Is That a Banana in Your Pocket? The Politics of Cultural Imperialism and Corporate Misogyny

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (September 1994)

Last month I was riding my bike south on Plainfield Ave. and while waiting at an intersection I was assaulted by the message on one of the hundreds of billboards that clutter the Grand Rapids landscape. It was a Meijer ad celebrating the 50th anniversary of what is now marketed as the “perfect food”… Chiquuita Bananas. To most people the thought of the “perfect food” elicits visions of banana splits, sliced bananas with cereal and every back packer’s favorite, banana chips. What most people are not aware of are the profoundly political and historic implications of banana trafficking. This article will seek to discuss the political impact of banana production in regard the USA foreign policy, using Guatemala as a case study. I also hope to discuss the sexualization of bananas and its impact within the dominative culture.

The Tentacles of Corporate Control

Bananas originally come from Southeast Asia, but with the influence of colonial trade bananas then became a staple for Africans living on the Guinean coast. The European slave trade of Africans then brought this “slave food” to the Americas. Once a wealthy Bostonian and other US elite’s found bananas a delicacy that set in motion the wheels of another capitalist venture.

Around the turn of the century the United Fruit Company (UFC), headed by Sam the banana-man Zemurray, brokered a deal with the then dictator of Guatemala, Manuel Cabrera. United Fruit was given hundreds of thousands of acres of land in exchange for the promise of constructing a transcontinental railroad in the “land of eternal springs”. For nearly 40 years this agreement also meant that UFC enjoyed tax exception, cheap labor due to forced labor laws and the cooperation of the Guatemalan military in the event that banana workers might decide to be unappreciative and organize. The political clout of the UFC (also known as El Pulpo – the octopus) was not threatened until the 1944 Guatemalan revolution and the subsequent land reform laws.

The revolutionary, yet pro-capitalist, governments of Arevalo and Arbenz eliminated the forced labor laws and allowed labor organizing throughout the country. Although this upset the UFC it was land reform that initiated the first CIA led coup in the Western Hemisphere. According to Jim Handy’s recent book Revolution in the Countryside, “under the Agrarian Reform Law, land expropriations began in early 1953, and by August of that year close to 250,000 of its (UFC) 350,000 manzanas had been taken.” (pg. 171) It should be noted however, that this was idle land, land not in use for production by the UFC. In addition the Arbenz government willingly compensated the UFC monetarily as it had done with all other land expropriations. This was a moot point for the UFC and its political elite’s in Washington. Noam Chomsky states that there were other issues at hand, namely US hegemony. “A State Department official warned that Guatemala ‘had become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador. Its agrarian reform is a powerful weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors where similar conditions prevail.'” (Year 501, pg.37)

Allies, Propaganda and “Operation Success”

Even before the UFC had land expropriated, plans were underway to dismantle Guatemala’s experiment with democracy. Numerous books have been written about the litany of UFC’s bedfellows within the US government (see box), so let’s just say that it gets very gray when attempting to determine the difference between corporate and government interests.

In order to assert US hegemony in Guatemala a variety of allies were recruited, most notably the father of modern PR, Edward Bernays. Bernays was hired to boost UFC’s public image and pave the way for a USA invasion. Bernays was responsible for establishing a “Middle America Information Bureau” to supply company “facts and figures to American and Latin journalists.” In the early 1950’s Bernays was able to convince the corporate media that the “Reds” were taking over in Guatemala. “He persuaded the New York Herald Tribune to send a reporter, Fitzhugh Turner, to Guatemala in February 1950. Turner’s series, called ‘Communism in the Caribbean’, was based primarily on conversations with United Fruit Company officials in Guatemala; was splashed across the paper’s front page for five consecutive days.” (Bitter Fruit, pg. 85) Soon the rest of the big newspapers got in on the act and sent journalists to Guatemala “to document what was said to be the advance of Marxism there”. Bernays then set up the group tours in Guatemala to further his propaganda campaign. “Between early 1952 and the Spring of 1954, Bernays put together at least 5 two-week ‘fact-finding’ trips to Central America, with as many as ten newsmen on each one.” (Bitter Fruit, pg. 87)

Once the work had been done at home, attention could be given elsewhere. A CIA transmitter was mounted on top of the US Embassy in Guatemala so as to project the “proper messages” to the people. The CIA also recruited Guatemalan Catholic Bishop Mariano Arellano to pen a pastoral letter that exhorted the populace to rise “against communism, enemy of God and the Fatherland”. The CIA facilitated this ecclesiastical scandal by dropping the bishop’s message out of 30 of its planes. Other Latin American client states lent their support, like Somoza’s Nicaragua, which allowed invasion training to take place on its soil. Therefore, in the June of 1954 the CIA led invasion, known as Operation Success, ended Guatemala’s 10 years of democracy. Colonel Castillo Armas, who was flown in on the US embassy plane was promptly declared dictator. He quickly rolled back any and all gains of the popular movements; eliminating unions, land reform and repressing popular struggles. More importantly this event signaled to the hemisphere and the rest of the world that where US corporate interests and political hegemony are at stake, no one could seriously threaten those interests.

