Expensive Bananas in East Berlin after the Berlin Wall came down
‘Hold our hands and take us to Banana Land!’ chanted East Berliners, unwittingly evoking a United Fruit Company advertisement as the most momentous political event of their lives unfolded. As the Berlin Wall fell, East Germans—accustomed to waiting hours whenever bananas appeared behind the Iron Curtain—swarmed over to their Western brethren, images of the fruit in tow, trading their few Deutschmarks for a meagre bunch. Even today, any lengthy queue in Berlin raises the pithy question, ‘Gibts Bananen oder wat?’ Austerity the norm in the Communist Eastern Bloc, the exotic banana emerged as a symbol of green grass on the other side of the Cold War fence. Yet how is it that this one curious yellow fruit, native to Southeast Asia and sourced from tropical Latin America, could come to embody Western capitalism to the Eastern Bloc?
Nowadays, the imparted symbolism has all but vanished. Bananas are prevalent and cheap throughout Berlin, as they are in every major city and minor settlement in the old Western Bloc, to say nothing of their abundance and significance elsewhere. That they are available for mere cents in countless grocery markets, delis, convenience stores, and bodegas across Europe and North America—even at gas stations that source no other produce—is remarkable, if unsettling. Oftentimes bananas are cheaper than fruit grown nearby despite the vast distance they travel from their tropical soil. For this reason, perhaps, Americans eat an astonishing twenty-five pounds of banana per person each year, more than apples and oranges combined. And this is no coincidence; entwined with the industrial history of the United States is that of one of its most prominent products, the banana riding shotgun as the young nation grew into a capitalist superpower.
Cover of “The New Banana,” 1931
America’s United Fruit Company (resurrected today as Chiquita Brands International), was an exemplary capitalist behemoth borne of nineteenth-century industrialism, employing every trick in the book now considered de rigueur for monopolies, from coups d’état and marriage of state to vertical integration, monoculture, and propaganda, even devising some of these strategies from scratch to get more bananas into American mouths. With hands in just about every economic and political development in Latin America for a century, the company and its countless arms became known as El Pulpo, or the Octopus—guiding railroad construction in Costa Rica, regime change in Honduras and Guatemala, and the Colombian banana massacre later depicted by Gabriel García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even the Cuban Missile Crisis—an event known to be the closest mankind has ever come to its own demise—was in part a product of the United Fruit Company. Eventually dominating ninety percent of the American banana market, United Fruit epitomized the unfettered free market economy, its product denoting the same capitalist capabilities that the Eastern Bloc would come to desire.
Humans have been eating bananas for millennia; perhaps our taste for them is not as much a construction of the United Fruit Company as it is built into our very being, running alongside our species from the beginning, product and producer of our global civilization. Consider our most popular origin story—you know how it goes: Adam and Eve in the classic utopia, God’s warning re: the tree of knowledge, the snake whispers to Eve, she and Adam eat fruit from said tree; upon realizing their nakedness, the two clothe themselves with leaves. As you probably know it, that fruit was an apple—a piece of which settled in the throat and christened the male anatomical feature.
In the ancient Hebrew and Greek biblical texts, however, the fruit from the tree of knowledge was never named. It was merely depicted as an apple in paintings throughout European Christendom, thanks in part to the Latin homonym, malum, which could be translated as malicious or apple. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and a religious man, believed it was actually a banana that sent mankind wandering the earth. Thus he endowed banana plants the names Musa sapentium and Musa paradisiaca—something like fruits of wisdom and paradise, respectively—from an Islamic text that describes the Edenic tree as having ‘fruits piled above one another, in long extended shade…whose season is not limited.’ Likewise, the fig leaf covering Adam and Eve in many a Renaissance representation could well have been banana greenery—no less than Alexander the Great, among others, mistook bananas for figs, and interpretations of the Bible may have followed suit. Moreover if, like various other biblical locales, Eden was located in the Middle East, its apple trees would have been about as unsuited to the climate as they are in the region today.
