Conversations with Tariq Ali: Speaking of Empire and Resistance

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Since the 1960s when he was exiled from Pakistan for his activism against the country’s military dictatorship, Tariq Ali has been one of the most outspoken critics of imperialism and religious fundamentalism for the past thirty years. In Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali, Ali is given a chance to expand on the aforementioned topics and provide important insight into the United States imperialism.

In his interviews, Ali makes the case that the United States is an imperial power and that the “war on terror” is an imperialist war. Ali notes that while some may argue that the United States was once an imperial power (destroying the Native American population, taking parts of Mexico, controlling Central America) and that it no longer is, such arguments are worthless now that the United States has entered into the “war on terror” and boldly declared its imperialist intentions. Citing President George W. Bush’s 2002 national security doctrine, Ali describes how the United States has declared that it will go to war to protect free trade and access to resources, a hallmark of the classical empires. Moreover, while the United States frequently attempts to hide its imperial role behind client dictators and indirect control, it has abandoned this effort with the invasion of Iraq and continued posturing towards Iran and Syria. Of course, the United States government did not undertake this imperial policy on its own—Ali argues that there are a network of “enablers” that help the United States including Great Britain, the corporate media, Pakistan, and academia. Ali sees hope in the movements against United States imperialism and draws connections between the Iraqi resistance, the antiwar movement in the United States and England, and those resisting the occupation of Palestine, all of which are part of a global struggle against US imperialism.

Unfortunately, readers already familiar with Ali and the larger antiwar movement will find few “new” ideas in this book. For readers that already have a good understanding of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, the war on Iraq, the “war on terror,” the most intriguing parts of the book likely will be the interview on Pakistan. The unpublished interview from November 2003 provides valuable insights into Pakistan’s internal politics, its religious fundamentalism, and its role as one of the United States’ allies in the “war on terror.” Beyond his comments on Pakistan, his interpretation of the economic collapse of Argentina in 2001 is also interesting; with Ali arguing that the popular movements in Argentina failed because they could move the country towards “socialism.” Ali argues that while once a country held up as the model of the success that can be gained when adopting International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other neoliberal programs and policies, the left in Argentina was unable to effectively gain from the country’s collapse because it did not have an alternative model of non-capitalist economy. In Argentina, Ali sees not just the failure of capitalism but also the failure of alternatives to gain mass appeal. While Ali praises the popular assemblies that organically grew out of Argentina’s collapse, he argues that they were largely symbolic since there was no larger political alternative and no plan to gain state power. The seizure of state power, while defined in the sense of “socialism” rather than the “Socialism” of the Soviet Union, is essential if people want to change the world, and according to Ali, it is naïve to talk of changing the world without taking state power.

Overall, Ali’s book offers some unique insights, but for the most part, it will reaffirm what its readers like already know. The fact that it is grounded in anti-imperialism makes it a great introductory text to understanding the “war on terror” and the need to develop a movement against it, as an understanding of the “war on terror” (and the war on Iraq) is inadequate if it does not incorporate an anti-imperialist analysis. Moreover, as Ali argues throughout his book, an anti-imperialist analysis in the antiwar movement will help focus activists on the need to stop the war rather than electing candidates from the Democratic Party who will just give imperialism a more benign façade but will continue to pursue the same imperial policies.

Tariq Ali and David Barsamin, Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali, (New Press, 2005)

Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World

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In the latest collection of the Chomsky/Barsamian interviews the reader is once again treated to clear analysis of the current policies and practices of the US government and their implications abroad. Chomsky continues to hammer home the point that while their are nuances in the Bush regime, the current policy is consistent with the decades long strategies that the US has engaged in around the globe. In the very first interview Barsamian asks Chomsky if the Bush administration is substantively different from previous ones? Chomsky quickly points out that the liberal Kennedy administration architect Dean Acheson said that “no legal issue arises if the US responds to any challenge to its power, position, and prestige.”

Another amazing thing about the analysis that Chomsky brings to the table is that it is not dispassionate. For example, when talking about the US military attacks on Falluja where the hospital was bombed and then occupied, Chomsky points out that this is a violation of the Geneva Convention. Then he says “the entire political leadership (of the US) should face the death penalty under US law for these actions. They’re all eligible for the death penalty, according to the War Crimes Act passed by the 1996 Republican Congress.” Much of Chomsky’s discourse and analysis leads readers to the conclusion that the US government isn’t just making mistakes like Vietnam or Iraq, rather that it is the intention, the policy, of US administrations to engage in criminal behavior in service to empire.

