Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Sam Zemurray

1st Tuesday in the month. You know what that means--Bastard Blogging!!!

In 1951, nearing his retirement as president of the United Fruit Company, Sam "The Banana Man" Zemurray remarked, "All we cared about were dividends. I feel guilty about some of the things we did."

Should have Zemurray felt guilty? Um, yes.

Born in 1877 in Russia, Zemurray's family came to the United States when he was 14. Lacking any education, Zemurray had an intense drive to succeed financially. He entered the banana trade in Mobile, Alabama in 1895. The late nineteenth century saw the beginnings of America's consumer culture. The massive industrialization after the Civil War led to an increasingly middle class that desired new consumer products, including new food products. Until that time, bananas were an upper-class luxury but Zemurray and others turned them into an American staple. He began buying up bananas that ripened in transport ships and therefore could not make it to the lucrative eastern cities. He sold those bananas locally as a product for the average consumer and made a ton of money. He started investing in Central American banana plantations and in 1899 became the president of the Cuyamel Fruit Company. While United Fruit dominated the banana industry during these years, Cuyamel remained a powerful rival.

Zemurray believed that nothing mattered except making money. As Paul Dosal writes in his excellent book, Doing Business with the Dictators: A Political History of United Fruit in Guatemala, 1899-1944, Zemurray "sponsored rebellions, hired mercenaries, bribed politicians, defied Guatemalan, Honduran, and American laws, and almost single-handedly provoked a war between Honduras and Guatemala." That's a hell of a resume right there! In 1911, not pleased with a new US-sponsored Nicaraguan government, Zemurray went to New Orleans where deposed Nicaraguan dictator Manuel Bonilla was living. He brought him back to Nicaragua, began a revolution, and deposed the US-supported government. Bonilla then granted Zemurray widespread land concessions and tax breaks.

In the middle of the 1920s, Zemurray tried to get Honduras to invade Guatemala so that he could control the Motagua Valley, a prime banana-growing area, instead of United which had more sway in Guatemala. It had long been a disputed zone, but neither nation really cared that much until the banana powers got involved. United had closer relations with the Guatemalan military than Zemurray did with the Honduran military, so he failed in his attempt to create war, but only just. Honduran President Miguel Paz Barahona refused to provide the troops Zemurray demanded and then his favored party lost a 1928 election and he was forced to give up. But the gall of a private man trying to create a war so he can grow more fruit is shocking, even to this jaded historian.

United hated the competition and bought out Cuyamel in 1929. But within 4 years, Zemurray managed to take over as president of United where he continued his ruthless ways of dealing with the Central American nations. He led United from 1933 to 1951. Working closely with Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico, Zemurray and UFCO destroyed labor unions, gained signficant land concessions, and increasingly worked the CIA to undermine any smidgen of opposition to the Ubico regime. Ubico had been installed by the US in 1930 and in fact, for most Guatemalans, United Fruit and the United States were the same thing. A 1934 uncovered coup plot allowed Ubico to militarize his regime, something fully supported by Zemurray, United, and the Roosevelt administration. Zemurray worked closely with the powerful businessman John Foster Dulles, later Secretary of State under Dwight Eisenhower, to gain ever more lucrative contracts and create ties to the US government in case things went sour in Central America.

The US demand for bananas, which soon became one of the cheapest fruits on the market, also spawned widespread environmental destruction. Millions of acres of native jungle were destroyed to provide for bananas, decimating wildlife populations. The monocultures that replaced the jungle became susceptible to diseases such as Panama disease and Sigatoka disease. Today, much of that originial Cuyamel and United land cannot support bananas. When I traveled on the North Coast of Honduras a few years ago, I saw miles and miles of palm oil plantations where jungle and then bananas once grew. In addition, nasty chemicals were used to fight off Sigatoka, exposing workers, animals, and water supplies to chemical pollution.

Eventually, United became too powerful in Guatemala for the US government's tastes. FDR governments was more than happy to work with business, but he could not deal with a company so powerful in a given country that the business could undermine US foreign polciy goals. Essentially, the State Department wanted to increase exports to Guatemala but United's tariffs (and this was the reality--they set the tariffs and the Guatemalan government simply ratified them). They fought until World War II, when FDR's Good Neighbor policy coincided with United Fruit's desire to have a pro-UFCO governmen in power.

Ubico left power in 1944. Guatemalan workers began organizing into labor unions. Guatemala began an experiment in democracy that led to the election of Jacobo Arbenz to the presidency in 1951, the same year Zemurray retired from United Fruit. In 1953, Arbenz exprorpriated 400,000 acres of uncultivated United Fruit land. This move led to the CIA attacking Arbenz and promoting a coup that succeeded in 1954. Of course, Zemurray's associate John Foster Dulles, as well as Dulles' brother Allen, director of the CIA, were behind this move. At the same time, the US government moved to end UFCO's monopoly, figuring that would help US-Central American relations.

Zemurray's close ties to the US government, as well as his decades-long manipulation of Central American nations to promote his own wealth, led to the destruction of the democratic experiment in Guatemala and the onset of a 35 year civil war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

So, should Sam Zemurray have felt guilty? Absolutely. He died in 1961 of Parkinson's. He lived long enough to see Guatemala turn into a disaster zone. Hopefully, that Parkinson's was particularly painful and made him suffer 1/100th as much as the people of Guatemala.