Banana bullies

Peter Chapman’s Jungle Capitalists exposes the greed and treachery that characterised the rise of United Fruit


Jungle Capitalists: A Story of Globalisation, Greed and Revolution
Peter Chapman
2007, Canongate
224 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

MY FATHER once told me about the first time he had seen a banana on a market stall as a scally scraping his holed soles behind his mother’s second-hand clothing cart through the drizzly streets of Liverpool – a story that entered family lore and was retold every time we dusted off our working-class credentials, which was pretty often.

The banana, then, became just one more reminder of how difficult life had been for the great unwashed in the bad old days and how, once, such a universally available commodity was not simply taken for granted as it is today, languishing on the shelves in all its indolent, yellow splendour.

In Jungle Capitalists, Peter Chapman tells of his own grandfather’s first encounter with a banana, as well as Auberon Waugh’s memory of his father scoffing the first one in the house with cream and sugar in front of his envious children.

Such is the banana’s habitual domesticity that it has entered family lore in a way that both transcends the classes and that eludes the blotchy green, home-grown fruit of England.

But, as Chapman so eloquently explains in this masterpiece of corporate history about the evolution of the US importer United Fruit, the banana’s tale really does begin with poverty – the poverty that drove entrepreneurial men empowered by US frontier capitalism to take breathtaking risks that made them wealthy beyond belief, and the poverty of those they exploited mercilessly, and often criminally, in the process.

Indeed, the silly old banana conceals a sinister secret: for, as Chapman reveals, this humble fruit gave birth to systems of mass-production and global distribution on such a scale that it foretold, indeed fashioned, what we now call “globalisation”.

Peel it

Jungle Capitalists is that rare book: a carefully researched work of economic and social history with real torque, but one that is served up in such an engaging and democratic style that any and all readers who decide to peel it, regardless of either their fondness for bananas or their intellectual proclivities, are unlikely to put it down before it has been totally consumed.

Moreover, this book charts a new course by casting a light on the darkest corners of a neglected area in the study of Latin American history and politics: the role of business. Academic banana virgins have struggled to find a way of enticing readers into what is seen, by most students of Latin American politics at least, as a sterile backwater. Chapman not only comes to the rescue with tales of derring do by the men of United Fruit who fearlessly stuck their fingers into Central America’s military pies and revolutionary stews, but raises issues that have a bearing on the key themes that shape the study of business and politics in the region today, such as governability, accountability and – of course – democracy. If there is one lesson that emerges from this story of intervention, greed and treachery, it is that all-powerful multinational businesses such as United Fruit have usually hindered progress towards achieving desperately needed democratic and social change and have acted as alternative sources of power in societies with weakly institutionalised political structures. Jungle Capitalists provides an explanation of the antecedents to the species of globalisation that today reigns supreme in which huge, faceless transnationals throw their weight around with an ambivalent, and at times downright deceitful, attitude to the countries and societies from which they extract their profits.

Chapman takes us on a truly enlightening journey into the past that picks from the debris of the turmoil that characterised Central America for much of the 20th century United Fruit’s key role in such unedifying episodes as the Panamanian insurrection, the construction of the Central American railroads, the massacre of strikers at Ciénaga in Colombia, the exchange of bananas for Nazi bonds, and the coup against the progressive Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz that would help to radicalise, among others, Che Guevara.

The author explores the profitable and corrupt relationships forged by the company with dictators and democrats alike that gave rise to the term “banana republic” – and made United Fruit synonymous with it. Such was the reach of this capitalist octopus in Central and indeed north American history, that Chapman also draws very reasonable links between United Fruit’s many excesses and the eventual involvement of the US in Vietnam, the hippie counter-culture, and the abuses of the Nicaraguan dynasty that would spark the Sandinista revolution.

Everything about this book is well done: from the select bibliography, that will be of great value to students and anyone who wishes to take the theme further, and the dramatis personae at the start of the book, which is a great idea; to the ease of style achieved by Chapman, who refined his craft over many years as a journalist in Central America, and the way the author shares so generously with the reader his extensive knowledge of a subject about which he is passionate on every page. In fact, after biting into Jungle Capitalists, bananas may never taste the same again.

Gavin O’Toole is the editor of the Latin American Review of Books