Deep in the swampy jungles that arose after the last ice age in present-day India, southern China, and Southeast Asia, the banana shaped yet another origin story. Evidence confirms that at Kuk Swamp, an archaeological site in New Guinea, ancient villagers grew a sizeable banana crop nearly seven thousand years ago, composing some of the earliest anthropogenic grassland. Banana domestication, in this corner of the globe, coxswained the move from Paleolithic to Neolithic civilization. Brimming with rocklike seeds and little palatable flesh, fruit from the abundant wild banana plant was virtually inedible. Yet, the corm—a woody starch in the subterranean part of the plant—could be cooked and eaten in times of famine, somewhat like a prehistoric turnip. Over time, villages like Kuk Swamp cultivated fruit-bearing plants from a mutated few, birthing something similar to the modern banana. With these new plants, the story goes, came more cleared grassland, varied agriculture, larger settlements, and civilization as we now understand it, culminating in the eventual world domination of a single cultivar, the Cavendish.
Banana Diversity by Bioversity International
Comparing the Western supermarket availability of bananas to say something like the diversity of apples, you would suppose there were but one breed. Ninety-nine percent of the export market (though less than half of the global banana crop) belongs to a single variety, a somewhat bland yet palatable and especially transportable number by the name of Cavendish, discovered by a British explorer less than two hundred years ago. You undoubtedly know what it looks and tastes like, perhaps have never tasted another. If you have, in fact, sampled another, you may not have known it—any number of the starchy varieties inedible until cooked are called plantains. What Westerners know as ‘bananas’ are, in proper jargon, ‘dessert bananas,’ sugary and eaten raw.
In any case, there are over a thousand cultivars of banana the world over, the vast majority consumed a stone’s throw from the parent plant. As Mike Peed writes in The New Yorker: ‘There are fuzzy bananas whose skins are bubble-gum pink; green-and-white striped bananas with pulp the color of orange sherbet; bananas that, when cooked, taste like strawberries.’
More than two thousand years ago, some of these breeds made their way to Africa, where the fruit was bestowed its common name and remains a staple crop. Conflicting histories have it passing via the Middle East over the course of millennia—perhaps linking it with that biblical story—and/or shipped to Europe with Alexander the Great. However it arrived, the banana crossed over to the nearby Canaries, and then sailed to the New World aboard Spanish ships. From there it spread through the Americas by way of missionaries and settlers, narrowed to a few cultivars.
London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 displayed English cultural superiority with a distinctly Victorian outlook, showcasing precious jewelry and artifacts from the remotest corners of the British Empire. Among the diamonds and blatant boasts in the Crystal Palace (designed by the same Joseph Paxton who cultivated the Cavendish) were banana and pineapple essence, the most beloved of a series of artificial flavours inspired by overseas travel. That the general population, with no concept of exotic fruit, found these two appealing seems no accident. Nevertheless, conventions of luxury kept the banana—known thus far only among Lords and Ladies of the far-flung Empire—in the hands of the aristocracy, where a narrow market limited demand.
Stereogram of banana trees on display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition
Old World hierarchy, however, did not translate well to populist America, blooming with the rags-to-riches industriousness of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, et al. and desperate to redefine itself after a devastating civil war. An English visitor to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia wrote in The Times of London, ‘The American mechanizes as an old Greek sculpted, as a Venetian painted.’ Débuted at the Centennial were the steam engine, telephone, typewriter, steam elevator, soda fountain, and refrigerated railroad car, among other inventions, signalling the ascendancy of an ambitious nation. Amid these innovations was a banana plant, so popular among visitors that it needed a three-meter pedestal and a bodyguard. From then on, the United States was hooked on a bizarre diet of gritty capitalism and exotic fruit, arriving among the industrial élite alongside the banana.
