MundoAndino Home : Colombia Guide at Mundo Andino

United Fruit Company

The United Fruit Company was a United States corporation that traded in tropical fruit (primarily bananas and pineapples) grown on Third World plantations and sold in the United States and Europe. The company was formed in 1899 from the merger of Minor C. Keith's banana-trading concerns with Andrew W. Preston's Boston Fruit Company. It flourished in the early and mid-20th century and came to control vast territories and transportation networks in Central America, the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Ecuador, and the West Indies. Though it competed with the Standard Fruit Company for dominance in the international banana trade, it maintained a virtual monopoly in certain regions, some of which came to be called Banana Republics.Frederick Douglass Opie, Black Labor Migration in Caribbean Guatemala, 1882-1923, Florida Work in the Americas Series

The company had a deep and long-lasting impact on the economic and political development of several Latin American countries. Critics often accused it of exploitative neocolonialism and described it as the archetypal example of the influence of a multinational corporation on the internal politics of the so-called "banana republics" (a term coined by O. Henry). After a period of financial decline, United Fruit was merged with Eli M. Black's AMK in 1970 to become the United Brands Company. In 1984, Carl Lindner, Jr. transformed United Brands into the present-day Chiquita Brands International.

Corporate history

Early history

In 1871, U.S. railroad entrepreneur Henry Meiggs signed a contract with the government of Costa Rica to build a railroad connecting the capital city of San Jose to the port of Limon in the Caribbean. Meiggs was assisted in the project by his young nephew Minor C. Keith, who took over Meiggs's business concerns in Costa Rica after Meiggs's death in 1877. Because he was looking for cheap food to give to his workers, Keith began planting bananas along the train route in 1873. Once the railroad was complete, he decided to transport bananas to his native country. It did not take him too long to see the success of his idea, but his ambition led him to take advantage of the workers by paying them extremely low wages. The workers left when exposed to very low quality conditions. This was not exposed until years later, when the United Fruit Company took possession of almost all the lands in Guatemala.

When the Costa Rican government defaulted on its payments in 1882, Keith had to borrow 1.2 million from London banks and from private investors in order to continue the difficult engineering project. In 1884, the government of President Prospero Fernandez Oreamuno agreed to give Keith 800,000 acres of tax-free land along the railroad, plus a 99-year lease on the operation of the train route. The railroad was completed in 1890 but the flow of passengers proved insufficient to finance Keith's debt. On the other hand, the sale of bananas grown in his lands and transported first by train to Limon and then by ship to the United States proved very lucrative. Keith soon came to dominate the banana trade in Central America and along the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

United Fruit (1899 - 1970)

In 1899, Keith lost $1.5 million when the New York City broker Hoadley and Co. went bankrupt. He then traveled to Boston, Massachusetts, where he arranged the merger of his banana trading concerns with the rival Boston Fruit Company. Boston Fruit had been established by Lorenzo Dow Baker, a sailor who, in 1870, had bought his first bananas in Jamaica, and by Andrew W. Preston. The merger formed the United Fruit Company, based in Boston, with Preston as president and Keith as vice-president. Preston brought to the partnership his plantations in the West Indies, a fleet of steamships, and his market in the U.S. Northeast. Keith brought his plantations and railroads in Central America and his market in the U.S. South and Southeast. At its founding, United Fruit was capitalized at $11,230,000.

In 1901, the government of Guatemala hired the United Fruit Company to manage the country's postal service. By 1930, the Company had absorbed more than 20 rival firms, acquiring a capital of $215,000,000 and becoming the largest employer in Central America. In 1930, Sam Zemurray (nicknamed "Sam the Banana Man") sold his Cuyamel Fruit Co. to United Fruit and retired from the fruit business. In 1933, concerned that the company was mismanaged and that its market value had plunged, he staged a hostile takeover. Zemurray moved the company's headquarters to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was based. United Fruit went on to prosper under Zemurray's management; Zemurray resigned as president of the company in 1951.