Another element in the interviews by Barsamian, host of the radio program Alternative Radio, is that Chomsky shares the differences between US audiences and those around the global when he speaks. A common response from audiences in the US during the Q & A is “What should I do?” Chomsky says that this is not a question he gets asked abroad. He says “when I go to Turkey or Colombia, or Brazil, they don’t ask you ‘What should I do?’ They tell you what they’re doing….It is only the highly privileged cultures like ours that people ask this question.” Chomsky tells readers that people in the US need to come to terms with the fact that we are not a beacon to the world and that what we have in the US are failed democratic institutions. These institutions look nice on paper but they are essentially ineffective when it comes to meaningful change. The last Presidential Elections are just the most recent example of that in Chomsky’s mind. People put a tremendous amount of energy into attempting to elect a candidate (Kerry) that didn’t really represent the interests of those who voted for him. Chomsky believes we have to look beyond the quick fix solutions of elections and demonstrations to building social movements that not only challenge power structures, but construct alternative realities. A good book to get you to see how are actions are influenced by our analysis.

Noam Chomsky with David Barsamian, Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World, (Metropolitan Books, 2005).

Superpower Principles: U.S. Terrorism Against Cuba

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So which country has endured more years of state terrorism than any other since WWII? The answer might surprise most, since the country in question in on the current US government list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The answer is Cuba. According to this new collection of essays edited by Salim Lamrani, the US government has engaged in over 40 years of terrorism against the island of Cuba and its people.

The book is divided into two sections, beginning with a series of essays that provide an overview of US policy since the first Cuban revolution at the end of the 19th century. The bulk of the terrorism against Cuba however, has been committed since the 1959 revolution. Several articles detail the kinds of terrorism employed by the US and its proxy forces; tactics like assassination, bombings, kidnapping, chemical and biological warfare. The US government has attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro, financed the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 killing Cuban athletes and infecting livestock with swine fever resulting in the slaughter of 500,000 pigs unsuitable for human consumption. Despite this well documented legacy of state terrorism you won’t find it much in official history or in current media discourse on the War on Terrorism. The fact that this history is little known in the US demonstrates how the media in this country has become little more than a cheerleader for the government.

The last half of the book looks at a more recent aspect of US terrorism against Cuba, the arrest and bogus trial of what have become known as the Cuban Five. Arrested for conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism against the US in 2001, these Cubans were actually gathering intelligence in order to alert their government of future US efforts to undermine their country. Some of those charged have a long history of heroism, particularly fighting in many of the liberation wars in Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s. As of this writing the Cuban Five have been granted a new trial, but you are not likely to hear about it from the corporate media. Unfortunately these Cuban patriots are not Michael Jackson or Martha Stewart. To get the background on their case the last few essays include comments from the lawyers defending them and perspectives from international journalists who have been following the proceedings. A great resource for debunking the US government myth that our foreign policy is committed to preventing acts of terrorism.

Salim Lamrani, ed., Superpower Principles: U.S. Terrorism Against Cuba, (Common Courage Press, 2005).

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

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An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire is Arundhati Roy’s latest collection of essays, most of which are the text of speeches given at various speaking engagements around the world. Roy continues to be one of the more eloquent voices on the “left” continually exposing injustice and encouraging resistance in a manner that moves far beyond the typically dry nature of most political commentary. In An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Roy is able to weave together a variety of struggles and demonstrate how they are a consequence of the same “neo-liberal project,” that is being led by the United States. For Roy, there are signs of resistance around the world, and recognizing that the United States is the center of the Empire, argues that it is essential for the resistance to empire to begin in the United States. Throughout the book Roy comes back to the fact that civil society in the United States is more powerful than the government and highlights the, albeit symbolic, opposition to the invasion of Iraq; retaining a sense of optimism that few opponents of empire in the United States can maintain amidst the ongoing difficulties in organizing effective opposition to the war and providing inspiration to continue in the struggle against empire.