Industrialization in the late nineteenth century warped the landscape of the United States, both in geography and psychology. The Centennial proved that innovation was king, that big ideas and their makers ruled over the established gentry. American Dreamers flocked to the growing metropolises of the Northeast and Midwest, following manufacturing jobs and inflating New York City past a population of one million. Grime and tenement housing proliferated in the overcrowded urban streets, prompting sanitation nightmares. All the while, Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, and their peers advanced new norms of cleanliness. Indoor bathrooms and kitchen hygiene became largely universal. Only the poorest would remain in dirt and density as health became a priority. New city dwellers stuck with whatever stale brown bread, pork, porridge, and stew could be had from the market, diet became a noted concern. Burgeoning industry produced a new middle class that looked to the rich for dietary advice, replacing peasant food with whatever small luxury a slight disposable income would allow. Furthermore, dietary guidelines advocated the consumption of fruit for the first time. A window opened for a healthy new product supplied with its own sanitary packaging, alluring in appearance and cultural connotation to boot.
In 1870, one Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker from Cape Cod was en route home from Venezuela and, expecting to pick up rum, sugar, coconuts, or other saleable cargoes, moored in Jamaica, where he instead found yellow bananas. Recalling the occasional reds floating around American markets, Baker named them ‘Jamaica Yellows,’ and turned them for an exceptional profit in Jersey City. Within a year, the Boston Fruit Company he established with Andrew Preston was regularly patronizing Caribbean banana plantations.
That same year, the young Costa Rican government hired Henry and Minor Keith of Brooklyn to connect the country via railway. Hitherto its Pacific port was the only point of entry; commercial vessels relied on the long and treacherous path around Cape Horn to reach coffee markets in Europe. In the three years the Keiths were given to complete the project, Henry and thousands of other workers succumbed to malaria, yellow fever, or dysentery, the railroad progressed a mere twenty-five miles, and Costa Rica went bankrupt. Minor Keith was himself burnt out, his supplementary income from dabbling in the New Orleans banana industry limited by his land assets. Only when the president handed him unrestricted control of the railroad and nearly one million acres in the undeveloped Atlantic region did Minor agree to stay, backing the project himself. Quickly racked with debt and needing cargoes for the new railway, Minor Keith went headlong into the banana industry, creating enormous trackside banana plantations to feed the growing New Orleans market. Soon enough, Keith found himself married to a daughter of the former presidential family and in complete control of two nascent Costa Rican industries—railways and bananas.
Business boomed for the banana barons as the century came to a close. The Boston Fruit Company raised a body of eleven ships—dubbed the Great White Fleet—to Jamaica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, Preston taking more orders than Baker could fill. Minor Keith, meanwhile, acquired even more land in Colombia and Panama, where his international market bolstered already established banana plantations. Realizing their potential partnership, Keith and Preston carved up the American market, landing on a merger. From 1899, the United Fruit Company dominated banana plantations on the Atlantic coast from Colombia to Costa Rica, as well as the three largest islands in the Caribbean. With three quarters of the market share, United Fruit charged into the so-called ‘American Century,’ the perfect capitalist multinational.
Before United Fruit, the fruit industry was composed of countless small orchards selling apples, grapes, and cherries to nearby towns. The United Fruit Company, however, concocted new advertising methods to produce desire, a notion then unknown in agriculture. At the turn of the century, when the McKinley Era zeitgeist rang of nouveau imperialism, United Fruit chartered four new navy ships. Now carrying passengers as well as cargo, the Great White Fleet conjured images of the mysterious tropics, attaching yet more exoticism to the humble banana. In the meantime, increased supply allowed the banana to shift from a bourgeois to utterly proletarian product. Improved public access led United Fruit to launch a campaign touting the health benefits of the fruit, creating a turn-of-the-century version of contemporary acai and goji berries—i.e. the world’s first superfood. It even extolled the benefits of banana consumption in treating Celiac Disease. Seemingly overnight, sales skyrocketed, so much so that even today some of the more erroneous claims remain in health manuals. Notably, Preston convinced customers via the press that the Gros Michel variety, or Big Mike—the variety Keith adopted for its resilient skin and unabashed sweetness—was actually the best cultivar. A first in the food industry, consumer demand, interest, and imagination were manufactured alongside the product.
