When we define geopolitics, we love to say it’s the study of people in place. Is that pretentious? A little. Reductive? Sure. Vague? Absolutely. But it’s probably as good a rendition as you’ll find of a discipline that defies strict categorization. Today, “people in place” has come to mean the nation-state, though by now we all know that it’s not such a simple matter, that nations don’t always fit into one category. Borders are arbitrary, communities are imagined, and nonstate actors – whether they’re stateless nations such as the Kurds or transnational jihadists such as the Islamic State – compel and constrain behavior just as much as nation-states do. And while we don’t ordinarily think of businesses in the same way, “Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World” suggests that maybe we should.
Its author, Peter Chapman, who writes for the Financial Times, does well to explain the history of bananas and the banana trade, and in doing so, he gives this peculiar fruit the same treatment Mark Kurlansky gave salt, albeit on a much smaller scale. Make no mistake – this book is about one company, the men who built it and, to a lesser degree, the people who lived in its shadow. As Chapman notes, comparisons are inevitably drawn between United Fruit and the British East India Company, which, on the lawless seas of the 1700s, became a profiteering racket in all but name. United Fruit, after all, had its own fleet, and it had effectively created its own empire in the less-governed areas of Central America into which U.S. political influence couldn’t always reach. But Chapman suggests more accurate comparisons were found in the U.S. itself. United Fruit, he argues, was every bit the robber baron enterprise that the railroad, oil and steel industries were in the late 1800s. The only difference was that legislation eventually tamed those industries. The same was never really true for United Fruit and its baron, Minor Keith, the “Cecil Rhodes of Central America,” an “apple-headed little man with the eyes of a fanatic.” The company monopolized at will and solidified its power nearly with impunity.
And United Fruit was powerful. It brought down governments it didn’t like. It supported insurgencies. It used its monopoly early and often to threaten governments that dared to defy it. It dispensed with competitors in ways considered unscrupulous even at the time. It forged secret partnerships with other companies to circumvent antitrust laws. It killed strikers and organizers. It made educational material (read: propaganda) for American schoolchildren. Perhaps most telling, Keith himself married into Costa Rica’s first family.
If this is beginning to sound like the behavior of a bona fide nation-state, it should. Sometimes United Fruit’s interests aligned with Washington’s, and when they did, the two were willing partners. When they didn’t, they went against each other. Replace the name “United Fruit” with that of virtually any country in the world, and you would call it diplomacy.
For all its subject matter, “Bananas” is actually a pretty light read, fast and almost fun at times. Chapman laces the story with personal anecdotes, often citing titans of Latin American literature, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, some of whom were directly affected by United Fruit and its discontents. The company it once was is gone now. Through years of financial decline, mergers and suicide, United Fruit transformed into Chiquita Brands International, and the path it charted resembles that of the banana itself, which is said to be on its way to extinction. If it does die out, it’ll be an ignominious end for what was once the world’s fourth-biggest food staple. That’s probably little comfort to the countries that were stunted by its trade.
Cole Altom, managing editor
After many decades of isolation and U.S. domination, Latin America finally seems to have a chance to become a major player on the global stage. Latin American countries are expanding their trade and economic ties with countries beyond the region, including China and Russia, which are becoming more and more invested in the area. Still, the United States’ presence there remains strong, and Latin America still sits, for the most part, on the periphery of global events, as it continues to focus on problems closer to home. This tendency is due in part to the fact that, for more than a decade and a half, Latin American countries have been undergoing reforms that contributed to a sense of uncertainty and to slower economic development. More recently, drug trafficking and migration driven by violence and poverty have threatened to destabilize the region.
But to understand what’s happening in the region now, you need to first understand how it got where it is today. “Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul” by Michael Reid is a good place to start. Published over a decade ago, the book doesn’t deal with the significant events of the past 10 years – including the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the political scandals in Brazil, the economic disarray in Venezuela and the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on Latin America. (There is, however, an updated edition of the book, published just last year, that addresses some of these more recent issues.)
I listened to the audio version of the original edition, and truth be told, I found it a bit hard to follow. The book covers a lot of Latin American history from the early 1800s on, and it was difficult to absorb. I needed to listen to several parts more than once to digest all the information. The book is also disorganized at times – the author moves quickly from country to country and from topic to topic, making it hard to connect the dots, especially if you’re listening to the audiobook.
But “Forgotten Continent” does offer a lot of deep political, economic and historical analysis of a region that is often overlooked. Latin America is home to over half a billion people. It’s neither extremely poor nor extremely rich, yet it has the world’s largest reserves of arable land, minerals and some of the most important energy resources. It’s often left out of discussions about the global system or foreign affairs, but considering that its problems have the potential to spill over into the world’s sole superpower, that may not be true for much longer. Either way, “Forgotten Continent” is a valuable read for anyone interested in the history of this region.
Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst