Bananas – The Dark Side
|Bananas – a psychedelic drug?|
|Uses of the Banana|
|Bananas – the Dark Side|
The banana may seem to be a benign entity; a food that we see in every market and fruit stand, clean and ready to eat in its own perfect and natural packaging. But the banana also has a dark side, one that has caused untold human misery and widespread environmental devastation. Oddly enough, this seemingly harmless fruit was an instrumental link in a chain of events that once brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war and the end of life on our planet, as we know it.
Although the banana was a familiar staple crop found throughout the tropical regions of the world, it was just about unheard of in the populated cities of Europe and North America. That is, until 1871, when Lorenzo Baker, a Cape Cod sea captain, bought 160 bunches from a planter in Jamaica. He paid 25 cents a bunch and then sold them, quickly and easily, to fruit vendors in New Jersey for $2.00 each.
Within 50 years, the dollar value of the banana crop was higher than that of any other fruit in the world. Bananas became as American as apple pie, and could be found in just about every lunchbox that accompanied a worker to their job or a child to school.
The banana business was big business and the largest and most powerful of these businesses was the United Fruit Company, formed in 1899. Large plantations were set up in Caribbean nations such as El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Panama, Cuba, Jamaica and Santo Domingo. According to the president and founder of the United Fruit Company, these nations offered “an ideal investment climate.”
And “ideal” it was, at least for the owners and stockholders of United Fruit. These nations possessed a fine tropical climate, fertile farmlands, virgin forests and, more importantly, they were governed by ruthless and corrupt dictators who, for the right price, would grant the United Fruit Company whatever it wanted.
Vast tracts of sparsely inhabited forest lands were ceded or leased to the company and small farms were either bought or stolen from their previous owners, primarily disenfranchised indigenous peoples who for hundreds of years had worked their small parcels, providing food for themselves and their families and selling any surplus in local markets.
When, by hook or by crook, their lands became the property of the United Fruit, the displaced peasants would either have to leave or go to work for the banana company. There, they would find only sporadic employment, working for low pay, often under poor and unhealthy conditions. And woe be it to anyone who complained, or worse yet, tried to organize other workers. United Fruit, via their paid-off dictators, controlled the police and the military, which would be used ruthlessly to imprison or murder those so bold as to speak against the interests of the company. Furthermore, United Fruit and their local lackeys could count on the military might of the United States of America to act on their behalf if a conspiracy of “revolutionaries, unionists or communists” threatened to upset the status quo.
Through bribery, intimidation and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the company controlled just about every facet of economic life including, railroads, communications, seaports and shipping. Moreover, the company had the ability to bring down unsympathetic governments and install new ones more to its liking. Its power was so nearly absolute that the banana producing countries soon became known to the rest of the world as “Banana Republics.”
Upon the assassination of the Presidente of Guatemala in 1898, Manuel Estrada Cabrera took over as the new Presidente. Estrada governed the country with an iron hand making ample use of the military and secret police to suppress dissenters and discourage the organization of workers seeking better wages or improved working conditions
Estrada also continued the practice of debt peonage, whereby debtors could be forced to work off their debts. Companies seeking cheap labor would buy debtors from agents, who would scour the countryside rounding up those unfortunate enough to owe money that they couldn’t pay back. The procurement of this cheap labor was big business and the agents would often conspire with landowners and government officials to encourage debt among the unsophisticated and illiterate peasants, almost all of whom were indigenous Americans. Workers would be offered advances on wages or easy credit at company stores, while local policemen and army officers working with corrupt judges would levy high fines as punishment for real or imagined criminal trespasses. If the individual or their family could not pay these debts or fines, they would be forced into signing a contract, (one that they probably could not read) in which their salary would go to the repayment of this debt. Meanwhile further debt would be incurred for purchases of items such as food or clothing at the company store. The mortality rate of these laborers was extremely high, and their chances of ever working off their debts were extremely low.
Running away or otherwise breaching these contracts of indebtedness was the worst offense that an indigenous American could commit: one usually punishable by death.
