The Red on Yellow — Chiquita’s Banana Colonialism in Latin America
Big companies lie. Try finding a multinational company that doesn’t have blood on its hands and a web of lies woven to hide those hands behind, I wish you good luck. Nevertheless, when we think of those evil business executives, managers, chairmen and directors, we tend to imagine them working for oil giants like BP, Shell and ExxonMobil, chemical companies like DuPont, Bayer or Dow or for food industry leaders like Nestlé, Coca Cola, Tyson, or Kraft, who deliberately poison us and the environment and lie to us about it. No one would think about fruit, and especially not about bananas.
The Banana Industry, as funny as the name might sound, brought vast environmental destruction, slave-like exploitation of workers and corrupt military governments to Latin America — the executives of the companies were called ‘banana barons’, only outshined by the even more brutal ‘rubber barons’. They overthrew governments, killed thousands of workers and destabilized whole countries politically and economically.
As many big corporations with a blood-stained history, Chiquita tried to veil their violent history behind a brand-new logo and a deceptive name that falsely implies that the company is actually Latin American. From when the company was founded in 1899, through the time of its greatest crimes, until 1984, it was called United Fruit Company.
A Storm is Brewing
During the late 1920s, as the banana industry became larger and more powerful, the people of banana-growing countries became aware of just how valuable the fruit was that they grew — and how little of that value they actually received. Not only did they work under horrible conditions, their land was being stolen at record rates by companies who wielded an ever-increasing amount of power, both economically and politically.
Panama disease, the fungus that would kill off almost all of the world’s favorite banana in the 1950s, became more widespread, wiping out plantation after plantation. More land needed to be cleared and cultivated to replace the infected areas, before it, too, was stricken and abandoned. This vicious cycle led to workers and the environment increasingly suffering the symptoms of enormous monocultures of one single cultivar of banana — the ‘Gros Michel’, or ‘Big Mike’.
Without cooperative governments (or governments made cooperative under the threat of military intervention), the large-scale land theft to establish new plantations to replace those devastated by Panama disease would not have been possible.
Around the same time, workers’ movements inspired by the founding of the Soviet Union started to take hold in Latin America and threatened the position of the banana industry. Without cheap labor, there would be no cheap fruit, which would have meant less profit for the greedy banana barons.
To keep the bananas affordable for the masses of consumers in the U.S., new territory needed to be acquired and put under cultivation as cheap as possible. This meant that the banana industry had to control land and labor, with the help of corrupt governments — often put in place by banana industry bribes or threats in the first place — putting foreign companies’ interests before those of their own people.
One such government was the conservative and banana-friendly government of Colombia that emerged after the country’s civil war at the turn of the century. That meant cheap land, tax breaks and uncontrolled exploitation of labor — the dream of Chiquita. The only problem was that, beginning in the 1920s, plantation workers began striking as a result of social activists blaming and targeting Chiquita.
In 1927, Colombia’s government started leaning against the banana companies. An investigation into Chiquita’s land-acquisition policies was ordered, and the conservative party started losing power over the country. Liberals became increasingly popular, especially in the countryside, with banana workers happily supporting their ideals.
The Banana Massacre
More trouble for the banana barons lay ahead: in October 1928, as much as 32,000 plantation workers went on strike, demanding things as fundamental as proper sewage systems and toilets, basic medical care, a payment in cash (rather than the company-issued coupons only redeemable in Chiquita-owned stores), and a status as true employees of Chiquita — not just subcontractors who weren’t even covered by the ridiculously small protection of Colombia’s already weak labor laws.
This was enough to scare the banana barons of Chiquita, since the sheer size of the movement even made headlines back in the U.S.
Officially, they of course denied any mistreatment of workers was happening. In an article about the issue of plantation worker’s strikes in The New York Times the company went as far as to say that “no complaints have been received by our employees.”
Chiquita and U.S. officials in Colombia described the strikes as “communist” movements with “subversive tendency”, leading the U.S. government to threaten to invade Colombia with the U.S. Marine Corps if the Colombian government didn’t protect Chiquita’s interests.
The Colombian government, in compliance with the banana companies, suspended the right to both free speech and free assembly in a desperate attempt to please the banana barons, suppress more uprisings and avoid a disaster. On December 5, martial law was declared.
On December 6, in the town of Ciénaga, plantation workers gathered in the town’s square. It was a Sunday, so rather than being a protest, it was simply plantation workers and their families attending the church’s service, and subsequently waiting for a speech by the regional governor.
General Cortés Vargas, who was in charge of the region, gave order to “face the crowds of rebels [..] and kill before foreign troops tread upon our soil.” Four machine gun positions were stationed on rooftops on each corner of the town square, and the crowd was ordered to disperse within five minutes.
The banana workers and their families could not possibly clear the square within the given time, simply because of the sheer size of the crowd.
The soldiers on the rooftops opened fire.
On the next day, the U.S. ambassador gave the following report to the Washington officials:
“I have the honor to report that the Bogotá representative of the United Fruit Company [Chiquita] told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Columbian military exceeded one thousand.”
The actual victim count will always be subject to speculation. Eye-witness accounts speak of as many as 3,000 people murdered, even though indirectly, by what we know today as Chiquita.
