07 March 2012

United Fruit Company in Guatemala

Father of Spin by Larry Tye, 1998, Excerpts

Upon Bernays’ death in 1995, the Library of Congress made public fifty-three boxes of his papers concerning United Fruit. Those documents paint in vivid detail his behind-the-scenes maneuvering and show how, in 1954, he helped to topple Guatemala’s left-leaning regime.  The papers also offer insights into the foreign policies of U.S. corporations and the U.S. diplomatic corps during the turbulent 1950s. And they make clear how the United States viewed its Latin neighbors as ripe for economic exploitation and political manipulation – and how the propaganda war Bernays waged in Guatemala set the pattern for future U.S.-led campaigns in Cuba and Vietnam.

By 1885, eleven ships were sailing under the banner of the new Boston Fruit Company, bringing to the United States 10 million bunches of bananas a year. United Fruit was formed in 1899, with assets that included more than 210,000 acres of land across the Caribbean and Central America, 112 miles of railroad, and so much political clout that Honduras, Costa Rica, and other countries in the region became known as banana republics. That term reflected North Americans’ disdain for Latin Americas, whom they regarded as politically and socially backward and economically ripe for the picking.

The United Fruit Company had a kingpin worthy of its swashbuckling history: Samuel Zemurray, better known as Sam the Banana Man. Big and blunt, this Jewish immigrant from Russia used a blend of cleverness and cunning to buy up a bankrupt steamship company, to plot the overthrow of the Honduran government, to acquire millions of dollars’ worth of United Fruit stock, and  to insert himself as head of the Boston-based firm. By 1949 Zemurray had built United Fruit into one of America’s biggest companies, with $54 million in earnings and an empire of railroads and ships, and control of more than half of the U.S. market in imported bananas.

In the early 1940s, he hired Bernays as his public relations counsel. Bernays realized that if United Fruit wanted to cement its position in the North American economy, it had to teach North Americans about their neighbors to the south. The mission wasn’t just to sell bananas, he told Zemurray, but to sell an entire region of the hemisphere.

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