“An Indian who had murdered one of his fellow men, that is to say another Indian – incurred a smaller penalty than for breach of contract. It did not matter whether there was an Indian more or less – they increased fast enough even though four fifths of them perished before they were twelve years old – but it did matter, and mattered more than anything else, that the foreign companies, who exploited the wealth of the country, should always have enough labor. This was guaranteed by their concessions, grants and licenses. Breach of contract by an Indian laborer was high treason. Therefore going on strike was punished with death, because it was breach of contract…. A contract-breaking Indian lowered exports, and lowered exports were detrimentalto the credit of the country.” (From Government by B. Traven)
The United Fruit Company, the world’s largest banana company, viewed Guatemala under Estrada as having “an ideal investment climate.” In the first few years of his dictatorship, Estrada sold United Fruit exclusive rights to transport mail between Guatemala and the United States and contracted the company to build and operate a railroad and telegraph system between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios. United Fruit gained total control of Puerto Barrios, which at the time was the only deep-water port i n the country. The concession was accompanied by large grants of land including mile-long by 500-yard-wide parcels on either side of the municipal pier.
Moreover, Estrada saw to it that United Fruit would be exempt from virtually all taxation and the Presidente could be counted upon by United Fruit to intervene, forcefully if necessary, on the company’s behalf in matters of labor or land disputes. With Estrada turning a blind eye, United Fruit bought off and corrupted all levels of local government, and soon had their fingers in just about every piece of the Guatemalan pie.
In exchange for these “concessions, grants and licenses” Estrada was able to build a vast personal fortune. He ruled Guatemala until 1920 when the military, alleging him to be mentally incompetent,removed Estrada from office and replaced him with yet another dictator.
During the first half of the twentieth century, most of the Caribbean Basin countries had fallen so far under the control of United States controlled banana companies that they becameknown as Banana Republics.
United Fruit was very happy in Guatemala, which served as a model for the Company’s tactics in other countries of Central and South America and the West Indies. These nations had perfect climates for banana profits, both natural and political. Ample sunshine and rainfall were coupled with the compliant governments of ruthless and greedy dictators; tyrants who could be easily bought off and who would allow United Fruit to savagely exploit the natural and human resources of the region with impunity.
One thing made United Fruit unhappy, though. This was if their workers would be so unappreciative as to complain about such petty matters as abysmally low wages or horribly unhealthy working conditions, or worse yet, try and organize labor unions.
The general policy of the Company was to make use of the their private security forces or the national military and secret police to suppress unionism. When that failed, they would simply abandon an area where unions threatened to take hold, tearing down the company built housing, schools and clinics, leaving the workers and their families, who were now landless and dependent upon the company, completely destitute. Or the Company might even call upon their connections in the United States, which they did in 1920, influencing a United States invasion, when they determined that Guatemala, that is United Fruit, was threatened by Unionists.
As happy as United Fruit was with Presidente Estrada, they were just as happy or even more so with Presidente Jorge Ubico who came to power in 1931. Allied with wealthy German coffee planters and United Fruit, Ubico purged the country of potential troublemakers and political opponents. Liberals, leftists and union sympathizers were branded as Communists, rounded up and exiled, if they were lucky, or tortured and executed, if they were not. Ubico also proved himself to be a great friend of United Fruit by disbanding all unions and even banning the utterance of the Communist word, sindicato (union).
In 1933 Ubico killed over one hundred Union leaders and student activists who were protesting repressive labor laws aimed at indigenous workers whose salaries averaged less than thirty cents a day. He also issued decree 2795 exempting proprietors of large estates from criminal prosecution for alleged crimes committed on their property. The result of this decree was that coffee and banana plantation foremen or their private police force were given a license to kill. (A Readers Digest article praised Ubico for “his efforts to avoid inflation”.
In 1944 the Guatemalan people, led by teachers and students, managed to overthrow the Ubico regime and Guatemala held free elections for the first time in its history. The following ten years, referred to by Guatemalans as “ten years of springtime,” marked a heady and jubilant era of democracy and dramatic political, economic and social changes. But these changes were not at all appreciated by the United Fruit Company.
