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Bananas: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World Hardcover – January 21, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-1841958811 ISBN-10: 1841958816 Edition: First Edition

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Editorial Reviews

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

A climactic scene in Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, takes place during a strike by Colombian banana workers when armed forces acting at the behest of "the banana company" herd 3,000 people into the town square of Macondo and open fire on them:

"The captain gave the order to fire and fourteen machine guns answered at once. But it all seemed like a farce. It was as if the machine guns had been loaded with caps, because their panting rattle could be heard and their incandescent spitting could be seen, but not the slightest reaction was perceived, not a cry, not even a sigh among the compact crowd that seemed petrified by an instantaneous invulnerability. Suddenly, on one side of the station, a cry of death tore open the enchantment: 'Aaaagh, Mother'. . . . They were penned in, swirling about in a gigantic whirlwind that little by little was being reduced to its epicenter as the edges were systematically being cut off all around like an onion being peeled by the insatiable and methodical shears of the machine guns."

The only survivor is a boy, who lives to tell "with precise and convincing details how the army had machine-gunned more than three thousand workers penned up by the station and how they loaded the bodies into a two-hundred-car train and threw them into the sea." The terrible scene is fiction, but it is based in fact; indeed, Living to Tell the Tale is the title García Márquez gave to his memoir, published in 2003. In December 1928, Colombian Army troops, acting in the interests of the United Fruit Company, opened fire on striking workers in the town of Ciénaga, near the author's native town, Aracataca. He was only a few months old at the time, but the story of the massacre was told over and over and worked its way into the core of his memory, just as stories of the Civil War became central to the consciousness of William Faulkner.

García Márquez significantly overstated the number of dead -- the count has long been in dispute, with estimates ranging from 47 to 2,000 -- but he in no way underplayed the importance of the slaughter in 20th-century Latin American history. In the minds of millions, it came to symbolize the tyrannical role of United Fruit in the region and to cast the company as the leading actor in what came to be known as "Yankee imperialism" in "banana republics." Though many other depredations were committed by or in the name of United Fruit, which was commonly known as El Pulpo, "the octopus," this one quickly entered Latin America's psyche and has remained there ever since.

Peter Chapman, in this once-over-very-lightly history of United Fruit, gives the massacre only a few paragraphs. This is scarcely surprising in the context of the rest of the book, which can be called a work of history only in the most permissive sense of the term, but it's very surprising in the context of Chapman's determination to bash United Fruit -- and by extension the United States -- at every turn. Bananas -- in England it was published as Jungle Capitalists: A Story of Globalisation, Greed and Revolution -- is basically a rant, so one would think that the bloodbath in Ciénaga would have inspired him to heights of indignation, yet his description of it barely rides above the perfunctory.

Chapman is a British journalist who has covered Latin America in print and on air, and now writes for the Financial Times, including a blog about sports. His previous book, The Goalkeeper's History of Britain, was well-received, which makes the shortcomings of Bananas all the more disappointing and unexpected -- especially its prose, which is utterly lifeless, even when Chapman attempts to flay United Fruit and the many other malefactors who populate these pages.

United Fruit, Chapman claims, "set the template for capitalism, the first of the modern multi-nationals." It "started with a few bananas grown at the side of a railway line and became a global power." It "was greedy and controlled millions of acres of land, only a relatively small part of which it used. In countries of many landless small farmers, it kept the rest to keep out competitors and for a 'rainy day.' In and around its plantations it had fifteen hundred miles of railways, a good number of which its host countries built and paid for." Its "Great White Fleet of refrigerated ships, 'reefers', comprised the world's largest private navy." Et cetera. Chapman's determination to tar United Fruit with the brush of multinational rapaciousness knows no end:

"Like multi-national companies today, United Fruit made alliances when and where it could to survive. It sought out malleable elements: politicians with whom it could cut a deal and presidents-in-exile awaiting their call to sail back to power. United Fruit might even help find a boat. Its efforts showed that as long as it did not unduly offend the contemporary mores of its home base, then it could probably get away with much overseas. Its levels of bribery in Honduras in the 1920s did prompt a debate in the US Congress, which concluded that that was the way business was done in such parts of the world."

The company came into being in March 1899, under the leadership of Andrew Preston as president and Minor Keith as vice-president, but it was Keith who really ran this "brooding presence across six lands: Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic." Others eventually were absorbed in its grasp, most notably Honduras, where a military coup in 1911 -- engineered by United Fruit with the complicity of the United States -- brought into power a government friendly to the company's interests and established "conspiracy and violence" as important weapons in its control of the region.

All of this is beyond dispute, though whether Chapman has got all the details right must be left to scholars of Latin American history. United Fruit had much to do with introducing "banana republic" and "gunboat diplomacy" into the English language, and even more to do with establishing many Latin American countries as client states that did the company's, and Washington's, bidding. It isn't a pretty story, and the persistent success of left-wing and populist demagogues in Latin America leaves no doubt that the combination of United Fruit's greed and Washington's ill-considered policies established anti-Americanism as a powerful political force south of the border. Only now, as Washington reaches south with free-trade agreements, does much of Latin America look north with more friendly eyes, but the myopia of the present Congress with regard to these agreements puts that in jeopardy. There is ample reason to fear that Hugo Chávez is not the last of his breed.

In this sense, Chapman gets it more or less right. But his arguments about United Fruit and multinational corporations are shakier. For one thing, United Fruit was unable to sustain its empire. Eventually it was brought down by mismanagement, antitrust actions, competition, changed political circumstances here and to the south, and diseased bananas. Its successor, Chiquita, is by Chapman's admission no more than a "surviving remnant." United Fruit may have been an international corporate monopoly for a long time, but eventually it collapsed, which should serve as an object lesson in the vulnerability of businesses that operate in lawless and wholly self-serving ways.

