Those Chiquita bananas you have in your kitchen have a long, checkered past.
The United Fruit Company, established during the late 19th century by American entrepreneurs, exhibited monopolistic dominance over the fruit industry in Latin and South American for almost a century. Now known as Chiquita Brand International, the United Fruit Company had such vast economic control over countries like Columbia, Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala that it was an imperialist power in its own right, propping up military dictatorships and controlling the lives and deaths of their workers all in the name of financial gain.
From the United Fruit Company massacre to the establishment of banana republics (ever wonder where they got their names? This is your chance to find out!), the United Fruit Company shaped the world one banana at a time.
In 1928, workers at the United Fruit Company's plantations in Colombia organized a strike in response to unfair work conditions. The workers had previously tried to negotiate with the company, asking for "written contracts, eight-hour work days, six-day work weeks and the elimination of food coupons," which were only good at the company store. The demands of the workers - similar to those they'd tried to unsuccessfully to get a decade earlier - led to civil unrest and the government responded with military intervention.
Colombia was concerned that if they did not respond to the protestors, the US could intervene on their behalf. It's unclear the extent to which the United Fruit Company influenced the Colombian government's decision to send in troops, but the company had significant influence on the government at the time. In December 1928, Colombia sent troops to Cienaga, the hub of discontent, and General Cortés Vargas, the leader of the Colombian forces, issued a warning to the protestors. From his stronghold in the city center, Vargas told the crowd to disperse. He didn't give them any time, however, and five minutes later, his men opened fire into the group of 1,400 strikers and their families.
The death toll from what came to be called the United Fruit Company Massacre is unknown. Some accounts put the total number as low as 47 while others indicate 2,000 people died. The story of the strike was immortalized in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Americans like Minor Keith and Andrew Preston started investing in growing bananas in Central America during the 1870s. Minor Keith was initially sent to Costa Rica to work for his uncle in building a railroad in Costa Rica. Keith started growing bananas near the railroad and, by the time the railroad was completed in 1890, had a planation at his disposal. He began exporting bananas to the United States and realized the intricate relationship between his crop and effective transportation in the region.
Keith and Preston linked up to form the United Fruit Company in 1899, bringing together Keiths' holdings in Costa Rica and [what would later be] Panama with Preston's Boston Fruit Company, the in the United States. The United Fruit Company expanded into Honduras and Guatemala with the latter hiring the Company to manage their national postal service in 1901. In 1904, Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera gives the United Fruit Company a "90-year concession" to build and manage the country's major rail line. The Company was hired by Guatemala and reaped the rewards. They controlled transportation, access to it, and got the land they wanted in the process.
In 1944, the newly-elected Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo Bermejo tried to undo what his dictatorial predecessor, Jose Urbico, had done by giving the United Fruit Company countless perks and enormous influence. Arévalo established a "minimum wage, built hospitals and schools, set up health and safety standards," and set out to end unfair labor practices by large companies. His policies and the potential threat he posed to American-owned businesses like the United Fruit Company were considered communist and dangerous.
At first, the United States merely observed the shift. But when Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, a similarly-minded leftist, became president in 1951, concern only increased. Guzmán intended to recapture land held by the United Fruit Company and redistribute it to the poor populace of Guatemala. Much of the land that the Company held in Guatemala was not being cultivated but this still alarmed American interests. The United Fruit Company asked the US for help (the CIA was already looking to help Nicaragua get rid of Guzmán) and the Truman administration responded with Operation PBFortune. Operation PBFortune was a plan to overthrow Guzmán. This plan was never carried out but set the agenda for Guzmán's removal two years later.
Connections between United Fruit and the Latin American drug trade began as early as the 1930s when the company helped Honduras' President Tiburcio Carías Andino come to power. Under Andino, drug trafficking in Honduras thrived and, through the 20th century, the intricate relationship between United Fruit and the cocaine industry grew. As demand for cocaine grew during the 1970s and 1980s, Colombia became a major supplier to North America. The presence of United Fruit in Colombia and their extensive transportation network lent itself to drug trafficking.
In 1997, more than a ton of cocaine was seized from seven Chiquita ships. Chiquita was not blamed for the presence of the drugs; lax security was faulted. During the 1990s, when Chiquita was funding the United Self-Defenders of Colombia (AUC), the terrorist organization used Chiquita ships and ports to move their cocaine into Europe and North America. According to one source, Chiquita employees knew about the drugs.
Just like Chiquita ships carried cocaine out of Colombia, they were also believed to have carried weapons and bullets into the country. A 2003 report from the Organization of American States stated "that a ship used by Chiquita's Colombian subsidiary may also have been used for an illicit shipment of 3,000 rifles and 2.5 million bullets for Colombian paramilitary groups." Chiquita denied any connection.