When the trumpet sounded, everything was prepared on earth, and Jehovah gave the world to Coca-Cola Inc. Anaconda Ford Motors, and other corporations. The United Fruit Company reserved for itself the most juicy piece, the central coast of my world, the delicate waste of America It rebaptized these countries Banana Republics, and over the sleeping dead, over the unquiet heroes who won greatness, liberty, and banners, it established an opera buffa: it abolished free will, gave out imperial crowns, encouraged envy, attracted the dictatorship of flies. Trujillo flies, Tachos flies (Trujillo, DR –Somoza,Nicaragua) Carias flies, Martinez flies, (Carias, Honduras p- Martinez – El Salvador) Ubico flies, flies sticky with submissive blood and marmalade, drunken flies that buzz over the tombs of the people circus flies, wise flies expert at tyranny With the bloodthirsty flies came the Fruit Company, amassed coffee and fruit in ships which put to sea like overloaded trays with the treasures from our sunken lands. Meanwhile the Indians fall into the angry depths of the harbors and are buried in the morning mists, a corpse rolls, a thing without name, a discarded number, a bunch of rotten fruit thrown on the garbage heap. By Eduardo Galeano
The Government Decides That Reality Doesn’t Exist
1902 Quezaltenango By Eduardo Galeano
To the clamor of drums and bugles, the citizens of the city were convened to the main plaza of Quezaltenango; but no one can hear anything other than the fearful din made by the eruption of the Santa María Volcano.
The town crier shouts out the proclamation issued by the government. More than 100 towns in this district of Guatemala are being wiped out by a landslide of lava and mud and an incessant rain of volcanic ash while the town crier, covering himself as best as he can complies with his duty. The Santa María Volcano makes the land tremble beneath his feet and he is bombarded by falling stones. It appears to be nighttime in the middle of the day and in the oncoming storm one cannot see more than the volcano vomiting fire. The town crier screams desperately reading the proclamation with great difficulty, in the flickering light of his lantern
The proclamation signed by the Presidente Manuel Estrada Cabrera, informs the population that the Santa María Volcano is dormant and will remain so just like all the other volcanoes in Guatemala, that the eruption took place far from here in some part of México, and being that the situation is normal, the festival of the goddess Minerva will take place in the capital despite the evil rumors being spread by enemies of the state.
1936 – Ciudad de Guatemala
UBICO By Eduardo Galeano
(Salvadorian dictator and friend of United Fruit who led the “Matanza of 1932” in which 32,000 peasants were massacred. Most of the dead were the indigenous Pipiles, descendants of the Mayans who built the pyramids and great cities of southern Mexico and Central America. The Pipiles were suspected of being in league with the Salvadorean revolutionary Farabundo Martí)
Martínez was the first by several hours, but Ubico was the second to recognize Franco. Ten days before Hitler and Mussolini, Ubico granted his seal of approval to the uprising against Spanish democracy.
General Jorge Ubico, chief of state of Guatemala, governed surrounded by images of Napoleon Bonaparte. They resembled each other. But Ubico rode motorcycles instead of horses, and he didn’t wage war with the objective of conquering Europe. His wars were fought against bad thoughts.
Against bad thoughts and for military discipline, Ubico militarized the postal employees, the musicians of the symphony orchestra,and the children attending school. As a full belly is the mother of bad thoughts, Ubico ordered that the salaries of workers on the plantations owned by the United Fruit Company be cut in half. He punished idleness, the father of bad thoughts, obliging those who were guilty of that vice to work without pay. In order to root out the bad thoughts of revolutionaries, he invented a crown of steel that slowly crushed their skulls in the basements of police stations.
