In Cold War-era Eastern Europe, the appearance of bananas on grocery shelves was a sure sign Christmas and New Year’s were nigh. The imported holiday treat for the masses was a costly hard currency splurge by communist central planners.
Bogusia, my Polish wife, recalls her father braving 2-hour lines in 15- degree December weather to buy bananas. Timing was always nerve racking. If her father bought too early, the bananas would begin turning brown by Christmas Eve; if he waited too long, the bananas might be sold out and the children would be heartbroken. After the Christmas Eve dinner, Bogusia and her younger siblings would eagerly rush to find elaborately wrapped bananas under the Christmas tree. It was the highlight of the evening.
While bananas were associated with the year-end holidays behind the Iron Curtain, the fruit has also been at the center of political intrigue and conflict elsewhere more or less continuously since the late 19th century. From the beginning, the United Fruit Company, and its successor, Chiquita Banana, has played a central role.
Registered in New Jersey, United Fruit was founded in 1899. By the 1920s it operated in 10 Central American and Caribbean countries. It dominated the world banana market, including an 80% share in the U.S. alone.
The banana market was not the only thing United Fruit dominated. Bradley Palmer, its driving co-founder, developed a strategic relationship with the U.S. government. He was an advisor to many Presidents and Congress. With both overt and covert U.S. government assistance, United Fruit took control of much of the infrastructure in the countries it operated in.
This included the postal service, railroads, ports and telecommunications. United Fruit’s Tropical Radio & Telegraph Co. played an historically important role in the development of radio communications. It had a controlling interest in a number of national telecom companies, including those of Cuba and Guatemala.
With U.S. government backing, United Fruit controlled national governments and replaced them at its convenience, often by orchestrating violent coups. The infamous term “Banana Republic” and United Fruit Company are inseparable. In Latin America the company was simply referred to as “El Pulpo” (The Octopus). Gore Vidal’s classic novel “Dark Green, Bright Red” brilliantly captures this dirty side of the bright yellow fruit loved throughout the world.
Banana politics continue in contemporary times. Chiquita Banana, formerly known as United Fruit Co., played a central role in the Banana Wars of the 1990s, as described in the Guardian. Rather than steamy jungles, that battle played out in meetings of the World Trade Organization. The Clinton administration so passionately supported Chiquita Banana that, according to The Guardian, “some argue that the dispute threatens the whole future of free trade.”
“Whether Democrat or Republican, American administrations have long championed an ideological commitment to free trade,” the newspaper continued. “But the ‘banana wars’ are murkier than that clear principle.” What’s particularly murky about the banana trade wars waged in the WTO is they are led by the U.S., even though it produces no bananas.
Each Christmas season my older Eastern European friends reminisce about their association of bananas with the year-end holidays. More than once on such occasions I shared these details, which they found new and interesting.
In the U.S., the story of United Fruit Co. and “banana republics” is fading from our collective memory. But this saga is still vividly remembered in many parts of Latin America. And as usual, this Christmas Eve we can be sure, God willing, that Bogusia’s mother, now in her late 70s, will give a bag of bananas to each of her children and grandchildren.