Hayley Serpa/Staff Writer
If you were to walk into a grocery store today in the United States and buy bananas, chances are that those bananas have an oval blue sticker with the Chiquita logo plastered on it. Most consumers, even the most environmentally and socially conscious, might find it at a surface level impossible to make connections between the historic enablement of oppressive systems and their fruity eating habits.
Yet, Chiquita Brand International corporation, the world’s biggest banana firm, had previously been known as the United Fruit Company. The UFC was a U.S. company infamous in Latin America for it’s harmful involvement in regional politics, which it did in order to maintain its strategic monopoly in the highly profitable banana industry. The United Fruit Company’s involvement in the political institutions of countries like Guatemala and Colombia would destabilize and prohibit the development of these countries. This, coupled with it’s maintenance of sexist and racist stereotypes after it’s mid-twentieth century rebranding, shows the need for a new definition of sustainable consumption that includes corporate consciousness.
The United Fruit Company’s (UFC) violent legacy reaches one of it’s highest peaks when in 1954, leftist Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was ousted in a military coup coordinated and trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under the Cold-War era anti-communism policy of the time. One of the CIA’s primary motives for involvement was to protect at-risk U.S. corporate interests, and especially the UFC’s interests, from President Arbenz’s expropriation of unused lands for much needed land redistribution to the indigenous peasants. This coup would throw the Guatemalan state into a long and brutal civil war that would not end until 1996.
The UFC’s influence was particularly destabilizing and violating in Guatemala, with over 75% of the banana exports industry being monopolized and extracted by them as well as their ownership over most of the country’s infrastructure like the communication and major transportation systems. They were also the largest company within the country. Most of those employed by the UFC to work on their banana plantations were part of the indigenous Guatemalan communities. As of today, almost 22% of the indigenous population of Guatemala is living in extreme poverty with little access to clean water, sanitation and housing.
Not satisfied with the million-dollar profits they were making in Guatemala, the UFC’s desire for cheap lands and labor to maximize their profits in the banana industry would take them to Colombia, another country wrecked by their violent legacy. UFC’s involvement in the 1928 Banana Massacre when almost 32,000 of their plantation slaves went on strike asking, among other things, to be ‘paid’ in cash rather than with company-owned coupons only for use at company-owned stores. This is similar to how Black slaves were sometimes ‘paid’ in the American South plantation shop system. 3,000 of these workers are estimated to have been killed at this massacre by Colombian military forces acting upon the direction of UFC or UFC affiliated individuals.
More recently, Chiquita Brands International, the midcentury rebrand of the UFC, would admit to paying nearly $2 million dollars to right-wing death squads targeting labor union leaders in Colombia. Even the Department of Justice of the United States would issue Chiquita a fine to the tune of $25 million dollars and five-years probation for their monetary dealings with international terrorist organizations.
Even though they would continue being actively embroiled in the politics of Latin American countries of economic interest to them after their rebranding, the rebranding itself of the United Fruit Company shows the company’s own realization of the need to change their image in light of their violent actions. However, their rebranding to Chiquita has perpetuated harmful perceptions of Latin American women as the new logo, the Miss Chiquita Banana, further objectifies and exoticizes Latin American women by maintaining unrealistic stereotypes of what they are supposed to look or act like. As the Food Empowerment Project states, “Chiquita’s logo is another way in which non-white bodies have been objectified and exploited.”
Not only has the rebrand using Miss Chiquita Banana been sexist, the mascot’s earliest feature in a UFC commercial reveals the racist context in which it was made. In the technicolor commercial, a mocking caricature of a black man attempts to eat a notably less cartoonish white man but is stopped by Miss Chiquita Banana, who proceeds to use language like “refined and civilized” to talk about changing the indigenous African caricature’s eating habits. This kind of language, while it might initially seem harmless in the context of a banana advertisement, has been used consistently by outrightly racist, xenophobic or antisemtic groups like the British colonizers during the imperial ‘civilizing’ mission in India.
The complete erasure of the dark and violent past that lies behind Chiquita International Corporation in Latin America and later, in the wider world of perceptions, was unsuccessful despite the renaming and rebranding of the corporation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet, sadly, the UFC, now known simply as Chiquita, has managed to maintain its monopoly on the banana industries of Central and South America, with the majority of its products being sold inside the U.S.
This shows us, as active consumers in a capitalist society, that not only does the environmental consciousness of the commodities we buy matter but so does corporate consciousness. The oppressive systems enabled by the UFC in Guatemala and Colombia, as well as the sexist and racist perceptions of Latin American women and Africans promoted by the company, could have been stopped if the U.S. public was made more aware of the discriminatory and criminal actions taken by their favorite brand of bananas. Sustainable consumption should not just pertain to knowing where your food comes from in relation to the environment, it should also refer to knowing who will reap the economic benefits of your purchase and more importantly, who will be or has been at a loss from your purchase.
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