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.