Much of the book focuses on unmasking the way in which empire is maintained and “sold” to the public, as Roy skillfully deconstructs and demythologizes the rhetoric of empire that pervades the political discussion in the United States. The corporate media, which as most people in the United States should know, exists primarily as a vehicle to sell products and the official policies of the United States government, is skillfully singled out by Roy as being complicit in the development of empire. According to Roy, “it is a mistake to think that the corporate media supports the neo-liberal project, it is the neo-liberal project…the chosen medium of those who have power and money,” identifying the fact that the corporate media is a direct beneficiary of the current system and will always function in a way that maintains the status quo. In empire, just like in the corporate media, facts really do not matter, and the distortions about the Iraq war—that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, that Iraq was linked to 9/11, and that the United States must fight “the terrorists” in Iraq or in the streets of the United States, all of which are adopted by those in power and sold to the public by the corporate media. Empire is maintained by describing all opposition as “terrorist” and maintaining that resistance to the United States project of “democracy,” which Roy effectively describes as simply a euphemism for neo-liberal capitalism, is an “act of terrorism,” the United States has been able to maintain its empire.

An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire is what its name implies–a well-written book that both captures the essence of the new United States empire and highlights the hope of resistance that may eventually be able to defeat the empire. At only a 118 pages, it is a quick and enjoyable read and is highly recommended for anyone living in the United States and seeking a major change in both the United States and in its role in the world.

Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, (South End Press, 2004).

Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism

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Democracy Matters is a sequel to Cornel West’s Race Matters and is a consequence of the “ugly imperialism” that, while building over the past century, has grown dramatically with the ascension of the Bush administration and the subsequent military expansion of US Empire. West acknowledges that this imperialism is not new, but also argues that is at a “low-point” and is accelerating due to the external foe of Islamic terror and the perceived internal threat of “leftism” resulting in a continued expansion of “free-market fundamentalism” (NAFTA), aggressive militarism (abusive police in communities of color), and escalating authoritarianism (targeted crime fighting) internally and wars of conquest abroad. As a result of this growth of imperialism, West argues that it is imperative that we begin to fight the imperialist system and work towards developing a renewed democracy.

For West, the United States’ failure to recognize its role as an imperialist power is a result of its failure to acknowledge that the United States’ origins were in a racist and imperialist system inherited when the country broke from the British Empire. West argues that “democracy” created in the United States reproduced many of the same oppressions that existed in the British Empire, and as a result, the enslavement of Africans and the imperialist expansion overseas became driving forces behind the growth of the United States and its version of democracy. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was a full-fledged empire with overseas possessions (largely belonging to people of color) and a domestic internal system of racist terror. This reality then shaped the development of democracy in the twentieth century, greatly contributing to a system in which pecuniary values are place above those of solidarity and compassion and where the political system has evolved to a point where the two political parties represent corporate interests and power almost exclusively, creating a situation in which most Americans have not only given up on the electoral process, but more disheartening, the entire notion of political involvement.

Of course, like all books that analyze the role of United States power and come to the conclusion that fundamental changes are immediately necessary, the question of “what is to be done” remains. West believes that the United States can change and that it can shift from being an imperial power administering a vast empire and can become a flourishing democracy provided that ordinary citizens realize their own power and the legacy of oppositional movements and thinkers from which they can build a new movement. The intellectual traditions of Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Baldwin are cited as examples of individuals that worked to keep democratic ideals alive and offer a vision of what we might be trying to achieve, while the white populist, progressive, and trade union movements (aside from their xenophobic and imperialist aspects) offer the example of concrete movements that won concessions within the United States empire and forced an alteration, however minor, of its direction. West also points to Martin Luther King, Jr. as an individual who understood the connections between race, power, and imperialism, and argues that as US citizens we must consider King’s analysis and dismantle the imperialist power structure.

While not a definitive analysis of American imperialism, Cornel West’s Democracy Matters makes a number of unique contributions to the discussion, especially with its placement of race as a primary issue within imperialism and the role culture is used to both reinforce the imperialist system and neutralize oppositional movements that arise within the United States. A reading of Democracy Matters coupled with some of Noam Chomsky’s works would put one on the path towards developing a working understanding of how US imperialism functions in the real world and what its ramifications are for both those outside the United States and those within its borders. West does occasionally stray from his purpose, delving into areas, such as his own experience almost being fired from Harvard University for taking public positions opposing imperialist power, but for the most part, West provides a simple analysis of US imperialism and the prospects for exchanging imperialism for democracy.

Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, (Penguin Press, 2004).

