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Caught in the Octopus' tentacles

Bananas How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World Peter Chapman Canongate: 240 pp., $24

February 29, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WRITING a positive history of the United Fruit Co. is a lot like writing a happy book about the Vietnam War. Yet that's what Financial Times reporter Peter Chapman tries to do with "Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World." Thanks to United Fruit, Chapman suggests, "we worry about multinational corporations." We expect more from them than mere profiteering. We expect "Corporate Social Responsibility."

Excuse me? It's been nearly four decades since anyone thought of United Fruit as a model for the new multinational. And corporate social responsibility, while a beautiful ideal, is more often just an empty phrase to make the greedy feel OK about their plundering.

Chapman's colorful yarn describes a company founded by well-meaning pioneers -- swashbucklers and showmen, who knew a good publicity stunt when they saw one. He admits that United Fruit "often strayed across the line between what was officially regarded as right and wrong." The company's one small mistake was its tendency to subvert Latin American governments, creating "an atmosphere in which military regimes ruled and their death squads roamed the streets."

But United Fruit's reputation as a "nasty trust," Chapman argues, developed "not because anyone on high had suddenly discovered it had been mistreating the poor and dispossessed" but because the company "had wandered out of the realm of normal business."

"Bananas" begins with the 1975 suicide of Eli Black, president of United Brands, which had taken over United Fruit five years earlier. Chapman calls Black "a man of exceptional morality." Perhaps, he speculates, Black killed himself because his colleagues were annoyed with him for his softheartedness in sending aid to Managua, Nicaragua, after the 1972 earthquake. Or perhaps he was distressed at the rumors that people were trying to ease him into retirement.

What Chapman underplays is shame as a reason for Black's suicide: His company had been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of offering a $1.25-million bribe to Honduran President Oswaldo Lopez Arellano.

A reader can well appreciate the effort to write a history of this powerful American company, El Pulpo -- or the Octopus, as United Fruit was called, referring to its tentacles, which reached all over the world. But the saga of United Fruit is more fraught than Chapman's book might suggest. Its legacy is perhaps better encapsulated by Pablo Neruda, in his poem titled "La United Fruit Co.," which reads, in part:

The United Fruit Company

reserved for itself the most juicy

piece, the central coast of my world,

the delicate waist of America.

It rebaptized these countries

Banana Republics,

and over the sleeping dead,

over the unquiet heroes

who won greatness,

liberty, and banners,

it established an opera buffa:

it abolished free will,

gave out imperial crowns,

encouraged envy, attracted

the dictatorship of flies. . . .


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