From 1898 to 1944, Guatemala was a prime example of what has become known as a “Banana Republic.” The country was effectively under the control of foreign banana companies; the most powerful of which was the North American-based conglomerate, the United Fruit Company. Through the collusion of ruthless and corrupt dictators, United Fruit amassed unbelievable wealth. Their profits were gained, however, at the expense of the once rich natural environment and the indigenous people who, having lost their land, served as an underpaid and subjugated labor force for the foreign-owned banana, coffee and mahogany operations. While a small group of elite citizens and foreign businessmen prospered, the vast majority of Guatemalans suffered a poor quality of life and the lack of basic human rights.
In 1944, the Guatemalan people, led by teachers and students, rebelled. The dictatorship was overthrown and Guatemala held free elections for the first time in its history. The following ten years, referred to by Guatemalans as “ten years of springtime,” were characterized by the birth of democracy and dramatic political, economic and social changes.
A new constitution was written, modeled after the Constitution of the United States of America. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press became guaranteed rights, racial discrimination was outlawed, women were given the right to vote, and Presidents could only serve two terms in a row.
A labor code was implemented whereby labor unions would be allowed to organize. A forty-hour workweek was instituted, along with the establishment of a minimum wage and social security. Employers were forbidden to pay their employees with company coupons redeemable only at company stores and were now legally obliged to pay them with real money that could be spent anywhere.
United Fruit was outraged. They denounced the labor code as “Communistic” and they threatened to leave Guatemala if it wasn’t repealed.United States Senators Claude Pepper (Florida), Alexander Wiley (Wisconsin), and Mike Mansfield (Montana) attacked the Guatemalan government for failing to protect the business interests of the United Fruit Company in their country.
The first elected President, Juan José Arévalo, was extremely popular with the people, but faced severe opposition from United Fruit and the elite classes of Guatemalan society. During his term of office, Arévalo narrowly survived several assassination attempts and no fewer than twenty unsuccessful military coups.
Arévalo was succeeded in the presidency by Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán who continued the program of reform, and thus, continued to anger the upper classes and foreign businesses, particularly the United Fruit Company.
Under Arbenz a government-run port was constructed so that there would be an alternative to the only Atlantic port facility located at Puerto Barrios and owned and operated by the United Fruit Company. There were also plans to build a highway to the Caribbean to break the United Fruit railroad monopoly and a government hydroelectric project to compete with the North American controlled electricity monopoly.
These were all thorns in United Fruit’s side, but the last straw for the Company was the institution of a system of land reform. Under decree number 900, uncultivated portions of large plantations were bought back from their owners and redistributed to peasants who had been left landless through the mechanisms of a series of corrupt and racist governments. Payment for the expropriated property was determined by the value declared by the owners for the previous year’s tax roles.
Through this reform process more 1.5 million acres were distributed to about 100,000 families. Arbenz, himself was one of the landowners who lost a significant amount of property. But the biggest loser under the reform act was the United Fruit Company. Over two hundred thousand acres were expropriated and redistributed to landless peasants.
United Fruit was reimbursed the sum of $628,000, which they had declared to be its value. United Fruit had deliberately undervalued the land so as to pay less tax never expecting that this scheme would backfire on them.
United Fruit was very, very angry with Jacobo Arbenz, and they were not about to take any of this lying down!
1953 – Boston – The United Fruit Company
by Eduardo Galleano
Throne of bananas, crown of bananas, a banana grasped in the manner of a decree. Sam Zemurray, lord of the land and sea in the kingdom of bananas, could not believe that his vassals in Guatemala could give him such a headache.
The Indians are too ignorant to be Marxists – he used to say, and he was applauded by the bureaucrats in the court of his royal palace in Boston, Massachusetts.
Guatemala had formed a part of the vast dominion of the United Fruit Company for a half a century and thanks to the decrees of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who governed surrounded by lackeys and spies, lakes of slime, forests of ears, and of Jorge Ubico, who believed that he was Napoleon but wasn’t. United Fruit had in Guatemala the lands that it wanted, immense uncultivated fields; it owned the railroads, the telephone, the telegraph, the ports, the ships, the military, the police and the newspapermen.