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance

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Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance is a scathing indictment of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” and the United States quest for global dominance. As always, Chomsky brings an unparalleled knowledge of US foreign policy to the table and provides a detailed refutation of the idea that the United States’ actions are “humanitarian interventions” designed to protect the world from terrorism. Instead, Chomsky provides a plethora of information showing that most actions conducted by the United States are forms of state terrorism designed to maintain the United States’ position in the world at all costs.

Chomsky argues that President George W. Bush’s “new” “war on terror” is an extension of the policies undertaken during the Regan presidency. During the Regan administration, the United States government supported nefarious dictators, Islamic jihadists, and others as a way of confronting Regan’s “terrorists.” Chomsky cites numerous cases where these allies either committed great atrocities with the tacit approval of the U.S. government (East Timor and Colombia) or became “enemies” when they acted in a manner contrary to the United States’ wishes. Chomsky also discusses Regan’s elusive definition of terrorism where it was applied only to the actions of others and never the actions of the United States–just as is the case in Bush’s “war on terror.”

Taking the definition of terrorism presented in the U.S. legal code, Chomsky cites numerous examples of the United States engaging in terrorism in Cuba and Central America, demonstrated by the World Court’s condemnation of the United States for “unlawful use of force” (which Chomsky says is a synonym for international terrorism). With the continuity of officials between the two administrations, it is not much of a stretch to see the Bush administration’s foreign policy as a continuation of Reagan’s policies, but the Bush administration’s policy does differ in a significant way–it completely throws out any possibility that the United States might comply with international law, instead presenting a new legal justification through the new National Security Doctrine that states the United States has the right to act to maintain its position as the global superpower. However, the crux of the analysis is that the United States government’s position has been to secure its domination at all costs since 1950 and that US foreign policy must be seen within that context.

As with all of Chomsky’s works, Hegemony or Survival’s strengths are its meticulous documentation and readability. While the book does not offer anything “new” to most people coming from a perspective critical of the new US imperialism, it has plenty to offer liberal critics of the recent military actions against Iraq who saw them as just an isolated event.

Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, (Metropolitan Books, 2003).

Speak Spanish, Sell American! Local Ad Agency puts on a Business Seminar for Investing/Exploiting

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (June 1995)

Since the beginning of 1995 it has been no secret to most that the Mexican economy has taken a turn for the worst. That is to say that most Mexicans, who are not included in economic planning, are the ones suffering from the current economic crisis. The several dozen billionaires and other corporate hacks are not worried about where their next meal will come from. The situation is like this – the peso has been devaluated (again), strict conditioned international loans have been given, and there are pressures to privatize more and more of the Mexican economy. Sound familiar? It should. In many ways this is a text book example of the USA government led structural adjustment programs that the IMF and the World Bank have been forcing on the majority of the developing countries around the world. Then again maybe this doesn’t sound familiar, because the corporate media has chosen to blame Mexico’s woes on their government’s incompetence or societal backwardness and not the earlier IMF imposed economic plan.

A similar failure of the corporate media was it’s failure to report on the recent Chase Bank memo directed at the Mexican government on the Chiapas problem and a favorable investment climate. In a February 1 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter we are given excerpts of an internal memo from Chase Bank. The memo says “There are three areas in which the current monetary crisis can undermine political stability in Mexico. The first is in Chiapas, the second in the upcoming elections and the third is the role of the labor unions, their relationship to the government and the governing PRI.” The memo goes on to say “While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy.” It seems clear to me that from the reporting by the justice-based press that the Zedillo government is taking to heart Chase’s suggestion about eliminating the Zapatistas.

An April 21 article from the National Catholic Reporter states that “on April 7, Roger Maldanado, from the Chiapas human rights organization CONPAZ, documented abuses in at least 20 towns and villages under army control. The violations include torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and rape.” As to the issue of “labor unions and their relationship to the government,” again we have to consult the justice-based press since the corporate press continues to wax eloquently about the wonders of NAFTA.

To most workers in Mexico the devaluation of the peso was no surprise. According to numerous studies done by the Inter-hemispheric Resource Center based in New Mexico “the average wage in Mexico has stagnated or declined over the past 15 years, unemployment has risen and the cost of living has increased.” In addition to this, the climate for labor organizing has become very repressive, especially in USA run companies like GM, Motorola and Nike. Fortunately the bleak economic picture is not going unnoticed in some sectors of the US left. As we go to print there is a labor conference in Detroit sponsored by Labor Notes that is focusing on the consequences of NAFTA and the prospects for US/Mexican labor solidarity.

