The banana conflicts (Part-1) – The rise of economic terrorism

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It is perhaps the most consumer-friendly fruit known to mankind. With no worries about whether it has been washed before you sink your teeth in, just peel it and chomp. And don’t worry about sticky squirting juices messing up your hands or shirt front. If it is the right ripeness, it is firm, not too sweet and melts inside your mouth with ease, without sticking to your gums or between your teeth.

Rich in Manganese and potassium, vitamins B and C and dietary fiber, it is the perfect little snack to gobble if you are ravenously hungry but have to watch your weight at the same time. If you have ulcers and cannot remain on an empty stomach for too long, one is enough to keep the gastric juices at bay. You have never heard of anyone who has an allergy to it. And the best part? At 99¢ per lb, it’s peanuts.

No wonder that after rice, wheat and milk, the banana is the world’s fourth largest food intake. If you live anywhere in the west, bananas are sure to be a permanent item in your grocery list, even if they aren’t grown where you reside.

But there was a time when the banana was a virtually unknown fruit in the developed west. That is, until a guy named Henry Meiggs inadvertently started the banana boom.

Meiggs was one of those early American tycoons who came to be recognized as ‘robber barons’, enormously powerful and ruthless individuals who stopped at nothing to build through strong-arm muscle, vast monopolies and lord over them. He was in the same league as the Kennedys, the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, and the Mellons (and today’s Russian oligarchs). These gents would be squeamish about being known as robber barons of course. They would prefer to be remembered as ‘industrial statesmen’ instead.

Born in Catskill, NY, Henry Meiggs (1811-77) made his mark building railroads for Chile and Peru. A man of great organizational and entrepreneurial talents that came with a profound lack of scruples, Meiggs battered and bludgeoned his way through entire Latin American governments and citizenry to make his millions.

 United fruit company1

Pure silver Meiggs medallion of the Peruvian Railroad released in honor of Henry Meiggs and a Peruvian banknote with his signature on it. (Click to enlarge)

In 1860, while Meiggs was in Peru, reigning like it’s de-facto monarch, he was approached by President Tomás Guardia of Costa Rica, who wanted a railroad built to connect the Caribbean port of Limón to the national capital, San José.

At that time, Costa Rica’s was an economy based mainly on coffee exports. Coffee was grown in the central plains around the capital city of San José and transported by mules to the nearest port at Puntarenas on the Pacific coast. Due to the ruggedness of the terrain to the east, the mules could not go the other way, to Limón on the Caribbean coast, from where the lucrative European market would have been easily accessible, across the Atlantic. There was no Panama Canal then and so the coffee went by ship toward the far east from Puntarenas. Creating a railroad to carry the coffee east to Limón and thereby gaining easy access to Europe’s coffee drinkers became top priority.

Before he began building the railroad however, Meiggs died. Eventually the construction was carried out by one of his nephews, Minor Cooper Keith, 14 years after his death.

Minor Keith eclipsed his illustrious uncle in ruthlessness and ambition. He saw opportunities that his uncle hadn’t. He and his partners got the Costa Rican government to donate free of cost 800,000 acres of prime land along the railroad he had built and he promptly turned the land into an enormous banana plantation. The new venture was called Tropical Trading and Transport Company.

While the passenger load density on the new railroad proved disappointingly low and threatened to jeopardize his profitability, Keith found that transporting the bananas he grew was enormously profitable. The railroad carried the bananas from his plantations to Limón and from there on to the US and Europe by ships that he and his partners owned and operated.

What is capitalism without mergers? And so it was with Minor Keith’s business. In time he merged his company with an equally gi-normous rival banana grower, Boston Fruit Company and the newly formed behemoth was named United Fruit Company (UFC). It was a synergy made in heaven – his railroads and ships and Boston Fruit’s many pet Central American dictators and tax-free land for banana plantations.

At it’s height, 1930s to 50s, United Fruit Company directly controlled and distributed 90% of all bananas grown in Central America, the Caribbean and Northern South America.