United Brands (1970 - 1984)

Corporate raider Eli M. Black bought 733,000 shares of United Fruit in 1968, becoming the company's largest shareholder. In June 1970, Black merged United Fruit with his own public company, AMK (owner of meat packer John Morrell), to create the United Brands Company. United Fruit had far less cash than Black had counted on and Black's mismanagement led to United Brands becoming crippled with debt. The company's losses were exacerbated by Hurricane Fifi in 1974, which destroyed many banana plantations in Honduras. On February 3, 1975, Black committed suicide by jumping out of his office on the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building in New York City. Later that year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission exposed a scheme by United Brands (dubbed Bananagate) to bribe Honduran President Oswaldo Lopez Arellano with $1.25 million, and the promise of another $1.25 million upon the reduction of certain export taxes. Trading in United Brands stock was halted and Lopez was ousted in a military coup.

After Black's suicide, Cincinnati-based American Financial Group, one of billionaire Carl H. Lindner, Jr.'s companies, bought into United Brands. In August 1984, Lindner took control of the company and renamed it Chiquita Brands International. The headquarters was moved to Cincinnati in 1985.

Throughout most of its history, United Fruit's main competitor was the Standard Fruit Company, now the Dole Food Company.


The United Fruit Company was frequently accused of bribing government officials in exchange for preferential treatment, exploiting its workers, contributing little by way of taxes to the countries in which it operated, and working ruthlessly to consolidate monopolies. Latin American journalists sometimes referred to the company as el pulpo ("the octopus"), and leftist parties in Central and South America encouraged the Company's workers to strike. Criticism of the United Fruit Company became a staple of the discourse of the communist parties in several Latin American countries, where its activities were often interpreted as illustrating Lenin's theory of capitalist imperialism. Major Latin American writers sympathetic to more independence from foreign governments and corporations, such as Carlos Luis Fallas of Costa Rica, Ramon Amaya Amador of Honduras, Miguel Angel Asturias of Guatemala, Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez of Colombia, and Pablo Neruda of Chile, denounced the Company in their literature.

The business practices of United Fruit were also frequently criticized by journalists, politicians, and artists in the United States. Little Steven released a song called "Bitter Fruit" about the company's misdeeds. In 1950, Gore Vidal published a novel in which a thinly fictionalized version of United Fruit supports a military coup in a thinly fictionalized Guatemala..

Ships of United Fruit Company's Great White Fleet

Admiral Dewey , Admiral Schley , Admiral Sampson & Admiral Farragut (1899) U.S. Navy surplus after Spanish-American War - Each carried 53 passengers & 35000 bunches of bananas.Carl, Robert, CAPT USNR "The Banana Navy" United States Naval Institute Proceedings December 1976 pp. 50-56

Venus (1903) United Fruit Company's first refrigerated banana ship

San Jose, Limon & Esparta (1904) first banana reefers built to United Fruit design - San Jose & Esparta were sunk by U-boats during World War II.

Atenas (1909) class of thirteen 5000-ton banana reefers built in Ireland

Pastores (1912) 7241-ton cruise liner became USS Pastores (AF-16)Silverstone, Paul H., U. S. Warships of World War II Doubleday and Company (1968) p.329

Calamares (1913) 7622-ton banana reefer became USS Calamares (AF-18)

Toloa (1917) 6494-ton banana reefer

Ulua (1917) 6494-ton banana reefer became USS Octans (AF-26)

San Benito (1921) 3724-ton banana reefer became USS Taurus (AF-25)

Mayari & Choluteca (1921) 3724-ton banana reefers

La Playa (1923) banana reefer

Telda, Iriona, Castilla & Tela (1927) banana reefers

Aztec (1929) banana reefer

Platano & Musa (1930) banana reefers

Chiriqui (1932) 6963-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Tarazed (AF-13)

Jamaica (1932) 6968-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Ariel (AF-22)

Veraqua (1932) 6982-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Merak (AF-21)

Talamanca (1932) 6963-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Talamanca (AF-15)

Quiriqua (1932) 6982-ton turbo-electric cruise liner became USS Mizar (AF-12)

Antigua (1932) Turbo-electric cruise liner providing 2-week cruises of Cuba, Jamaica, Colombia, Honduras and the Panama Canal Zone.

