7 Ubiquitous Banana Dictatorship in Guatemala
-by Andres Ayala
Beneath the innocent image of the American household staple, a sinister reality exists behind the production of the banana in Guatemala. Despite the region’s small size, bananas play a significant role in the country’s trade—contributing 9%, or 1.08 billion U.S. dollars, of Guatemala’s annual GDP as the country’s leading export product.[i] In this region, powerful hegemonic companies like Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita—originally known as the United Fruit Company—dominate the banana market, with Chiquita as the main aggressor. Despite the company’s famous circular blue sticker and appealing name, Chiquita operates unethically. The company abuses its employees, controls the majority of Guatemalan land, exploits the nation’s vulnerable government, and interferes in U.S.-Guatemalan affairs, tainting its business operations. Additionally, Chiquita’s business practices demonstrate a peculiar relationship in which the company’s licit market presence drives its illicit efforts. This black-market existence is complex and unique, and its rarity accentuates Chiquita’s illicit operations. The infamous Chiquita company’s licit image safeguards a hotspot for human right abuses towards employees, manipulation of government officials, and the spread of propaganda for personal corporate gain across Guatemala.
Although the banana may appear innocent, Chiquita’s famous product represents all the components of a black market. The banana black market resembles the popular blood diamond black market; the diamond itself is legally purchased, but these blood diamond vendors fear the discovery of its sinister operations. Black markets foster an environment of tension, conflict, and “under the table” activity between black marketeers that unknown to the government illicitly creates a highly demanded product. Additionally, black markets do not exclusively need to produce and distribute heroin to be considered a black market. Although the purchase of the ubiquitous banana is legal, the focus of this black market is not necessarily the end product, but the violent and unethical processes behind the production of the licit banana—the employee abuse, the slave-like working conditions, the act of overthrowing the Guatemalan leader, and the manipulation of the American government, all of this to maintain its sinister operations in the shadows.
In times of desperation, black markets naturally form in developing areas to capitalize on the region’s vulnerable state. The high demand for the world’s favorite fruit and the vulnerability of third world countries sparked the opportunity for this black market’s creation.[ii] In 1899, dictator Manuel Cabrera left the country with an unstable government and poor economy.[iii] In a shaky state of financial insecurity, Central American countries invited U.S. companies to their banana market.[iv] Thus, the Ohio-based Chiquita company sought to spread its presence to Guatemala. Thick vegetation and untraversable jungles covered Guatemala at the beginning of the 20th century, but Chiquita capitalized on this opportunity and purchased over 90% of the country’s territory during the 1900s-1950s—consciously leaving only 10% of habitable land for the population of three million.[v] By controlling the majority of the land, Chiquita set the stage for its black-market behaviors to flourish across Guatemalan soil.
The workers are the grassroots to any successful business operation, and Chiquita abuses the labor rights of employees in the most repulsive ways imaginable. With the territorial power Chiquita possesses, the company secures the job market and the ability to employ the majority of Guatemalans. Chiquita strictly hires their employees on a short-term contract rather than a permanent contract to avoid providing legally-mandated benefits like health insurance.[vi] Employees live on the plantations as tenant farmers without adequate access to water and electricity.[vii] Additionally, Chiquita facilitates an employee homeownership program that provides housing for workers. Chiquita executives use this program to gain control of the company’s plantation workers. When workers leave the harsh conditions of Chiquita’s plantations, they lose their home.[viii] Additionally, employees operate in dangerous, health-threatening environments. Tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever infect workers, and employees work with insecticides toxic to the human body.[ix] Furthermore, documentation exists from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) of Chiquita stripping their employees of personal integrity in the worst ways imaginable.[x]
