Thursday, February 28, 2008


Day-O and Other Expletives

I've just finished reading Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World, a well written history of that notorious company by Peter Chapman (Canongate, 2007).

The history of United Fruit reads like "Sixteen Tons," complete with the company store.* United Fruit pulled the strings of the various Central American governments, even re-named Central America "Middle America" in its advertising campaigns, and eliminated competition with its death grip of the region. Between developing a monopoly on the fruit market and buttressing it with red scare tactics, United Fruit pulled all us banana eaters --and we are many-- into unwitting complicity.

Thanks to United Fruit, even the future of the banana is unclear. According to Chapman, United Fruit staked its destiny on one type of banana, effectively limiting the evolution of bananas to developing disease resistance, pumping chemicals into its irrigation systems instead. The bananas we eat have no real seeds to speak of, and this means that they haven't had "sex" for decades.
No cross-pollination with other species, no chance to improve the strain. The year-round growing seasons in tropical climes give them no down time, and the same goes for the diseases that prey on them, borne by wind and rain. Of the world's major food crops, the banana is the most chemically treated, pumped full of pesticides and fungicides, and growers are running out of ideas. Says Chapman, "The banana has for a century been an example of first-rate 'packaging': it exudes health in its natural wrapping while being diseased to its roots."

If the banana's prospects are dim, so have been the futures of plantation workers propping up United's descendants. The rise of the death squads, the mischief of Iran-Contra, and the wholesale massacre of workers trying to build better lives for themselves are all part of the story. Even our so-called immigration problem has roots deep in the soil of United Fruit's story. Unable to make a living in their own countries, Central Americans have made their way to the source of their misery. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

United Fruit doesn't exist anymore, per se; it has morphed into Chiquita Brand and United Brands and positioned itself as a "free trade" product, setting itself against the fair trade movement, the change occurring after the suicide of the last president of United Fruit in the 70s, when he erroneously believed that his co-opting of the government of Honduras would land him in hot water with the feds. (They eventually slapped the company's wrist with a $15,000 fine--peanuts in an industry working with hundreds of millions of dollars.)

I'm not doing justice to Chapman's work. It's pretty snarky-funny, too, detailing United Fruit's foray into the public relations sphere, waging massive "information" campaigns, pulling newspaper big shots out of their chairs for "tours" of "Middle America," complete with staged communist conspiracies and even movies, my favorite title of which is "Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas." He details the co-option of Carmen Miranda's popularity into the Chiquita
Banana campaign as well as the way that Harry Belafonte turned from his hit "Banana Boat Song" to his activism on behalf of disenfranchised people at home and abroad. Additionally, he goes into the massacre in Colombia that provided the pathological writing that interrupts Gabriel Garcia Marquez' otherwise detached irony in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Chapman's final chapter is about the world that United Fruit was instrumental in creating. The current worship of "free" markets extends the rule of robber barons into the 21st century, and we can now read about the exploits of big oil and Blackwater, unleashed upon our time's communist equivalents, terrorism and socialism.

Not only does Chapman tell his story of the past well; he triggers important thinking about
what lies in our future. It's a hell of a book. Take your next 40 per cent off certificate from some major book chain and get yourself a copy; read it, then donate it to your public library. That's what I'm doing, along with buying fair trade, organic bananas.

*(When I think about what a big hit that song was for Tennessee Ernie Ford in the 50s, I marvel at the fact that Joe McCarthy's boys didn't round up old Ern and slap him in Leavenworth.)

Et tu, bananas?
Soon I'll be reduced to eating only pecans from my own tree.
Nah... you can get good bananas. They're out there. The ones we get at the local co-op are from Ecuador--Oke organic.

I need my potassium in the golden years, so I'm glad they're out there.
The bananas we eat have no real seeds to speak of, and this means that they haven't had "sex" for decades.

Another victory for abstinence-only sex education! Praise Him!
lol sister
Aye Carumba! Bananas Exposed!
Sounds like a great book on a not so great story.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?