Oratava (1936) banana reefer

Comayagua, Junior, Metapan, Yaque & Fra Berlanga (1946) banana reefers

Manaqui (1946) bulk sugar ship

History in Central America

The United Fruit Company (UFCO) owned vast tracts of land in the Caribbean lowlands. It also dominated regional transportation networks through its International Railways of Central America and its Great White Fleet of steamships. In addition, UFCO branched out in 1913 by creating the Tropical Radio and Telegraph Company. One of the company's primary tactics for maintaining market dominance was to control the distribution of banana lands. UFCO claimed that hurricanes, blight and other natural threats required them to hold extra land or reserve land. In practice, what this meant was that UFCO was able to prevent the government from distributing banana lands to peasants who wanted a share of the banana trade. The fact that the UFCO relied so heavily on manipulation of land use rights in order to maintain their market dominance had a number of long-term consequences for the region. For the company to maintain its unequal land holdings it often required government concessions. And this in turn meant that the company had to be politically involved in the region even though it was an American company. In fact, the heavy-handed involvement of the company in governments which often were or became corrupt created the term "Banana republic" representing a "servile dictatorship".Big-business greed killing the banana - Independent, via The New Zealand Herald, Saturday 24 May 2008, Page A19

UFCO had a mixed record on promoting the development of the nations in which it operated. In Central America, the Company built extensive railroads and ports and provided employment and transportation. UFCO also created numerous schools for the people who lived and worked on Company land. On the other hand, it allowed vast tracts of land under its ownership to remain uncultivated and, in Guatemala and elsewhere, it discouraged the government from building highways, which would lessen the profitable transportation monopoly of the railroads under its control.

In 1954, the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was toppled by U.S.- backed forces lead by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas who invaded from Honduras. Assigned by the Eisenhower administration, this military opposition was armed, trained and organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (see Operation PBSUCCESS). The directors of United Fruit Company (UFCO) had lobbied to convince the Truman and Eisenhower administrations that Colonel Arbenz intended to align Guatemala with the Soviet Bloc. Besides the disputed issue of Arbenz's allegiance to Communism, UFCO was being threatened by the Arbenz governments agrarian reform legislation and new Labor Code. UFCO was the largest Guatemalan landowner and employer, and the Arbenz governments land reform included the expropriation of 40% of UFCO land. U.S. officials had little proof to back their claims of a growing communist threat in Guatemala, however the relationship between the Eisenhower administration and UFCO demonstrated the influence of corporate interest on U.S. foreign policy. The American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was an avowed opponent of Communism whose law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell had represented United Fruit. His brother Allen Dulles was the director of the CIA, and was a board member of United Fruit. United Fruit Company is the only company known to have a CIA cryptonym. The brother of the Assistant Secretary of State for InterAmerican Affairs John Moors Cabot had once been president of United Fruit. Ed Whitman who was United Fruits principal lobbyist was married to President Eisenhower's personal secretary, Ann C. Whitman. Many individuals who directly influenced U.S. policy towards Guatemala in the 1950s also had direct ties to UFCO.

The overthrow of Arbenz, however, failed to benefit the Company. Its stock market value declined along with its profit margin. The Eisenhower administration proceeded with antitrust action against the company, which forced it to divest in 1958. In 1972, the company sold off the last of their Guatemalan holdings after over a decade of decline.