The ITUC reveals Chiquita’s sinister, human rights violations-filled history against its own employees. Human rights reports from the ITUC indicate women being victimized, imprisoned, verbally and physically abused, and forced to work long, grueling hours in miserable conditions on Chiquita’s banana plantations.[xi] To combat Chiquita’s tyranny, female labor unionists from Movimiento Sindical, Indigena, y Campesino Guatemalteco attempted to present human rights abuse report to the Guatemalan Labor Ministry; these women were then detained and intimidated to not release information regarding the Chiquita scandals.[xii] Additionally, through connections with anti-union groups, Chiquita murders labor activists and silences journalists attempting to educate the public on these corrupt conditions, according to a 2010 report on Chiquita’s criminal activity from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.[xiii] These anti-union activities still occur in the modern world. In 2008, labor leader Miguel Ángel Ramírez Enríquez was sprayed down by the assault weapons of masked men in his own home.[xiv] In 2011, two women unionists were murdered in their homes by anti-union groups in Guatemala. With machetes, assailants broke in Lesbia Elías Xurup’s home and hacked her to death, and assailants on motorbikes shot María Santos Sanjía several times in the head.[xv] Clearly, these anti-union practices occur on a frequent basis, but Chiquita’s desperation to maintain its unethical behavior and high profit force the company to commit to extreme behavior. Chiquita owns the majority of the land and employment opportunity in Guatemala; thus, employees are essentially forced to work for a toxic company.[xvi] What at first appears to be an innocent facade is in essence a black-market operation in which Chiquita facilitates countless human rights violations, murders, and employee exploitation for profit.
Not only does Chiquita hold a toxic grip on Guatemalan citizens, the company possesses an even stronger political influence on Guatemala’s government. After reading in between the lines of the company’s motives in 1952, Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz executed government policy Decree 900.[xvii] Being a land reform program, this policy expropriated and redistributed 372,000 acres—or 400,000 football fields—of unused farmland to the region’s landless peasants in hopes to reduce the nation’s dependence on Chiquita’s monopoly.[xviii] Despite already owning the majority of the land, Chiquita perceived this policy as a threat to its operations and sought revenge.
To protect its operations, Chiquita exploited the 1823 Monroe Doctrine to evoke a U.S. invasion to overthrow Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz. The Monroe Doctrine stated that any foreign attempt to interfere with the Americas’ security will threaten U.S. interest and elicit a U.S. response.[xix] In the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions during the Cold War, Chiquita abused this principle and conveyed Decree 900 as a Communist threat to the United States. According to a 1954 CIA report, elites from the Chiquita company contacted leading U.S. journalists with propaganda that Decree 900 stemmed from Communism.[xx] The United States deemed Guatemala as a Soviet satellite and concluded an intervention critical to the protection of American security.[xxi] The United States ordered the CIA to covertly lead an invasion effort to overthrow Arbenz in 1954—known as Operation PBSuccess.[xxii] In Guatemala, the CIA jammed radio signals to broadcast propaganda that Arbenz was a dedicated Communist, ordered a bombing campaign in the capital, and sent a military invasion led by general Castillo Armas to overthrow Arbenz.[xxiii] Immediately afterward, the United States appointed Armas to power where he immediately reversed Decree 900 and returned the 372,000 acres of unused land to the Chiquita corporation.[xxiv] Additionally, Armas’ dictatorship resulted in a bloody civil war in Guatemala after Operation PBSuccess.[xxv] The root of the Guatemalan Civil War stemmed from Chiquita’s vengeance towards Decree 900 and resulted in the violent death of 200,000 Guatemalans. The Guatemalan civil war exacerbated the region’s fragile state—thus, strengthening Chiquita’s black market capabilities. Decree 900 served as evidence of Chiquita’s power as a black market. Through its connection to U.S. government officials as corporate stakeholders, the company easily removed Guatemala’s leader in order to protect its sinister operations.