Early in the twentieth century, the Guatemalan government invited Minor Keith, known for his Costa Rican railway, to construct the remaining portion of the Guatemalan equivalent. Aware the country was insolvent, Keith proposed the deal he received in Costa Rica—Atlantic banana land as payment: Keith would take profits for a decade, whereupon the Guatemalan government would take over. Environmental conditions, however, willed dozens of delays in construction, causing the Guatemalan government to attempt contract termination after three years. Flexing its multinational muscles, the United Fruit Company simply threatened to leave the country—competing builders may have had the savoir-faire to piece together a railway, but no other enterprise could promise a complementary banana industry. Shortly thereafter, El Pulpo dominated Guatemalan infrastructure, taking control of the entire economic process and never paying taxes. Following Costa Rica, Guatemala became the second ‘banana republic,’ a complete captive of United Fruit.
Banana republicanism, seen as a boon to those Stockholm Syndromed countries under the United Fruit flag, began to bleed throughout the continent. All the while, imperial attitudes took hold in the United States, inducing President Roosevelt’s obsession with the idea of a Panama Canal. 1903 saw Panamanian insurrectionists nominally take control of their country from Colombia. Backed by American and United Fruit Company ships, their alleged sovereignty was questionable: Roosevelt took the south for his canal as United Fruit secured the north, expanding its nation of plantations. When the naïve American Banana Company set up near the northern edge of the country, Costa Rican soldiers—effectively United Fruit mercenaries—materialized, seizing its holdings. Despite the Supreme Court proceedings that followed, the case was considered, ‘beyond jurisdiction,’ and thrown out. Roosevelt Era trust-busting seemed not to apply beyond American borders. By 1910, United Fruit owned Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama.
Meanwhile, blight ravaged Company plantations—now highly susceptible monocultures of Gros Michel—and Caribbean governments ceased their appeasement in fear of banana republicanism. Back in the United States, one Sam Zemurray—the so-called Banana Man—entered the frame selling overripe bananas no other company wanted directly from the railway via telegraph advertisement, a practice riddled with risk but extraordinary rewards. Needing stable backing, Zemurray proposed to United Fruit a clandestine partnership: the Company would take his debt, and in response he would deliver Honduras. There, Zemurray purchased vast expanses of virgin forest, expecting the same tax concessions banana planters received elsewhere. However, up the coast from the blighted banana republics, Honduras saw the pattern and rejected his forays. Following a revolution three years earlier, the United States took hold of custom houses and installed J.P. Morgan as the central banking agency—thus it was J.P. Morgan that vetoed tax concessions for the Banana Man. In response, Zemurray went to Washington, arguing to no avail that, as a lone entrepreneur, he was the face of American capitalist enterprise. Not taking no for an answer, Zemurray hired a boatload of mercenaries to overthrow the American-supported Honduran regime. Only later, as Zemurray collected his tax concessions, was it obvious that the lonesome opportunist had anything to do with the United Fruit Company and its veritable banana Empire.
Sam Zemurray, the Banana Man
The United Fruit Company continued to capture the American spirit, evolving its image as a benevolent giver of commerce to the savage jungle, affordable luxury to city folk. Expanding its plantations in Guatemala, United Fruit discovered and preserved the Mayan ruin Quiriguá, reported by the likes of National Geographic. Comment back home admiringly matched the ancient stone civilization to the new banana civilization that replaced it. Demand for bananas seemed boundless— in 1900, Americans were eating fifteen million bunches a year; by 1910, forty million and growing. When in 1913, President Wilson attempted to set a banana tax, The New York Times joined the rally against it, maintaining that the urban poor were ‘entitled to their little luxuries.’ Besides, Bolshevik unrest overseas had Americans doubling down on their capitalist structures, and, with the poor enjoying said little luxuries, government restriction slipped out of vogue.