Sam Zemurray’s misfortunes began when President Juan José Arévalo obliged the Company to accept labor unions and to respect theright of workers to go on strike. But now it was worse. The new President Jacobo Arbenz had begun an agrarian reform, taking uncultivated land from United Fruit and distributing it among over 100,000 families and he was acting as if Guatemala was now being ruled by the landless, the illiterate, the hungry and the poor.
For centuries nothing much had changed in Guatemala. After the Spanish conquest, a white and mixed race (Ladino) minority ruled over an indigenous majority that served solely as cheap labor for the vast plantations owned by the ruling elite. In the early twentieth century foreign banana and coffee companies seized considerable power by buying off the corrupt and ruthless dictators in charge of the government.
In the 1940s the people of Guatemala rebelled and installed a democratically elected government. The new government embarked on a program of reforms which ran contrary to the interests of the foreign companies whose hold on Guatemala and other nations of the region was so strong that these countries has become known as “Banana Republics.” Unions were permitted and workers were allowed to organize and demand better wages and working conditions. The foreign shipping, transportation and electrical monopolies were broken and an agrarian reform was instituted that resulted in the expropriation of the unused land of large property owners and then distributing it to 100,000 landless peasants.
The big loser was the United Fruit Company. It had fraudulently undervalued its holdings to avoid taxation, and by doing so received that declared value as compensation from the government. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
United Fruit fought back launching an intense public relations campaign to convince the American public and the US State Department that Guatemala was now a communist state, a satellite of the Soviet Union.
The Propaganda Machine
by Eduardo Galleano
The Motor: The executioner had become the victim and the victim the executioner. Those who were preparing the invasion of Guatemala from Honduras were accusing Guatemala of preparing to invade Honduras and all Central America. “The tentacles of the Kremlin are now in plain sight,” denounced John Moors Cabot from the White House. (Cabot was Secretary of State for Inter American Affairs, brother of Thomas Cabot former president of United Fruit.) Ambassador Peurifoy warned “We cannot permit the establishment of a Soviet Republic from Texas to the Panama Canal.
First Gear: Worldwide public opinion was bombarded with news, articles, declarations, pamphlets, photographs, movies and political cartoons dealing with the communist atrocities taking place in Guatemala. This educational material, the origin of which was never revealed, came from the offices of United Fruit in Boston and the US government in Washington.
Second Gear: The Archbishop of Guatemala, Mariano Rosell Arellano, exhorts the population to revolt “against the communist enemy of God and country.” Thirty CIA planes drop leaflets containing his message throughout the nation…
Third Gear: At the Pan American Conference, John Foster Dulles bangs the table with his fist and demands the blessings of the Organization of American States for the proposed invasion. In the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge (Member of the powerful Boston Cabot family relative of Thomas and John Moors Cabot, US senator, US representative to the United Nations, and stockholder of United Fruit Company) blocks Jacobo Arbenz’s call for help. North American diplomacy is mobilized worldwide, British and French complicity is obtained in exchange for US silence concerning their presence in the Suez Canal, Cyprus and Indochina.
Fourth Gear: The dictators of Nicaragua, Honduras, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic not only offer training camps, radio stations and airports, but also supply their own propaganda campaign. Somoza calls a press conference in Managua and displays several pistols that are engraved with the hammer and sickle. He says that they came from a Russian submarine that had been intercepted on its way to Guatemala.” (Translated from Guatemala en El siglo del viento by Eduardo Galeano.
“It [United Fruit] began with enviable connections to the Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his former New York law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell, had long represented the company. Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, had served on UFCO’s board of trustees. Ed Whitman, the company’s top public relations officer, was the husband of Ann Whitman, President Eisenhower’s private secretary. (Ed Whitman produced a film, “Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas,” that pictured UFCO fighting in the front trenches of the cold war.) The fruit firm’s success inlinking the taking of its lands to the evil of international communism was later described by one UFCO official as “the Disney version of the episode.” But the company’s efforts paid off. It picked up the expenses of journalists who traveled to Guatemala to learn United Fruit’s side of the crisis, and some of the most respected North American publications – including the New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, and New Leader – ran stories that pleased the company. A UFCO public relations official later observed that his firm helped condition North American readers to accept the State Department’s version of the Arbenz regime as Communist-controlled and the U.S.-planned invasion as wholly Guatemalan.” (Quoted from Inevitable Revolutions – The United States in Central America by Walter La Feber, 2nd ed. 1993, pp. 120-121.
