armed guerillas and independent trade union leaders. They instigated a genocide-like policy against indigenous groups through World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank schemes, funding mining projects and hydroelectric dams on Mayan lands and securing the United Fruit Company’s profits.

“At the request of the CIA,” writes journalist and writer Greg Grandin in The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, “the New York Times did not send reporters into the countryside following Árbenz’s overthrow.” The civil war lasted until 1996 and cost up to two hundred thousand lives — dead or “made to disappear” (“desaparecidos”). Massacres occurred on banana plantations, effectively quelling any demands for better working conditions presented by trade union leaders to the United Fruit Company.

Monroe Doctrine

Such devastating oppression had a long history behind it. “In the geopolitical concept of imperialism, Central America is no more than a natural appendage of the United States,” wrote journalist and writer Eduardo Galeano in The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

The first commercially grown banana trees were planted in the 1870s after American entrepreneur Minor C. Keith was commissioned by the Costa Rican government to establish a transnational railroad for large-scale transportation between plantations and seaports. Before long, Keith expanded his business and acquired large tracts of land in Honduras and Guatemala, which were dedicated to banana production.

In 1889, Keith’s business teamed up with other US players, a merger that became the United Fruit Company — an embodiment of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which stated that “the rights and interests of the United States are involved, the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintained, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for colonization by any European powers.”

This included domestic independence for any state that gave rise to anything that even remotely resembled a political stance that ran the risk of haltering US interests in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba’s then dictator Gerardo Machado y Morales, known as “El Carnicero” (“The Butcher”) during his rule from 1925­ to 1933, described the Monroe Doctrine as “the common defense policy for the territorial integrity of America.”

The United Fruit Company embodied the free enterprise and “Manifest Destiny” frontier mentality that Washington’s official narrative said had founded the United States of America. In truth, the fruit giant had bribed its way to the heart of Latin American political life, planting social gangrene by paying army officers and gangs of bandits and militias to pave the way through jungles and swamps, clearing suitable agricultural lands taken from indigenous peoples and landless farmers. In return, the banana dollars funded a growing domestic oligarchy that had a military apparatus protecting their interests — and their American beneficiaries.

Colombian Parallel

Yet, as Guatemala wakes up to the seventieth anniversary of the US-backed military coup that ousted Árbenz, the tide might be turning against the prominent banana producer. In June 2024, a civil case jury in the Southern District of Florida deemed Chiquita Brands liable for financing the notorious far-right paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), responsible for various human rights crimes during Colombia’s half-century-long civil war, and with proven ties to its US-armed and trained army.

“Chiquita knowingly provided substantial assistance to the AUC to a degree sufficient to create a foreseeable risk of harm to others,” the jury stated. Chiquita Brands has been ordered to pay $38.3 million to the families of eight victims of the now-disbanded paramilitary group, “blacklisted” as a terrorist organization in the United States and the European Union.

As previously reported by Jacobin, the verdict is likely to “impact the many other pending cases that have attempted to demonstrate the links between Colombia’s Western-backed ruling class and paramilitary groups, often going unresolved due to witness tampering.” Former president Álvaro Uribe is one of Colombia’s potentates who built a political career out of the half-century-long armed conflict and good relations with US capital (among them Chiquita Brands), and who is currently being charged for alleged ties to AUC paramilitaries, whose operations Uribe is said to have “helped expand” to prevent any social change that ran the risk of disrupting the status quo, the poverty, and unjust land concentration that lay the foundation to the Colombian civil war in the 1960s.

Much as in Guatemala, the roots of the United Fruit Company’s banana capitalism run deep into Colombia’s soil. In December 1928, three thousand banana workers attached to the newly formed Magdalena Workers’ Union (USTM) took to the streets in the Caribbean coastal town of Ciénaga. In accordance with the United Fruit Company’s — and US — contemporary political discourse, and in tandem with the Monroe Doctrine, the strikers were branded “Communists,” the mere forerunners of a political plot that sought to overrun the Colombian government and nationalize the banana industry.

The US government, led by President Calvin Coolidge, had turned its Latin American “backyard” into a patchwork of sites for finding cheap goods and prosperous investment opportunities. Various sovereign nations — besides Cuba, also the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela — were under the direct military control of the US Marine Corps. With this geopolitical chessboard in place, Coolidge wasn’t particularly eager to experience a wind of change in Colombia.

The United Fruit Company lobbied hard — backed by the US Marine Corps’ gun barrels — and gained the Colombian government’s support and promise to halt the protests. The striking banana workers, on the other hand, wouldn’t budge and Colombian soldiers had the demonstrating workers gunned down. The US ambassador to Bogotá, Jefferson Caffery, dispatched home to Washington: “I have the honor to report, that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.”

Silenced Past

In Colombia, the collective memory after the “banana massacre” was soon veiled behind a civil war, political propaganda, and a growing American influence spanning the entire society. Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez wrote about the atrocity in his 1967 work One Hundred Years of Solitude, describing this “apocalyptic massacre” as “perhaps my earliest memory.”

“The official version,” García Márquez wrote, “repeated a thousand times and crushed throughout the country by every means of dissemination that the government found at its disposal, ended up prevailing: there were no deaths.”

British playwright Harold Pinter agreed with the Colombian Nobel Prize Laureate. When US interests were at stake, it was easy to make back-page news of — or simply ignore — the civilian lives lost in order to hinder steps toward agrarian reforms, universal welfare, and union organizing.

“It never happened,” Pinter wrote in 1996. “Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the US throughout the world have been systematic, constant, clinical, remorseless, and fully documented but nobody talks about them.”

The AUC–Chiquita scandal, and the ongoing legal process against ex-president Uribe might be the inevitable opening of Pandora’s box in terms of disclosing the extent of the giant US banana producer’s role in Latin America’s sorrowful past. The rain falling over Colombia in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude isn’t merely an allegory over collective and politized forgetfulness. It describes a blatant political cover-up that subsequent US governments and numerous Latin American governments have worked so hard to eternalize. But it doesn’t have to be.

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