Beginning with the banana industry lull of the First World War, United Fruit launched an assault of advertisements on the home front, including the 1917 booklet, ‘The Food Value of the Banana.’ Including a simple factsheet, ‘Points about Bananas,’ the volume was direct, listing ‘Nutritious,’ ‘The poor man’s food,’ ‘The children’s delight,’ and ‘Produced without drawing on the Nation’s resources,’ among other attributes. Shortly thereafter, test kitchens sponsored by the banana behemoth championed a breakfast of corn flakes with sliced banana, an image still ubiquitous today. Dozens of documents were published touting the nutritional benefits of bananas for children or proposing intriguing ways of serving the fruit (‘bananas and bacon, guaranteed to start conversation’). Some were yet more absurd: stories in which, for instance, a Norwegian hikes from Oslo to Christianssand, growing stronger every day from his Spartan banana diet. United Fruit immortalized the fictional yet very real ‘Banana Land’ in film, radio programmes, and magazine articles, all peppered with mystical images of scantily clad women, machete work and veranda life.
From “Chiquita Banana’s Cookbook,” 1960
None of these advertisements hinted at the increasingly ruthless tactics used to tame Latin American Banana Land. Late in 1928 saw a protest of thirty-two thousand United Fruit workers in Santa Marta, Colombia rallying for shorter hours, medical treatment, and better wages, and thus pinned as communists and anarchists. Keen to protect its American capitalist interests in this banana land, i.e. the United Fruit Company, the United States sent troops to Santa Marta, ostensibly to deter subsequent violence alongside the sizeable Colombian military. On December 6, 1928, strikers and their families were gathered in a small banana town called Ciénaga to demonstrate when machine guns opened fire, killing scores. By January, the United Fruit Company itself announced that the Santa Marta strike saw more than a thousand killed by the Colombian military. Colombians and Americans alike equated the strike’s suppression with nothing less than the defeat of Communism. Some had other ideas—Gabriel García Márquez critiqued the conspicuously capitalist Santa Marta massacre in his fictional One Hundred Years of Solitude. At demonstrations six months later, others noted, ‘skeletons and skulls adorned with bunches of bananas were freely displayed.’
Nearing the middle of the century, United Fruit continued to exemplify the multinational capitalist experiment, equating its product with no less than Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness at the end of the Second World War. By the 1940s, the Brazilian singer, dancer, and actress, Carmen Miranda, was the ideal ‘Good Neighbour,’ a representative of one region not directly involved with the War. Various of her tropical songs picked up popular steam, such as ‘That Night in Rio.’ In her image was the cartoon Señorita Chiquita Banana born, the de facto mascot for United Fruit, her vibrant Latin dress and straw hat embodying the new American spirit. Srta. Banana was soon ubiquitous: songs and jingles were everywhere (in one day, a radio station played her jungle a reported 657 times), schoolchildren and mothers alike adored her, and she was otherwise omnipresent in commercial media. For United Fruit, Señorita Chiquita Banana symbolized the promise of capitalism—affordable luxury for everyone—at a time when the drab utility of Communism was morphing into something akin to evil.
Carmen Miranda as Señorita Chiquita Banana
As McCarthyism took root in the United States, United Fruit gripped the support of the American government, often crying Communism when Central American plantations were threatened. In 1951, the new Guatemalan president, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz—a populist familiar with the plight of the poor—promised to shatter unproductive landholdings kept by United Fruit and others, allotting them to those of modest means. Attempting to change Guatemala from something of a feudal state to one of capitalist enterprise, Arbenz was nonetheless accused of furnishing Communism. El Pulpo turned to friends Allen and John Foster Dulles of the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department, respectively, who landed in office with President Eisenhower. Their resultant ‘Report on Central America,’ alleged that Arbenz aimed to seize the Panama Canal for Communism, prompting government intervention. The Dulles procured a pigheaded diplomat as ambassador and placed CIA Agent Howard Hunt in charge of stoking the flame with ‘Operation Success.’ Hunt slipped into Guatemala, creating radio broadcasts and dropping letters that conveyed political unrest, while stray bullet holes and smoke convinced staged journalists of the strife. Carlos Castillo Aramas, who had tried a similar coup, materialized on a United Fruit plantation in northern Honduras, from which he and a group of Guatemalan exiles marched over the border. CIA radio reported a large force storming in, people flocking to it like a parade—in reality, the militia killed mules, leaving corpses on the road to imply gruesome battles. Journalists stayed in hotels, coerced to do so for their own security, appearing only once Aramas took power. American planes dropped bombs to stir confusion among the Guatemalan military, ultimately convincing Arbenz to surrender.
