The Dark Side of Bananas: Imperialism, Non-State Actors, and Power

The Dark Side of Bananas: Imperialism, Non-State Actors, and Power

. 4 min read

The word “power” comes up often when discussing international relations. Joseph Nye, a recognized geopolitician, defines power as the ability “to affect others to get the outcomes we want,” a definition providing sufficient scope to establish the way in which imperialism and power are deeply intertwined—so much so that one could easily argue that imperialism itself is just a specific type of power manifestation.

In fact, Colombia’s banana republic provides an ideal example for evaluating how non-state actors can also engage in imperialistic power. Analyzing the United Fruit Company’s presence in Colombia (and neighboring countries) offers useful insight into the nature of the geopolitical influence of non-state actors, which has become increasingly pressing during the last years.

The United Fruit Company and the Banana Republics

After its introduction at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, the banana gained popularity rapidly inside the United States. In order to meet growing demand, banana companies sought to lower production costs and increase output significantly.

Enter the United Fruit Company (UFC), which came about in 1899 through the unification of the Boston Fruit Company with several other banana companies and investors. Through large-scale production and tight control of transportation and labor, the UFC was able to provide consumers inside the United States with an intact and affordable, but highly perishable, product that grew thousands of kilometers away. The UFC ultimately became known as “El Pulpo” (“the octopus”) due to its ubiquitous nature; it had connections everywhere, from telecommunication companies to the governments of the countries where it operated.

A demonstration of El Pulpo’s power happened in 1954 as a response to a threat to said power. Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz acted upon his interest in limiting the UFC’s scope of influence in the country, by encouraging the Guatemalan Congress to pass Decree 900, which ordered the expropriation of land larger than 600 acres that wasn’t being used for cultivation. The goal was to have these lands be divided among the landless; compensating the previous owners through government bonds. This move prompted the UFC to engineer a coup in Guatemala, with the support of the United States—a coup that ignited a thirty year long period of military dictatorship and civil war, with a legacy of 200,000 civilian deaths.

Moreover, the aforementioned tight control of labor manifested in precarious working conditions in the banana plantations, extremely low wages (and sometimes not even in real money, but rather in redeemable vouchers for selected stores), long work-hours with no rest days, and no indemnification for work-related accidents.

The term banana republic is henceforth used to describe both a tropical country where growing bananas is favorable and a country where multinational, foreign companies achieve influential positions over the governments, as seen in the case of the UFC.  

The Banana Massacre: Myth or Reality?

The abysmal working conditions and abusive nature of the United Fruit Company enticed some workers in Ciénaga, Colombia to organize an official strike. In 1928, they formed the Unión Sindical de Trabajadores del Magdalena (USTM), through which they asked for weekly (rather than biweekly) payments. Specifically, they demanded payments in real money and a six-day work week, among other reasonable requests. However, complying with these requests would have represented higher production and operation costs for the UFC, which was unfavorable for the company’s success. Hence, the UFC utilized its strong ties with the US government and, more specifically, the CIA. On December 6, 1928, the US government threatened to invade Colombia with the US Marine Corps that were stationed off the shores of Ciénaga should the Colombian government not act to protect the UFC’s interests. Concerned with this threat and its potential economic impact, the Colombian government decided to act in favor of the interests of the United Fruit Company. Ultimately, the Colombian army opened fire at the banana workers who were protesting (and bystanders). The range of deaths is wide, and there is no certain number of victims of the massacre; it varies depending on the source. However, about a month later, the US Ambassador to Bogotá, Jefferson Caffery, sent a dispatch to Washington that said, “The total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.” The accounts of this day were so impactful that they even inspired Gabriel García Márquez’s Nobel Prize Novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967).

The Rise of the Non-State Actor: Lessons from the United Fruit Company

The historical example of the UFC appears analogous to many contemporary multinational corporations and their influence on governments. In other words, the banana republic story relates to modern times because there has been a notable increase in power held by corporations as non-state actors (NSAs), including Google, Meta (Facebook), and Coca-Cola, among others of similar scale.

One example of such action is Facebook’s involvement in the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar in 2017. In this case, a non-state actor (Facebook) propelled hate-speech against the Rohingya people through its algorithm, later leading to real-world violent atrocities committed against them. Similarly, the  fast fashion industry has been suggested to promote human rights violations through creating precarious working conditions and utilizing child labor in developing countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. In these countries,  the workers are paid less than the respective countries’ legal minimum wage, aren’t compensated for working over hours nor get access to healthcare, and are forced to work in unsafe environments.

Ultimately the story of the UFC in Colombia and other countries still resonates in current global affairs. The imperialistic behaviors of non-state actors is something to be wary of in an era of increasingly powerful NSAs. Recognizing that some of the most prominent issues the world faces today expand beyond state borders (climate change, technological and industrial advances, international trade, etc.), the geopolitical involvement of non-state actors is significant and will impact the way global governance functions. Imperialism, especially that exercised by non-state actors, can leave scars on the countries it affects.