On our side of the Rio Grande things are also not as lovely as was predicted by pundits with the passage of NAFTA. Some government and corporate claims have stated that NAFTA has created 100,000 jobs in the USA in 1994. That claim however, is being challenged by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). An IPS study could only pinpoint 535 jobs attributable to NAFTA. On the other side of the ledger, the number of jobs lost to the trade treaty appears to be in the tens of thousands. “The US Labor Department says that nearly 13,000 workers have applied for NAFTA-related Transitional Adjustment Assistance (TAA), but the AFL-CIO labor organization reports 47,000 applicants in the first nine months of NAFTA operations.” (Latinamerica press) According to the IPS study, the apparel industry, with one-third of the applicants in the TAA program, was hardest hit by NAFTA displacement. Fifty-one percent of all job loss was attributable to plant relocation to Mexico and another 21 percent to increased NAFTA competition.

Eat Mexican Food

Listen to Mexican Music

Don’t Give a Shit about Most Mexicans

In March I attended a seminar organized by a local ad agency (Burglar Advertising) on some of the benefits and how to of investment in Mexico. The seminar took place at San Chez restaurant, complete with “ethnic” food, music, and little name tags that said me llamo (my name is). The entire morning was filled with speakers that ranged from economists and investors, to ad people. Needless to say the majority of those in attendance were Anglo businessmen.

The tone of the seminar was set by Comerica Bank economist David Litman. His talk was entitled “After NAFTA, GATT and the Psycho peso: What Next?” Mr. Litman’s job was to basically calm the storm that might have been in the minds of current and potential investors since the recent crash of the peso. Like most economists he gave us a whole litany of facts and figures that seemed meaningless. In the end he said “the bailout will only prolong the inevitable growth. In the real world Mexico has done well. The Salinas program set the stage for future expansion.” If by future expansion he means greater control by transnational corporations in the region, then he is right. This of course leaves out the majority of the population that will drown in poverty or join the ranks of the Zapatistas and their allies.

Next we were entertained by Andrzej Rattinger, publisher of ADCEBRA, an advertising and marketing journal in Mexico “for establishing the Mexican view of American Marketing.” This former employee of Bayer and Kodak talked about the potential for marketing in Mexico and how “most of the Mexicans are waiting for your product.” He shared an interesting image with us on the possibilities of product growth, even in a country that he said had 53 million people earning between $120-500 per year. “On highway 95 in Mexico you have two men, one is driving a new 1995 car, the other a donkey. Both are in two completely different economic brackets, but both may be drinking Coke, wearing Levi’s jeans and listening to the same radio station.” That, he said, is the importance of “Speaking Spanish, but Selling American.”

The founder of Burglar Advertising, Marcel Burglar, spoke about an ad campaign he did for the Asgrow Seed Company. This seed company wanted to introduce new tomato seeds into the Mexcian farm industry. This new type of seed would be for northern Mexican climate and would give the tomato a long shipping and shelf life. Obviously these seeds are designed for the export market. As an ad man he talked about the cultural education that he learned in attempting to develop a campaign that would speak to Mexican cultural heritage. This is all quite fine except he did not address how the increased agro-export model is unsustainable for most economies, nor did he address the fact that it will hurt most of the small ejido farmers who can not compete with these large scale farming operations (like the ones targeted by this ad campaign).

The only two Latino presenters spoke last and also echoed the words of the previous speakers. They showed us some car commercials made in Mexico for the Chrysler LaBaron. Mind you they were trying to sensitize us to the culture. The commercial was filled with elite images, and a woman waiting to be picked up and taken away by her man. This almost Victorian display did not seem to reflect the cultural sensitivity about most Mexicans that I have met either here or in Mexico. It was obvious that the target market was the upwardly mobile members of Mexican society, not the masses of indigenous or mestizos that make up the bulk of the Mexican population.

For me the seminar was a clear demonstration of cultural and economic imperialism that some in the business continue to display. Not once did anyone ask the question about what our responsibility is to promote free trade systems that honor people’s needs, respects the environment and fosters solidarity among the people of North America. One way to make this happen would be to investigate local business/government efforts that take advantage of the NAFTA model. It is with these examples that I believe we can reach a broader audience, since it makes the local connection about the real effects of these policies. People understand the local connection and will organize around it. Focusing only on the multinational corporations can sometimes leave people feeling overwhelmed. However we do it, it is high time we hold businesses and governments accountable for their policies at home and abroad.

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