Thus, this government policy resulted in counterproductive effects that strengthened Chiquita’s power to act in criminal ways with impunity. Although originally designed to bring justice to Guatemala, the United States eagerly intervened in Guatemala in the interest of Chiquita’s stakeholders. As Chiquita’s profits continued to grow, the majority of the profits never impacted Guatemala’s economy.[xxvi] Instead of reinvesting and developing the third world country, Chiquita’s profits went directly to stakeholders in the American government.[xxvii] Additionally, these American stakeholders were directly connected to the CIA and American government. Allen Dulles served on Chiquita’s board of trustees and as director of the CIA, his brother John Foster Dulles of Sullivan and Cromwell law firm represented Chiquita and served as Secretary of State, and Chiquita’s public relations officer, Ed Whitman, whose wife served as President Eisenhower’s private secretary.[xxviii] Additionally, a former Chiquita executive, Walter Bedell Smith, served on the company’s board of directors and as a CIA director.[xxix] These critical stakeholders granted Chiquita a political shield to carry out any action without repercussions.[xxx] These facts prove that the power of this black market clearly shaped political decisions and strengthened its presence. Thus, Operation PBSuccess was shaped by these Chiquita stakeholders and other government officials. Due to the large number of players affiliated with Chiquita, the United States felt obligated to resolve the company’s issue with Arbenz for political and personal interests.[xxxi]
Despite Chiquita’s innocent image and legal right to operate in Guatemala, its sinister and criminal operations represent the company’s black market activity. Although Chiquita’s tainted operations do not produce an illicit good, they possess the same unethical and corrupt ambiance found in a traditional heroin black market. Misha Glenny’s McMafia argues that many licit business operations possess tenebrous black market elements that allow them to flourish in vulnerable economic, political, and social circumstances.[xxxii] Additionally, Glenny states that black markets thrive when government officials play as main actors.[xxxiii] Both notions prove true in the Chiquita corporation. Chiquita’s black market formed once the company discovered Guatemala’s cheap labor opportunity, massive unused territory, and the nation’s vulnerable government. Guatemala’s dismissible presence in the world invited the corporation’s criminal activity of human rights abuses, territorial exploitation, and political interference without any issue. Furthermore, the Guatemalan and American governments were subordinates to Chiquita’s corporate influence. The United States CIA carried out Operation PBSuccess to overthrow Guatemala’s leader in response to Chiquita’s cry for help. In reality, this black market continues to exist in the modern world. Chiquita continues to safeguard an environment for anti-union activity, where labor union leaders like Enriquez are sprayed down with bullets in their homes for fear of the discovery of its scandalous operations.[xxxiv] As long as consumers purchase Chiquita’s products, the corporation and its sinister operations will exist. Driven by personal interests, the American government stakeholders will continue to protect Chiquita as a way to protect themselves. Thus, the symbiotic relationship between this black market and the United States government allows Chiquita to flourish in the control of employees’ human rights, massive territorial control, manipulation of corporate stakeholders, and U.S.-Guatemalan interference without any repercussions.
[i] Observation of Economic Complexity, “Guatemala” (Statistics, Accessed October 10, 2018).
[ii] Food Empowerment Project, “Peeling Back the Truth on Bananas” (Report, Accessed October 10, 2018).
[iii] Rachel Rozak, “The Truth Behind Bananas” (Article, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, March 13, 2017).
[iv] Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas” (Article, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 28, 2010).
[v] Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas.”
[vi] Food Empowerment Project, “Peeling Back the Truth on Bananas.”
[vii] Allison Piper, “The Creation of a Banana Empire: An Investigation into Chiquita Brand” (Article, Harvard Political Review, June 10, 2017).
[viii] Allison Piper, “The Creation of a Banana Empire: An Investigation into Chiquita Brand.”
[ix] P. Landmeier, “Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company” (Writing, Accessed 10, 2018).
[x] International Trade Union Confederation, “Guatemala – Illegal Detention of MSICG Representatives Presenting Damning Report on Multinationals (2010),” (Report, 2010).
[xi] International Trade Union Confederation, “Guatemala – Illegal Detention of MSICG Representatives Presenting Damning Report on Multinationals (2010).”