In the movie Godfather-II, the rep of ‘General Fruit Company’ is shown at the conference table with the Cuban dictator Batista who was overthrown by Fidel Castro. It is a thinly disguised reference to United Fruit Company which in it’s heydays, behaved like it owned Cuba, backed up ably by the US Marine Corps.

The dictators, whom United Fruit (and the US government) went to bed with, were essentially nothing but powerful landlords inside a backward, desperately poor agrarian region, their main crop – bananas, a tasty novelty that America and Europe were just beginning to relish. These rulers were vicious despots, thugs who maintained a highly unequal feudal structure that terrorized and subjugated the common folk.

In his book ‘Cabbages and Kings’, the writer O. Henry, used the term Banana Republic to describe a fictitious Caribbean country called Anchuria, his narrative inspired by what he saw during a visit to Honduras. Since then, banana republic is a derisive term used for poor, backward nations that are riddled with corruption and whose rulers are beholden to the United States for their personal survival.

We all know the affinity that the US has always had toward dictators, especially when there is money to be made. The relationships were cosy while they lasted. In return for US military muscle to prop up their rogue regimes, those despots sold their souls to America, evicting the rightful cultivators from their properties and delivering free of taxes large swathes of prime land to American companies like United Fruit, ruthlessly crushing any kind of organized trade unionism or protests.

Interestingly, partnerships with the US were invariably unstable. Whenever the tin pots could not deliver the free and safe ambiance necessary for American companies to operate in, or if suddenly the ruler of the republic started feeling that the Americans weren’t paying him enough, disputes broke out and an invasion force of US Marines came in, to facilitate a coup and install a more pliable tin pot dictator.

Direct American military invasions into sovereign Caribbean and Central American countries were rampant in the first half of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1945, the US invaded Honduras five times, the Dominican Republic three times, Haiti twice, Nicaragua thrice, Cuba thrice, Panama thrice, Guatemala twice and El Salvador once.

Wherever the marines went, CIA black ops agents were not far behind. They followed the GI Joes, torturing and murdering opponents of the regime they wished to install and training counter-insurgent death squads for their pet regimes. It reminds you of the mayhem that the SS Einsatzgruppen orchestrated when they followed the regular Wehrmacht troops into the Soviet Union as a part of Operation Barbarossa, in 1941.

In order to justify America’s strong-arm tactics in Central America and the Caribbean, the USSR was made the fall guy every time, even though now declassified CIA documents show that it was all spin and that there had never been any commie threat at that point in time (the Cuban missile crisis happened decades later, after solid provocation in the form of U2 flights over sovereign Soviet territory and the installation of intermediate range ballistic missiles in NATO countries ringing the Eastern Bloc Iron Curtain nations, that had all major Soviet cities within range).

The man chosen to be America’s spin master was a very able guy, whom the Americans proudly tout even today, as the ‘father of public relations’, a man named Edward Bernays. He achieved unparalleled success in giving America an image in front of the world of a benevolent, pain-filled and saddened nation which had no choice but to invade and save democracy and the rule of law. His successes led PR to ultimately become a course taught in American Universities, the only stream of study in the world that adds no value but only shows you how to get a PhD in lying effectively.

By the late 1920s, United Fruit Company had grown into one of America’s largest business entities, wielding power that would be comparable to the political clout that today’s Google, GM, Microsoft or Goldman Sachs have. It became the de-facto face of the US Government, bribing, threatening, cajoling, coercing and extorting it’s way into the governments of these tiny nations.

One can see a parallel here with the British East India Company (EIC) who behaved like an arm of the British government in India for more than a century, though unlike the Americans, the East India Company was dissolved and it’s holdings nationalized by the British Government in the mid-1800s, after it abetted a string of massacres that created a tide of protests not only among Indians but also at the House of Commons in London and became the starting point of India’s independence movement. (The British liked to subjugate with civility).

In America on the other hand, the plunder by big business in the name of democracy continues. Like the America of the 40s, today too it chooses nations one-tenth it’s size to pick on, if there is an economic benefit somewhere inside the picture frame. One needs only to look at the failed states of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq to see first hand what American involvement can do to the ordinary folk of a poor nation.

(to be continued….)

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