Eventually, the United Fruit Company’s image as the perfect capitalist backfired. Following the Guatemalan coup, revolutionaries like Che Guevara used United Fruit’s ruthlessness to justify their widespread protests, Guevara himself pursuing increasingly violent means. Accused of losing the Cold War, United Fruit found itself facing the American Department of Justice. Desperate to prove itself, the Company launched yet another campaign, asserting itself the exemplary capitalist; newspaper articles implying Communists plagued the Department of Justice, a movie called Why the Kremlin Hates Bananas, and other media hinted El Pulpo was on its last legs.
Without the heavy-handed American government behind it, United Fruit began to lose control of its banana republics. The new Costa Rican president declared himself a Social Democrat and capitalist, modelling his nation after Switzerland—a country even United Fruit could not pin as Communist. Around the same time, trusty Big Mike monocultures were hit by a series of setbacks—intense hurricanes, expensive chemical treatments, and progressive blight all but destroyed crops. Slow to shift to the Cavendish, United Fruit was losing profit along with its overseas power.
Cuba was the nail to El Pulpo’s coffin. Speaking out at Guantánamo, revolutionary dictator Fidel Castro named the United Fruit Company a ‘grave social problem.’ Despite never being a true banana republic, Cuba was nonetheless tied to El Pulpo. The Company considered itself the manifestation of American business on the island, its sugar cane and banana plantations a historic presence. Castro, a child of United Fruit (which, perhaps not coincidentally, financed his education), saw it as nouveau imperialist, producing but never purchasing from Cuba. United Fruit’s sixty million dollar losses combined with looming Communism saw Howard Hunt again taking action. His Operation Success was restructured as ‘Operation Zapata;’ the United States accordingly expected a replay of the Guatemalan invasion, exiles parading as American forces freed the populace from their tyrant. On April 17, 1961, seven American ships—including two from United Fruit’s Great White Fleet— reached the Bay of Pigs on the Zapata peninsula of Cuba. Famously, the American invaders and Cuban exiles were decimated, defeated within three days. El Pulpo’s power had waned to nothing, its incredible coups reduced to company humiliation, to say nothing of the United States itself. By the following year, Castro solidified Communist support. Later, the Soviet Union sent nuclear missiles to the island in what would become the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That this Crisis, the crux of the battle between capitalism and Communism, had anything to do with bananas remains a mystery to most.
Though United Fruit’s pairing of the banana with capitalism never quite wore off, its hold over the fruit’s image eventually did. During the hippie movement, the banana was caught in the crossfire between generations, famously immortalized on Andy Warhol’s cover to The Velvet Underground’s debut album and countless Srta. Banana T-shirts. A floundering United Fruit tried to restore its own reputation but completely misread the zeitgeist. It shunned the newfound popular alternative culture, aligning itself with the older generation of President Nixon. With its history of military intervention, United Fruit was against all ideas of ‘peace and love,’ dismissing Vietnam War protests alongside the growing trend of smoking bananas. Meanwhile, things continued to go south in Central America, as a 1974 hurricane ripped through banana plantations. After the company president threw himself out of New York skyscraper window, the United Fruit Company quietly disappeared, reincarnated a decade later as Chiquita.
Still, the transformation of the banana from life-sustaining fruit to capitalist symbol was long since complete. From tropical jungles to Boston and New Orleans to East Berlin, the strange yellow fruit came to define the brazen twentieth century capitalism of the industrial United States of America and its United Fruit Company. America’s unabashed capitalism spread to every corner of the Western Bloc during the Cold War, its images and ideas impressed upon the world. To this day, Banana Land is everywhere.