Jacobo Arbenz, elected President of Guatemala in 1951, had pushed the powerful United Fruit Company to the limits of its patience. It was bad enough that Arbenz had legalized unions and broken the foreign shipping, transportation and electrical monopolies. But with the institution of Decree 900, which empowered the government to expropriate uncultivated portions of large plantations, including land owned United Fruit he had crossed the line. 1953 – San Salvador Help Wanted – Looking For Dictator
“The Guatemalan General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, the distinguished slaughterer of Indians, lived in exile after the fall of the dictator Ubico. Walter Turnbull came to San Salvador and made the General an offer. Turnbull representing United Fruit and the CIA proposed that Ydígoras take control of Guatemala. He would lend Ydígoras the money needed to take power, if he would destroy the unions, restore the lands and privileges of United Fruit and then repay the loan…. (Ydígoras, who served as president from 1958 to 1963, published memoirs charging that in 1954 several CIA agents had tried to recruit him to lead the Liberation on behalf of U.S. corporations with investments in Guatemala.)
The news spread like wildfire. Military and civilian exiles flew to Washington to offer their services and others knocked on the doors of US embassies. José Luis Arena, a supposed friend of Vice-president Nixon assured him that he could overthrow Arbenz for $200,000. General Federico Ponce saying that he had a 10,000-man army at his disposal ready to assault the National Palace for a good price, but he preferred not to discuss specific amounts yet. He only needed a small advance…
Throat cancer eliminated the United Fruit’s favorite candidate, Juan Córdova Cerna. On his deathbed Dr. Córdova rasped out the name of his recommended replacement, Coronal Carlos Castillo Armas, trained at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a man who would be inexpensive, obedient and stupid.”
In Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia, soldiers were openly recruited through offers of cash payments and monthly salaries. In these countries, where thousands suffered from abject poverty, there was no shortage of applicants.
The recruits were trained by CIA and US Marine Corp officers on the private ranch of Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza.
1954 Guatemala City
The Re-conquest of Guatemala
As Guatemala had neither an air force nor antiaircraft batteries, the North American pilots flying North American planes were able to bomb the country at will. A powerful transmitter operated by the CIA and installed on the rooftop of the United States Embassy spread confusion and panic throughout the country. They announced to the world that they were Radio Rebelde, “The voice of Liberation,” transmitting from the jungles of Guatemala on the triumphant march of Coronal Castillo Armas. Meanwhile Castillo Armas and his troops were camped on a UnitedFruit Company plantation in Honduras awaiting orders.
The Arbenz government, paralyzed, watched its own downfall. Bombers flying over the Capital blew up the oil storage tanks. All the government could do about it was to bury the dead. The mercenary army, “God, Homeland and Liberty” crossed the border meeting no resistance. Out of fear or for money, the military leaders surrendered without firing a shot.
When Arbenz finally ordered that the arsenals be opened and the civilian militias be armed his officers refused to obey…and one midnight President Arbenz slowly descended the stairs of the National Palace, crossed the street and asked for asylum in the Mexican Embassy.
(Translated from Guatemala en El Siglo del Viento by Eduardo Galeano.
The opponents of Jacobo Arbenz were not satisfied with his mere surrender. Promised safe conduct, he was taken to the airport where he was to board a flight bound for Mexico City. At the airport he was strip-searched. A newspaper reporter and a cameraman were standing by. The photograph of ex-President Arbenz in his underwear appeared in major newspapers throughout the world.
In 1971, Arbenz was found dead at his home in Mexico City – he had somehow drowned in his bathtub.
