- Bananas and Business: The United Fruit Company in Colombia, 1899–2000
The United Fruit Company (UFC) long has been maligned as an imperial bastion of American business interests, quick to exploit its workers for a buck and slow to return profits to where its commodity [End Page 512] is extracted. This interpretation came early to Colombian critics after a 1928 massacre of striking workers left hundreds, maybe thousands, dead. Gabriel Garcia Marquez exaggerated the details of this violence for One Hundred Years of Solitude, and few others have believed the company did more good than harm. But when some longtime employees are interviewed, they express a "general nostalgia" for the days when a banana picker could afford bourbon instead of aguardiente and fancy Arrow brand button-down shirts in the company stores.
These contradictory opinions are explored in Bananas and Business, whose author argues that the "accepted views of UFC in Colombia have to be rethought when we study the hundred years of operations of this company" (p. 180). Bucheli is too modest here, as this book should affect the ways scholars (including college students) tally the scorecard of American direct investment in Latin America during the twentieth century. The well-worn negative interpretation of UFC dies hard though, even if it is replaced by a more balanced perspective. Readers will have to make up their own minds about, for instance, whether overly fervent union demands caused injury to the progress and well-being of the company and its Colombian workers.
The book begins a little more than century ago, when United Fruit first consolidated its banana empire by combining refrigeration, railroad, and shipping technology with a cutthroat approach to competition. The adventures of Minor Keith, an enormously costly tropical railroad, and the early dominance of the banana company with the largest economy of scale will be familiar to many. Bucheli breaks new ground in his analysis of the American fruit market and of the changing demand for bananas, as the fruit was transformed from a luxurious dessert to a popular workman's lunch. Bananas dominated the lucrative fruit business because they faced little competition from processed foods and had the great advantage of year-round availability. Except for during the Great Depression, overall profits were strong before the 1950s, and the company invested heavily in land, infrastructure, schools, and hospitals in Latin America.
Great changes occurred in the decade after World War II, when the company faced an unsteady future with new competition from processed food, diseases that ravaged entire plantations, and Latin American workers who had increased their demands and strength. To make matters worse, a U.S. government antitrust suit forced UFC stockholders to give up a good part of their business to a competitor later named Del Monte. These factors, especially the dwindling demand, caused the fruit company to gradually divest from production and begin a transformation of its Colombian business model that would repeat itself later in other parts of Latin America. By the 1960s, the company moved the bulk of its Colombian production [End Page 513] from Magdalena to Urabá but used a system of contracting to independent producers. As a result, UFC did not have to provide as many social services, nor did it have to negotiate as much with unions or the government over union demands. Colombia's civil war and a new company chief executive officer led the company back to Magdalena in the 1990s, but the vast majority of Colombia's bananas remained in Urabá under the contracting system.
Bucheli stirs the most controversy when he implies that if workers had not made so many unaffordable or unprofitable demands, the company might have remained in Colombia, and workers could still have their bourbon and button-downs. As a postscript to this book, 16,000 banana workers in Colombia went on strike to call for higher wages in May 2004. The sixteen-day strike ended with some of their demands met, but Chiquita (UFC renamed...