Company holdings in Cuba, which included sugar mills in the Oriente region of the island, were expropriated by the 1959 revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro. By April 1960 Castro was accusing the company of aiding Cuban exiles and supporters of former leader Fulgencio Batista in initiating a seaborn invasion of Cuba directed from the United States.Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, 867 Castro warned the U.S. that "Cuba is not another Guatemala" in one of many combative diplomatic exchanges before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Despite significant economic pressure on Cuba, the company was unable to recoup cost and compensation from the Cuban government.

Banana massacre

One of the most notorious strikes by United Fruit workers broke out on 12 November 1928 on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, near Santa Marta. Historical estimates place the number of strikers somewhere between 11,000 and 30,000. On 6 December, Colombian Army troops under the command of General Cortes Vargas opened fire on a crowd of strikers gathered in the central square of the town of Cienaga. The military justified this action by claiming that the strike was subversive and its organizers were Communist revolutionaries. Congressman Jorge Eliecer Gaitan claimed that the army had acted under instructions from the United Fruit Company. The ensuing scandal contributed to President Miguel Abadia Mendez's Conservative Party being voted out of office in 1930, putting an end to 44 years of Conservative rule in Colombia. The first novel of Alvaro Cepeda Samudio, La Casa Grande, focuses on this event, and the author himself grew up in close proximity to the incident. The climax of Garcia Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is based on the events in Cienaga, though the author himself has acknowledged that the death toll of 3,000 that he gives there is greatly inflated.Bucheli, Bananas and Business: The United Fruit Company in Colombia, 1899-2000, 132

General Cortes Vargas, who issued the order to shoot, argued later that he had issued the order because he had information that U.S. boats were poised to land troops on Colombian coasts to defend American personnel and the interests of the United Fruit Company. Vargas issued the order so the US would not invade Colombia. This position was strongly criticized in the Senate, especially by Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, who argued that those same bullets should have been used to stop the foreign invader.

The telegram from Bogota Embassy to the U.S. Secretary of State, dated December 5, 1928, stated:

I have been following Santa Marta fruit strike through United Fruit Company representative here; also through Minister of Foreign Affairs who on Saturday told me government would send additional troops and would arrest all strike leaders and transport them to prison at Cartagena; that government would give adequate protection to American interests involved.

The telegram from Bogota Embassy to Secretary of State, date December 7, 1928, stated:

Situation outside Santa Marta City unquestionably very serious: outside zone is in revolt; military who have orders "not to spare ammunition" have already killed and wounded about fifty strikers. Government now talks of general offensive against strikers as soon as all troopships now on the way arrive early next week.

The Dispatch from US Bogota Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated December 29, 1928, stated:

I have the honor to report that the legal advisor of the United Fruit Company here in Bogota stated yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military authorities during the recent disturbance reached between five and six hundred; while the number of soldiers killed was one.

The Dispatch from US Bogota Embassy to the US Secretary of State, dated January 16, 1929, stated:

I have the honor to report that the Bogota representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.

The Banana massacre is said to be one of the main events that preceded the Bogotazo, the subsequent era of violence known as La Violencia, and the guerrillas who developed during the bipartisan National Front period, creating the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia.

See also

Chiquita Brands International

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Further reading

Revised edition of An American Company (1976).

"La United Fruit Co."

External links

United Fruit Historical Society Chronology of United Fruit by Marcelo Bucheli and Ian Read

"Our Complex History", from the Chiquita Brands International 2000 Corporate Responsibility Report

Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company

Financial Times Article on United Fruit's legacy in Latin America: "Rotten Fruit"

Bibliography on United Fruit extensive biography from the United Fruit Historical Society, Inc.

Documentary Propaganda on United Fruit

Chiquita Banana Protest Information on the company's corruption

Why Bananas are a Parable For Our Times by Johann Hari, The Huffington Post, January 7, 2009

From Arbenz to Zelaya: Chiquita in Latin America - video report by Democracy Now!

Didn't find what you were looking for.
Need more information for your travel research or homework?
Ask your questions at the forum about History of Colombia or help others to find answers.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article United Fruit Company

Disclaimer - Privacy Policy - 2009