President Eisenhower congratulated the CIA for a job well done saying, “We have eliminated a Soviet beachhead in our hemisphere.” Colonel Castillo Armas became the new president of Guatemala. He returned the expropriated land to United Fruit. The secret ballot was abolished. Unions were outlawed and the penal code demanded the death penalty for those attempting to organize a strike. The CIA provided Castillo Armas with a list of 72,000 people to be eliminated and the bloodletting began. Hundreds of thousands of people were subsequently tortured, killed or simply disappeared in a US-backed campaign to exterminate dissidents, rebels and social activists. Amnesty International reported that the activities of the Guatemalan Death Squads “strained credulity.”
How the Banana Almost Caused a Nuclear War
In October of 1962 the world stood on the brink of nuclear war. A United States U2 spy plane confirmed the American suspicion that Cuba was armed with Soviet nuclear missiles. President Kennedy issued an ultimatum to the Russians stating that the missiles must go, or there would be war. Naval vessels were sent to blockade Cuba, the US Army, Navy, Marines, and Airforce military were put on a state of alert and mobilized while President Kennedy and the world awaited the response of Soviet Premier Khrushchev.
The situation was stickier than the Americans even realized. Although the strategic or long-range were under the tight control of the Soviet hierarchy, the tactical or short-range nuclear missiles were ready to employ and were already in the hands of low-ranking Soviet and Cuban soldiers. If US forces invaded Cuba, these weapons, which could easily wiping out an entire regiment, would surely have been used regardless of the consequences.
In the midst of the crisis, Fidel Castro sent a telegram to Khrushchev imploring him to launch a preemptive strike against the United States, explaining that he and the Cuban people were prepared to die in defense of Socialism. This was pretty radical stuff, even for Fidel Castro.
What brought the world to such a state? Would you believe the primary culprit was the banana? Well, here’s the connection:
The banana was first imported to the United States in 1871 and within 50 years, the dollar value of the banana crop was higher than that of any other fruit in the world. Bananas became as American as apple pie, and could be found in just about every lunchbox that accompanied a worker to their job or a child to school. The banana business became big business and the largest and most powerful of the banana businesses was the United Fruit Company formed in 1899.
In 1901 United Fruit moved into Guatemala thanks to its unholy alliance with the dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who literally sold the nation to the North American company. Through the collusion of ruthless and corrupt dictators, United Fruit amassed unbelievablewealth and power. They expanded their operations throughout Central America and the Caribbean. Their influence on the region wasso pervasive that these countries became known as “Banana Republics.” The Company’s profits were gained, however, at the expense of the once rich natural environment and of the indigenous people who, having lost their land, now served as underpaid and subjugated laborers lacking all basic human rights.
In 1944 the Guatemalan people, led by teachers and students, managed to overthrow the puppet government of United Fruit and Guatemala held free elections for the first time in its history. The following decade, referred to by Guatemalans as “ten years of springtime,” marked a heady and jubilant era of democracy and dramatic political, economic and social changes.
Unions were permitted and workers were allowed to organize and demand better wages and working conditions. The foreign shipping, transportation and electrical monopolies were broken and an agrarian reform was instituted that resulted in the expropriation of the unused land of large property owners, including over 200,000 acres owned by the United Fruit Company. The property was then redistributed to over 100,000 landless peasants.
United Fruit fought back, launching an intense public relations campaign to convince the American public and the US State Department that Guatemala was now a communist state, a satellite of theSoviet Union. The well-connected Company was successful and in 1954, a mercenary army trained and supplied by the CIA and supported by bombers flown by CIA pilots brought down the Arbenz government.
At the time of the invasion, Guatemala City had become a Mecca for Latin American intellectuals, liberals and radicals. A young Argentinean, attracted to the events transpiring in Guatemala, wrote in a letter to his aunt in Argentina, “This is a country where you can expand your lungs and fill them with democracy.” The young man’s name was Ernesto Guevara, who later became known to the world as the charismatic revolutionary, Che Guevara.
Guevara attempted to organize a group of like-minded young men resist the invasion. He was later quoted in an interview as saying, “I tried to form a small troop of young men, myself included, to fight against the adventurism of the United Fruit Company. In Guatemala it was necessary to fight but almost no one fought.”
