On the United Fruit Company in Central America (and Terrible Book Reviews)

Non-fiction writer Rich Cohen has a new book coming out on Samuel Zemurray, the man who made the United Fruit Company, the previous incarnation of what we today call Chiquita. Under Zemurray’s watch, United Fruit, or “UFCO,” wound up supporting Central American dictators, employed mercenaries, supported rebellions against governments that didn’t give UFCO what it wanted, did not pay taxes that it owed to foreign and US governments alike, used bribery and corruption to acquire land and businesses, formed vertical monopolies that controlled the production and distribution of bananas from the plantations to the railroad and shipping companies that sent the fruit to the US, and disregarded laws in both the United States and in Central American countries that it felt harmed its own business interests, even while intense monocrop banana production wreaked havoc on Central American lands. UFCO’s practices and its ties to repressive governments that were in its pocket gave rise to the term “Banana Republics.” And of course, through these methods, UFCO ended up owning hundreds of thousands of acres of land that it did not even use in Central America and the Caribbean, even while the majority of these populations were landless and suffered from extreme poverty and socioeconomic inequalities.

Suffice to say, Zemurray, as the head of UFCO, is the type of character whose acts were as horrible as they were mundane, and whose legacies negatively impacted millions of people throughout Central America. In short, Zemurray is a perfect figure for a biography. And while there have been previous works on United Fruit’s (and other banana producers’)  impact on Central America and the Caribbean region (including its role in the 1954 Guatemalan coup that sent the country into a 36-year civil war that left 250,000 people dead), Cohen’s is the first recent work to focus not on the company or its impact in Latin America, but to provide a biography of Zemurray. Given the subject matter and depending on how cohen approaches his subject matter, a biography of Zemurray could end up being good or bad.

What definitely is bad, however, is Ira Stoll’s review of the book. Stoll, who is no fan of regulation of business and who (as his review makes clear) he is an unbridled supporter of unfettered capitalism, has nothing but praise for Zemurray’s “efficiency,” “bias-free marketing creativity,” “innovation,” and “egalitarianism.”

No, seriously – egalitarianism.

According to Stoll, UFCO’s appropriation of land on the cheap and use of exploitative labor mechanisms against Central Americans was “egalitarian” because “the banana companies figured out they could make more money by lowering prices and making bananas a fruit for mass consumption rather than a scarce and expensive luxury.” Absent from this narrative? Any of the hundreds of thousands of people who were denied access to land, who died as a result of UFCO’s brutal labor regimes or of the political instability that UFCO actively fostered. Or, put another way: anybody who wasn’t a resident of the United States. Indeed, Stoll’s review is painfully blind to the actual real impacts of UFCO’s (and, as its main leader, Zemurray’s) practices in Central America, the environmental degradation of monocrop agriculture that still threatens the future of banana production today, the political instability that UFCO caused, the socioeconomic devastation UFCO played no small part in perpetuating for a majority of people in Central America. Stoll is so blinded to the actual real legacies of UFCO in Central America that he even sees Zemurray as a “philanthropic” character because he “used his money and power to fund both Tulane university and the effort to help World War II-era Jewish refugees get to what became Israel.” Those who didn’t benefit from Zemurray’s philanthropy? The Guatemalans, Hondurans, and other Central American and Caribbean workers on whose back-breaking labor and political turmoil Zemurray built his economic empire.

Cohen’s book may or may not address the actual devastation that UFCO under Zemurray’s watch wreaked in Central America – we’ll get to find out next week, when the book comes out. Regardless of what stance Cohen’s book ends up taking, though, Stoll’s review is about as hackish and one-sided as a review could be. I hope Cohen’s book is good, but Stoll’s review has already entered the realm of one of the most blindingly stupid and limited book reviews ever written.

(h/t to Erik)

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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