Beyond that, Chapman skips too lightly over the difference in international business then and now. To be sure there still are companies that exploit the human and natural resources of foreign countries, especially in the Third World, and that use lobbying and political contributions for highly questionable ends. That, to paraphrase Chapman, is the way business is done in this and other parts of the world, an unpleasant but inescapable reality. But the multinationals aren't all malevolent, and they must answer to more stringent laws than United Fruit ever faced. Contrary to what Chapman would have us believe, there aren't any United Fruits today, which isn't an apology for the multinationals but a simple statement of fact.


Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate U.S.; First Edition edition (January 21, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1841958816
  • ISBN-13: 978-1841958811
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #884,933 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

The last 1/3rd goes a long way to undermine the quality of the beginning of the book.
Thomas J. McDonough
And as much as I may agree with the evils of multinationals, the anticapitalist tone in the book is a bit one-note and droning.
mr d
The history of the United Fruit Company is scandalous and interesting, as any quick read of Chapman's "Banana!" can attest.
Daniel Schmidt

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 30 people found the following review helpful By D. Nunn on February 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Peter Chapman follows his excellent Goalkeepers History of Britain with Bananas, a fascinating history of the United Fruit Company, one of the world's first true "multi-nationals". He brings his experiences as a long-time Central America reporter for the BBC and The Guardian to bear in a revealing exposé of power and greed gone wild. Chapman takes us from the early days of the development of the banana from a tropical oddity, to its spread throughout the Caribbean into Central America. Along the way, we meet a variety of characters, who expanded United Fruit Company and economically conquered Central America. Over the past 130 years or so, UFC pioneered business and corporate models that became the basis for multinationals and our present festering globalization.
I can remember teachers and professors trumpeting against the excesses of the United Fruit Company and "banana republics" back in the 1960 and 70s. Chapman details the long and tawdry road of corruption and malfeasance that UFC used to bully its opponents, both in the business and political worlds. Among the cast of characters are Boston Brahmins like the Cabots and the Lodges, the "upstart" Russian Jewish immigrant Sam Zemurray, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and even Carmen Miranda and her animated descendant, Chiquita Banana. Along the way, we watch how UFC influenced US policy toward Latin America, from Gunboat Diplomacy, to the Good Neighbor Policy to Jimmy Carter's Human Rights to Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra shenanigans. It is a story that mirrors the bigger flow of American foreign policy over the past century.
Of special interest in light of the War in Iraq is Chapman's reporting of the CIA/UFC manipulated coup d'etat in Guatemala in 1954.
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18 of 24 people found the following review helpful By A. L. Chapman on February 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover
As a comparative American studies student, the history of the Americas particularly appeals to me. Currently writing an essay on the tragedy of United Fruit, I turned to Peter's Chapman's "Bananas!: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World" for an intelligent and at the same time, accessible read. Chapman's fluid account of the dirty dealings of "La Compania" was informative and filled with fascinating detail. All in all a great read for anyone interested in academics or simply the troubled history of an overwhelmingly powerful company which played a huge role in the lives of many. I can safely say that it will not take long for Chapman's book to make its way onto the reading lists of any University specialising in Latin American history.
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21 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on November 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After reading Dan Koeppel's book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, I was so interested in the topic that I ordered Chapman's book Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped The World. I was thoroughly disappointed by Chapman. Koeppel was organized and entertaining. Chapman was unorganized and unsubstantial. Buy Koeppel's book skip Chapman's.
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca on February 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Chapman's BANANAS! is a must must read, especially for anyone desiring to learn more about the history behind globalization, U.S. backed multi (or rather uni-)nationals, and presumably (in my opinion) the catalyst to the U.S. embargo in Cuba that exists to this day. Let this be a warning (more for those not already well-versed in United Fruit Company history): the book may make you go bananas over its revealing content. But what is more fun about reading this book is Champan's attention to detail as he writes in a manner that could make for a dark comedy. Will it make it on to U.S. University reading lists, I'm pessimistic, but it should (as the previous reviewer suggests).
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By VampireCowboy VINE VOICE on January 20, 2011
Format: Paperback
I found this work thoroughly engaging. It's as much a critique of capitalism unregulated as it is a history of the fruit or the fruit company. "Bananas" peels the skin back on big business to reveal a soft and rotten core. From land swindles to destabilizing governments, from machine gun massacres to human rights violation, from propaganda to market manipulation, Chapman takes an unflinching look at just how far an organization motivated solely by profits is willing to go. Featuring an interesting cast of characters - from Carmen Miranda and Harry Belafonte to Che Guevara and Castro - "El Pulpo" has had its yellow tentacles in everything from the Bay of Pigs to the Vietnam War. At times fascinating, repulsive and laugh out loud funny (such as when company officials complained that they were being under-compensated for land sold at the price it was taxed at, a tax level they fixed), this a great, wandering read through the history of a company that shaped the world. Sadly, it probably cast the die for how many global concerns now function - ruthlessly, and beholden only to their greedy shareholders. Also sadly, their insistence and reliance upon a monolithic form of agriculture, subject to the ravages of disease, may well have doomed the fruit we all love and take for granted.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Wem86 on June 5, 2012
Format: Paperback
As a child, I would search for and peel off Chiquita banana stickers from the bunches my mother would bring home. Little did I know what goes into shipping a banana to the United States, and the dark past that banana harvesting has. In Bananas, Peter Chapman details the dark history of the United Fruit Company, from its beginnings in the late 19th century to its influence on the United States Government in the middle of the 20th. I knew little of United Fruit before beginning the book and was shocked at the company's practices, as well as the vast impact United Fruit had on Central America and the USA. Despite covering over one hundred years, Chapman's account is a page-turner. I highly recommend this book.
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