Sexual politics of Bananas

The billboard I mentioned at the beginning included the figure of the Chiquita mascot, a characterization of former Hollywood actress Carmen Miranda. Miranda, a Portuguese born singer, was recruited by 20th Century Fox’s Darryl Zanuck to contribute to Hollywood’s own “Good Neighbor Policy”. Miranda, as some may remember, was a tall slender Latina who often wore outrageous clothes with fruit and flower filled hats. She became the feminine symbol of Latin America “and next to coffee was Brazil’s chief export”, says Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano. Miranda’s character as the Chiquita banana woman was to the banana industry what Juan Valdez is to the coffee industry, a bastardization of cultural norms. Not many Latin American women look like Miranda, their skin is generally darker and their economic reality does not afford them the opportunities that Carmen had. What is most interesting about the Chiquita banana woman character, was that she was half woman half banana, and like bananas Latin American women would be devoured.

When huge banana plantations were first set up in Latin America men were the primary source of labor used in production. However, a plantation made workforce always has its effects on women. Eventually company towns would spring up, since most of the laborers were seasonal. This always meant the “need” to forcibly recruit women as sex workers. In Cynthia Enloe’s book Bananas, Beaches and Bases, she starkly documents this impact that these export driven economies have on the local populace, especially women. She also says that “the feminization of agriculture – this, leaving small scale farming to women, usually without giving them training, equipment or finance – has always been part and parcel of the masculinization of mining and banana plantations.” (pgs 136-37) Behind every all-male banana plantation stands scores of women performing unpaid domestic and production labor. Since automation has entered the banana plantation dynamic, women too have been embraced as paid workers.

While visiting a banana plantation on the Atlantic coast of Honduras in 1992, I was amazed by the almost endless sea of banana trees that surrounded you on both sides of the road while the bus rolled past the small housing hamlets that were constructed by the company. Women now made up 100% of the banana-packing workforce, minus the supervisors. Women spend 10-15 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week, sorting through bananas and then soaking them in a highly toxic substance. In my one-hour visit to the packing station I had 6 different women ask me, in desperation, to marry them so they could go to the US and leave their misery behind. I never felt angrier in my life at that point, not with the women, but because this transnational corporation was literally devouring these women’s lives.

At home bananas are marketed to appeal to housewives who shop and mothers who care about their children’s nutrition. In our imperialist culture the women whose lives are devoured by our manufactured consumer need is little known. What is known are phrases like “is that a banana in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me”, a sexualized, fetishized phrase that has become a part of our misogynist culture. It disgusts me that the fruit that is casually referred to as a man’s penis is the same fruit, that by the nature of its production, enslaves and slowly eats away at the lives of countless women.

When sharing this information with people I often here the response “at least it provides these people with jobs”. This type of response shows little understanding of the structural or root issues at hand. Historically people have been forced off their land by big business. If they were not forced off their land the companies made it difficult for people to sell their products in the market because the big companies could sell it cheaper or the governments of these countries started to import food from the US that undermined the local economy and diet. US taxpayers’ money has been used all throughout this process of destroying the local economies and creating dependence amongst the local populace. People work on banana plantations because most of the time there isn’t anything else. When people have tried to regain land that had been taken or tried to revive the local economy they have been raped, tortured or murdered by US trained and funded death squads. So let’s think twice before we give the usual privileged, elitist response and let’s work for economic justice and solidarity with banana workers worldwide.

United Fruit/US Government Connections

John Foster Dulles – US Sec. of State – former lawyer for UFC

Allen Dulles – Director of the CIA – Like brother had done legal work for UFC. Together they organized “Operation Success”

John Moors Cabot – Sec. of State for Inter-American Affairs, brother of Thomas Cabot, the pres. of UFC.

Walter Bedell Smith – Under Sec. of State – served as liaison in Operation Success, then became board member of UFC.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge – US representative to the UN – UFC share holder. Had on various occasions received money from UFC for speeches in the Senate.

Ann Whitman – personal sec. to Pres. Eisenhower – Married to UFC public relations chief.

Robert Hill – US Ambassador to Costa Rica – Collaborates on Operation Success, then became board member of UFC.

John Peurifoy – US Ambassador to Guatemala, known as the butcher of Greece for his past diplomatic service in Athens. Spoke no Spanish.

* excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, Volume III – Century of the Wind

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