The Banana as Post Colonial Neo-Imperialistic Metaphor

The primary port of entry for bananas coming into the US from Central and South America in New Orleans. Why? Because New Orleans is at the mouth of the Mississippi River, which is a terrific distribution point if you’re selling bananas to consumers in the American interior. No wonder then that the fabled (and infamous) United Fruit Company was headquartered in New Orleans from 1933 to 1985.

Now, mention the United Fruit Company to anyone with much knowledge of Central American history, and they’ll either a.) engage you in a lively discussion on the socioeconomics of fruit growing in Latin America, or b.) launch into a tirade about American economic imperialism. The United Fruit Company was that sort of outfit. One of the first major economic powers — and it was a power, not just a company — to exploit the agricultural resources of Central America, it polarizes people in the same way Cecil Rhodes polarizes scholars of African history. Either Rhodes was a visionary modernizer who brought infrastructure, jobs and growth to underdeveloped territories, or he was a vainglorious, racist exploiter of virgin lands and peoples. It all depends on how you feel about the relative blessings of modernity, and/or which side of the great Western cultural/political divide you happen to stand on.

The United Fruit Company was founded in 1899. Yet what that “founding” actually represented was a great merging of various banana interests that had been thriving in Central America and the Caribbean since the 1870’s. At its height, the United Fruit Company’s land holdings sprawled over huge swathes of Cost Rica, Panama, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Jamaica (it was known to many as el pulpo, “the octopus”). Yet the country that UFC is most frequently associated with is Guatemala. Guatemala was responsible for producing at least 25% of UFC’s banana crop at the turn of the century. Conversely, UFC was responsible for a gigantic portion of Guatemala’s fledgling economy. It had a hand in virtually everything that happened in Guatemala, from the building of roads, schools and hospitals right up to foreign policy. UFC even delivered Guatemala’s mail. When, in 1944, “spiritual socialist” Juan Arevalo was elected president following the ouster of dictator (and UFC puppet) Jorge Ubico, UFC was displeased to say the least. They lobbied heavily in Washington for American intervention, especially when Arevalo’s successor, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, threatened to nationalize UFC’s plantations and strategically align Guatemala with the Soviets. By that time Eisenhower and the CIA were only too happy to oblige, and in 1954 toppled the Guatemalan government via covert action.

Yet even then, the writing was on the wall for UFC as a power player in Central America. As the economies it helped to found grew and diversified, it held less and less sway over what went on within them. Today UFC is just another large multinational known as Chiquita Brands International. Where do you come down on an enterprise like the United Fruit Company? Kinda hard to say. On the one hand you have monopoly, political repression and economic exploitation. On the other commerce, transportation, education and healthcare. I dunno, you be da judge.

Oh, and what do you call a small, underdeveloped, politically unstable country whose masters are foreign agricultral and/or business interests? Why, a Banana Republic, of course.

8 thoughts on “The Banana as Post Colonial Neo-Imperialistic Metaphor”

  1. Any economic benefit they may have dribbled into the Caribbean basin was only a small portion of what they drained out. When you layer that under overthrowing legitimately elected government is tough to pretend they were benign let along a positive.

    Worse was they used the US Army as their club which makes us the bad guys and setting us up for generations of resentment and retaliation. The communist would not have been able to get a foothold had UFC been a bit more generous with their profits.

  2. I did not know that was where the term Banana Republic comes from. Super interesting. Thanks for the history lesson, Joe! Sounds like debating the merits of the UFC could become as heated as the argument over the ideal level of banana ripeness. I like mine slightly sour and sliced up into pieces. I’ll leave you to decide for yourself if I’m referring to corporate interests or bananas with that previous statement.

    1. Hmm…sightly sour…like the Evo Morales administration? I could spend the morning unpacking that line. But you’re completely right: an argument over ideal banana ripeness or one over Central American politics…that’s a tough choice. You’re likely to get your lip bloodied in either case. I’m more or less with you though. A hint underripe is my favorite texture. Don’t tell Mrs. Pastry though.

      Thanks for the comment Amanda!

      – Joe

  3. Bananas as metaphor. I like it! Here’s my contribution… as a mini-imperialist, (a “Gringo,” living in Colombia, with a Colombian wife) I like my fruit sweet — especially bananas. Fortunately, just around the corner, there’s a fruit/vegetable guy who buys “past prime” (translate: eat it that day) and sells his products out of a garage (quite common) to those of us who like to buy daily and buy ready-to-eat. And as a commercial pizza-maker who makes his own sauce, ready-access to red-ripe tomatoes is a God-sent — as are the always-ripe bananas, mangos, avacados, etc., etc., he sells. Now for the politics… (I’m thinking a battle of the sexes qualifies… :-)). The wife l

    1. Hey Jim!

      I lost the political portion of your comment. Perhaps that’s for the best if your wife is involved. But I envy your access to all that ready-to-use produce! Cheers,

      – Joe

  4. Continued… The wife likes to buy from the mini-market across the street where you have to plan meals 5-days-out to account for fruit/vegetable ripping. And thinks I’m some kind of modernity-denier (and perhaps slightly un-American) for perfering the riper stuff. Fascinating! I wish I was still on the couch as this could take a hour (or two). Anyway, I think I’ll go around the corner and have some breakfast. A nice ripe banana sounds about right just now. And, just perhaps, I’ll run into Mrs. Pastry. I know we share a sweet tooth… :-).

    1. She’ll be the one who’s also carrying a chocolate bar and jar of peanut butter. Those are her three staples.

      Have a nice breakfast!

      – Joe

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