Fruit company grew power, problems

Cover of "Bananas!: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World" by Peter Chapman

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Banana growers in the Caribbean must be wondering if they can catch a break. Last week their regional cooperative announced exports have finally bounced back from the damage done by Hurricane Dean a year ago. Then today the National Weather Service announced Tropical Storm Gustav has formed and is bearing down on Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Trouble's nothing new to banana growers. Historically, though, it's been more man-made than a force of nature. Author Peter Chapman chronicles the rise and fall of the company at the center of a lot of that trouble, the United Fruit Company, in his book, "Bananas."

PETER CHAPMAN: The key character in the story is a young guy from Brooklyn, N.Y., called Minor Keith, a rich lad from that part of the Northeast. Family connections were building a railway in Costa Rica. And while the railway was struggling to be built on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica in terrible conditions, Minor Keith saw the bananas in the jungle. He started to grow a few at the side of the railway line and realized that this could be quite a commodity and he could start shipping it back to the states. And he started to produce it in great mass on huge plantations.

KAI RYSSDAL: And, eventually, this becomes the United Fruit Company, doesn't it?

CHAPMAN: It does.

RYSSDAL: And it was, I think you say at one point in your book, it was remarkably operationally efficient in getting done what it wanted to do.

CHAPMAN: Operationally efficient. Economically efficient. By growing the banana on these huge plantations it was able to bring the price down. It was able to produce in such mass. So it turned what was a luxury into this commodity that was available to all. It was very efficient like that, and it could also be operationally efficient on the political side of things. It usually required governments in its areas of operation to comply with its conditions, how it wanted to operate, and it wasn't above changing those governments, if it didn't like what they were doing.

RYSSDAL: Some would say efficient, others might say ruthless in getting done what it wanted to get done.

CHAPMAN: Efficient and ruthless. The coup d'tat in Guatemala in 1954 . . . An elected government came in, in Guatemala, it decided that there was a need for land for landless farmers, landless peasants. And the United Fruit Company had an awful lot of unused land. The government said it was going to take some away. It was going to give some compensation in the form of bonds. And the fruit company was able, with its influence in Washington, to remove this government.

RYSSDAL: Help me understand something, though. How was it that the United Fruit Company turned its massive land holdings and political connections into the power to tell these Central American republics what to do.

CHAPMAN: Well, the thing is, of course, it became stronger in an economic sense than many of these governments. And the United Fruit Company would have control, shall we say, over the railway system. It would also control the shipping in and out of the country. So, it had strategic control of very important areas of infrastructure in the economy. And in that way could dictate or at least greatly manipulate the forces of politics in those small countries of Central America.

RYSSDAL: What's the legacy on the ground in Central America today of this company and the way it did business?

CHAPMAN: Well, you can't blame every bit of corruption in Central America, of course, onto United Fruit Company. There was a fair bit there when they arrived. They took advantage of a situation and they probably exacerbated it. In terms of the problem of trying to get democracy with any kind of root in Central America, the United Fruit Company did no good at all. The banana is a very dubious crop, indeed. We all, to some extent, depend on it as we have our cereal in the morning. But it's a highly vulnerable crop and at the moment is suffering from diseases which might soon -- within the next decade or so -- wipe it out. So it's a fair degree of -- or an unfair degree, if you like -- a legacy of political and economic instability. A dependency upon a commodity which really doesn't seem to have as great a future as we might hope.

RYSSDAL: The book about the United Fruit Company by Peter Chapman is called "Bananas." Mr. Chapman, thanks so much.

CHAPMAN: Thank you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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