Outraged at the injustice that he witnessed Guevara became totally radicalized and convinced that the only answer to North American imperialism was an armed and totally committed revolution. “The revolutionary” he said, “must be a cold and perfect killing machine.”
When it became obvious that all was lost, Guevara managed to escape Guatemala and fled to Mexico. There he met another political refugee from the island of Cuba, Fidel Castro. The two became good friends, and Ernesto joined Castro’s fledgling guerilla army. The Cubans nicknamed Ernesto, “Che.”
After the successful Cuban revolution, Che became a Cuban National hero and trusted adviser to Castro who had his own issues with the United Fruit Company.
United Fruit had moved into Cuba obtaining some two million acres, primarily dedicated to sugar production. By the time of the Revolution, US business interests dominated the Cuban economy, controlling most of the island’s utilities, mines, cattle ranches, oil refineries, the sugar industry, and railroads.
When Fidel Castro took power, he began a program of education, health, housing and agrarian reform. In 1960, the Cuban government expropriated over a million acres of land from three American companies, including United Fruit.
In many of Castro’s speeches he declared that “Cuba would not be another Guatemala.” Arbenz had expropriated United Fruit land in 1953 and Guatemala was invaded in 1954. Cuba expropriated United Fruit land in 1960 and in 1961, a CIA-trained force invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs (Two of the boats used at the Bay of Pigs were donated by the United Fruit Company). The invasion was crushed. Castro was right, Cuba was not Guatemala.
The American humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, and the fear of future US invasions led to Castro to seek military aid from the Soviet Union. When the Americans threatened Cuba with all-out invasion neither Fidel Castro nor Che Guevara were at all inclined to back down.
And this is how the banana almost succeeded in bringing about a thermonuclear war and the end of life on this planet, as we know it.
“There are dailies here run by United Fruit, and if I were Arbenz I would close them down in five minutes, because they are shameful, and yet they say whatever they want and help contribute to creating the atmosphere that North America wants, showing this as a den of thieves, communists, traitors, etc.,” written y Che Guevara in a letter to his aunt in Argentina.
In 1928, United Fruit Company workers in Magdelena, Colombia banded together and demanded improved conditions. They wanted to be paid in cash instead of in coupons that were only redeemable at the company store. They also wanted the Company to provide them with toilets. Management refused and called on their lackeys in the Colombian government to intervene on the Company’s behalf.
In response, troops were called in to the area. The employees were called to a mass, which was attended by the banana workers along with their wives and children. Soldiers took positions around the congregated mass and set up machine gun emplacements. At the command of Coronal Cortés Vargas, the soldiers opened fire and massacred the strikers.
In a speech in the Colombian Parliament, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán denounced the massacre:
The wounded were stabbed with bayonets. Neither screams, cries for mercy nor the flow of blood moved these human hyenas… The dead were taken away in trucks and thrown into the sea or buried in a common grave that had previously been dug. But I’m wrong, they didn’t bury only the dead, they also buried the wounded while they were still alive. The wounded begged the soldiers not to bury them alive, but to no avail. These monsters drunk on blood, these fugitives from the jungle, had no compassion. For them humanity did not exist. All that existed was the need to obtain North American gold.
Those that fled the unleashed fury were pursued by the troops – some commanded by employees of the United Fruit Company – wherever they went. Hundreds of workers and small farmers were victimized. The luckier ones were tried by councils of was and given long prison sentences, Yankee justice doled out by their Creole lackeys.
On April 9, 1948, the popular presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated in the heart of Bogotá. Gaitán supporters, laborers, and members of the lower and middle classes rioted. Over 2,000 people lost their lives and much of downtown Bogotá was destroyed. The riot became known as the Bogotazo, and set off the period of Colombian history known as La Violencia.
Coincidentally, the Fidel Castro happened to be in Bogotá at the time as part of the Cuban Student Federation delegation to the Inter-American Conference.
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