Peter Chapman follows his excellent Goalkeepers History of Britain with Jungle Capitalists, a fascinating history of the United Fruit Company, one of the world's first true "multi-nationals". He brings his experiences as a long-time Central America reporter for the BBC and The Guardian to bear in a revealing exposé of power and greed gone wild. Chapman takes us from the early days of the development of the banana from a tropical oddity, to its spread throughout the Caribbean into Central America. Along the way, we meet a variety of characters, who expanded United Fruit Company and economically conquered Central America. Over the past 130 years or so, UFC pioneered business and corporate models that became the basis for multinationals and our present festering globalization.
I can remember teachers and professors trumpeting against the United Fruit Company and mocking "banana republics" back in the 1960 and 70s. Chapman details the long and tawdry road of corruption and malfeasance that UFC used to bully its opponents, both in the business and political worlds. Among the cast of characters are Boston Brahmins like the Cabots and the Lodges, the "upstart" Russian Jewish immigrant Sam Zemurray, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and even Carmen Miranda and her animated descendant, Chiquita Banana. Along the way, we watch how UFC influenced US policy toward Latin America, from Gunboat Diplomacy, to the Good Neighbor Policy to Jimmy Carter's Human Rights to Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra shenanigans. It is a story that mirrors the bigger flow of American foreign policy over the past century.
Of special interest in light of the War in Iraq is Chapman's reporting of the CIA/UFC manipulated coup d'etat in Guatemala in 1954. Managed with certitude by an uneducated, anti-communist, boob of a diplomat--Ambassador Jack Peurifoy--it featured contrived incidents, faked battle scenes, and propaganda aimed at both a Commie-fearing America and a pre-industrial Mayan populace. Of course, this putsch went the way United Fruit and the anti-communist Eisenhower administration hoped for. Many of the same simplistic machinations that worked so well in a less complicated setting, now seem to have caught up with us in the Middle East. The world has adapted to disingenuous and ham-fisted American tactics, but sadly the Bush administration is still using them.
I look forward to this book's arrival in the American marketplace and highly recommend it to those interested in history, or contemporary politics and economics.