[xii] International Trade Union Confederation, “Guatemala – Illegal Detention of MSICG Representatives Presenting Damning Report on Multinationals (2010).”
[xiii] Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas.”
[xiv] Organización Mundial Contra la Tortura, “Guatemala: Asesinato del Sr. Miguel Ángel Ramírez Enríquez, líder sindical” March 7, 2008.
[xv] International Trade Union Confederation, “Guatemala: Two More Women Workers Killed” March 3, 2011.
[xvi] Allison Piper, “The Creation of a Banana Empire: An Investigation into Chiquita Brand.”
[xvii] Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, “Banana Companies in Guatemala: A Century of Abuse and Labor Rights” (Report, Accessed October 10, 2018).
[xviii] Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, “Banana Companies in Guatemala: A Century of Abuse and Labor Rights.”
[xix] “Monroe Doctrine (1823),” (Archive, ourdocuments.org, Accessed October 15, 2018).
[xx] David M. Barrett, “Congress, the CIA, and Guatemala, 1954” (Study Archives, Central Intelligence Agency, May 8, 2007).
[xxi] David M. Barrett, “Congress, the CIA, and Guatemala, 1954.”
[xxii] David M. Barrett, “Congress, the CIA, and Guatemala, 1954.”
[xxiii] Rachel Rozak, “The Truth Behind Bananas.”
[xxiv] Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, “Banana Companies in Guatemala: A Century of Abuse and Labor Rights.”
[xxv] Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas.”
[xxvi] Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, “Banana Companies in Guatemala: A Century of Abuse and Labor Rights.”
[xxvii] P. Landmeier, “Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company.”
[xxviii] Rachel Rozak, “The Truth Behind Bananas.”
[xxix] Brendan Fischer. “A Banana Republic Once Again?”
[xxx] Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, “Banana Companies in Guatemala: A Century of Abuse and Labor Rights.”
[xxxi] Nicholas Cullather, “Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala 1952-1954” (Report, Central Intelligence Agency, Declassified 1997).
[xxxii] Misha Glenny, “McMafia” (Print, First Vintage Books, New York, NY, 2009) Page 9.
[xxxiii] Misha Glenny, “McMafia” Page 35.
[xxxiv] Organización Mundial Contra la Tortura, “Guatemala: Asesinato del Sr. Miguel Ángel Ramírez Enríquez, líder sindical”
Barrett, David M. “Congress, the CIA, and Guatemala, 1954.” Study Archives, Central Intelligence Agency, May 8, 2007.
Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas.” Article, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 28, 2010.
Cullather, Nicholas, “Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala 1952-1954.” Report, Central Intelligence Agency, Declassified 1997.
Food Empowerment Project, “Peeling Back the Truth on Bananas.” Report, Accessed October 10, 2018.
Glenny Misha, “McMafia.” Print, First Vintage Books, New York, NY, 2009, Page 9.
Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, “Banana Companies in Guatemala: A Century of Abuse and Labor Rights.” Report, Accessed October 10, 2018.
International Trade Union Confederation, “Guatemala – Illegal Detention of MSICG Representatives Presenting Damning Report on Multinationals (2010).” Report, 2010.
International Trade Union Confederation, “Guatemala: Two More Women Workers Killed” March 3, 2011.
Landmeier, P. “Banana Republic: The United Fruit Company.” Writing, Accessed 10, 2018.
“Monroe Doctrine (1823).” Archive, ourdocuments.org, Accessed October 15, 2018.
Observation of Economic Complexity, “Guatemala.” Statistics, Accessed October 10, 2018.
Organización Mundial Contra la Tortura, “Guatemala: Asesinato del Sr. Miguel Ángel Ramírez Enríquez, líder sindical.” March 7, 2008.
Piper, Allison “The Creation of a Banana Empire: An Investigation into Chiquita Brand.” Article, Harvard Political Review, June 10, 2017.
Rozak, Rachel “The Truth Behind Bananas.” Article, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, March 13, 2017.