As a result of the massacre, Chiquita was forced to leave the country as the public mood started to shift, officially stating the spread of Panama disease as the reason. They started closing plantations and shipping equipment up to Costa Rica, where they remained present until today. They do so, despite those horrible events, even in Colombia itself, although having their real face hidden through the use of subcontractors.
From Colonialism to Neo-Colonialism
Banana barons contributed not only to the destruction of the environment through clear-cut, slash-and-burn methods to establish new banana plantations, but also through the destruction of South American culture, through building schools, hospitals, railroads, and all those other Wonders of the West, that, once installed, slowly replace a regions original culture with Western ideals, motives and drives.
By the 1930s, Chiquita owned 3.5 million acres of land in Central America and the Caribbean and was the single largest land owner in Guatemala. Such holdings gave it great power over the governments of small countries. That was one of the factors that led to the coining of the phrase ‘Banana Republic’.
One might think that such horrors belong to a distant past — after all, we live in more peaceful, democratic times now. But the truth is, Chiquita hasn’t changed much in their intentions since these days. The difference between colonialism and neo-colonialism is a mere linguistic one. Similar practices are applied, although under new labels like ‘globalization’, ‘development’ and ‘progress’. The result is the same. People are being robbed of their culture, their roots — displaced in a newly formed world economy, small parts in the big machine that keeps devouring the natural world and converting it into digital money to benefit a few privileged.
The corporation still, until very recently, financed armed paramilitary groups, such as the FARC, ELN and AUC in Colombia (all on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations) and probably continues to do so in other parts of Latin America until they are caught. In 2007, Chiquita was fined $25 million by the U.S. Justice Department for supporting terrorist organizations. As a response, they sued in a desperate effort to prevent the U.S. government from releasing more information on their illegal payments to Colombian left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups.
Despite this defeat, Chiquita spent $780,000 lobbying against the ‘Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act’ in 2013 and 2014, which would have caused the public to know even more details about the criminal affairs of the banana company in Latin America.
Over 4,000 Colombians came together to file a lawsuit against Chiquita in 2014, alleging that the corporation was aiding the right-wing paramilitary group responsible for the deaths of family members — without success. But in 2016, a Florida judge ruled in favor of the Colombian victims of Chiquita-sponsored violence, stating that “‘profits took priority over basic human welfare’ in the banana company executives’ decision to finance the illegal death squads, despite knowing that this would advance the paramilitaries’ murderous campaign.”
To this day, workers laboring for Chiquita are exploited and suffer under horrible working and living conditions. French NGO Peuples Solidaires found out that Chiquita knowingly, carelessly and regularly exposed workers at the Costa Rican Coyol plantation to highly toxic pesticides. As if this is not enough, the company hired a private militia to intimidate workers, and ignored union complaints for over a year.
Colombia remained unstable ever after the events inflicted upon the country by the banana barons, and still today is infamous for drug-trafficking, kidnapping, murder, and other forms of violence. All this can be traced back directly to the criminal activities of Chiquita — although they are of course not the sole reason for the countries misery — who continues to intervene with funding subversive paramilitary groups.
Today, the $36 billion banana industry relies on only a single cultivar of bananas — the Cavendish — and the course is set for disaster, as a new strain of Panama disease starts devastating banana plantations in Southeast Asia and Africa. Within a few years, bananas could disappear from supermarket shelves worldwide — and scientists still haven’t the slightest clue as to how to prevent this from happening.
Chiquita remains the leading distributor of bananas in the United States and one of the biggest growers and suppliers worldwide, and continues to make revenue through the use of highly questionable methods hidden well beyond the reach of public attention.
According to Chiquita, Colombia is still playground to the dubious and questionable practices of large-scale banana monoculture cropping, which itself shows that the company didn’t learn anything from the self-inflicted crisis of the extermination of the ‘Gros Michel’ cultivar.
The website reads “Chiquita banana farms are most concentrated in fertile soil regions of Central America; from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.”
On the map right above the cited text, however, Colombia is not marked as a producing country.
“If all the bananas grown in the world were placed end-to-end,” continues the text unapologetic, “the banana chain would circle the Earth 1,400 times. The world’s record for the longest banana split is 4.55 miles.”
Big companies, however friendly they might present themselves, always lie.
Banana — The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel (2007)
Wall Street Daily, “Chiquita’s Terrorist Problem”, Christopher Eutaw, (June, 2014)
Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 30, №2. (May, 1998), pp. 395–414.
Columbia Political Review, Chiquita Massacre, (2007)
The United Fruit Historical Society, Chronology
Vice on HBO, Season 5, Episode 9 (63), “Bananas”, Isobel Yeung, (April, 2017)
Chiquita website, www.chiquita.com
This article was first published on feunfoo.org.
About the author:
David Lauterwasser is a Nature lover, horticulturalist and banana enthusiast from Germany, who runs an organic permaculture project in the south of Thailand, where he protects banana crop diversity and grows 55 different cultivars of bananas .
If you share his affection for bananas or would like to support his efforts to protect diversity and save rare banana kinds, please consider supporting his project on Patreon — every single dollar counts!