Why you should care

United Fruit’s founder set a precedent for hardball tactics in Latin America.

Killing in the name of business. It’s hard to imagine today that this could have been even momentarily something to pass without condemnation, but times have changed. On Dec. 6, 1928, Colombian soldiers shot to death banana workers on strike at the United Fruit Company. The U.S. government’s man in Bogotá, Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, sent a dispatch home a month later, informing Washington: “I have the honor to report…that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded one thousand.”

Moneymaking could now return to normal after the month-long strike. Back in the U.S., an aging and ailing Minor Cooper Keith, founder of the United Fruit Company, got the news. Years earlier, Keith had been a restless youngster from New York City who bailed on his private schooling, and at 17 tried his hand at cattle ranching in Texas. But Texas wasn’t big enough for young Keith. Two years after Texas, Keith’s uncle and brothers invited him to Costa Rica to build a railroad.

On the dawn of Dec. 6, the soldiers fired their rifles, and United Fruit’s workers fell.

It was brutal. During the first 25 miles of rail construction, 5,000 men died, including Keith’s brothers and uncle. But Keith just 22 years old persisted. The goal was to get from the Atlantic coast to the Costa Rican capital, San José. Keith was low on cash. The Costa Rican government was defaulting on payments. So he took out a loan to keep building. Yet once he finally completed the line, he faced another crisis: not enough passengers. Keith’s answer? Move bananas instead.

By 1883, Keith operated three banana businesses around the Caribbean that exported to hungry, industrializing American cities. By 1890, the value of Keith’s plantations was far greater than the rails. He had expanded through Central America and down into Colombia, soon controlling a monopoly over the region’s banana exports. Life was good. He nudged his way into Costa Rica’s elite circles and married Cristina Castro, daughter of Costa Rican President José María Castro Madriz. He even saved the El Salvadoran government from default by paying off the country’s debts. His dream — though never realized was to construct a railway network from North America through South America.

Portrait of Minor Cooper Keith.

United Fruit Company founder Minor Cooper Keith.

Then in 1899, Keith’s New York City bank went bust, forcing the banana and railroad baron into crisis too. So he went to his competitor, Andrew Preston, of the Boston Fruit Company, and proposed a merger. In a quick deal, Preston agreed to erase Keith’s debts, and the two became partners. That same year, the United Fruit Company was born. The two American banana and railroad barons dominated the Caribbean banana market, and their wealth soared.

The trouble started on Oct. 6, 1928: Banana workers organized and issued to United Fruit a list of demands for stable, legal contracts, hospitals and sanitary work conditions. No deal. By early November, around 32,000 of United Fruit’s workers were striking. In the first week of December, when workers brought one of Keith’s banana trains to a halt, things really came to a boil. U.S. diplomats worried for the safety of United Fruit’s American employees. So the Colombian government responded by sending in General Carlos Cortés Vargas and 300 soldiers. The army ordered the strikers to disperse. They refused. On the dawn of Dec. 6, the soldiers fired their rifles, and United Fruit’s workers fell.

Troops from the AUC paramilitary group train in Colombia.

Troops from the AUC paramilitary group train in Colombia.

Source Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty

“The massacre marked us politically, economically and socially,” says Ciénaga-born lawyer and professor of economic development Guillermo De la Hoz Carbonó. Colombia continues to be a dangerous place for union leaders, with 3,000 union leaders assassinated since 1986.

Keith’s banana business continues under the flag of Chiquita Brands International. So, too, do allegations against the company. In 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to funding paramilitary groups in Colombia and paid a $25 million fine. On Dec. 6, 2014, paramilitaries again presented evidence against Chiquita. (Chiquita did not respond to a request for comment.)

Keith died at 81, just months after the 1928 massacre. His obituary boasted a laundry list of fine clubs and societies to which he proudly belonged, and then finished: “His wife survives. They had no children.”

Forty years ago, famed Colombian artist Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt created a monument in Ciénaga, Colombia. He sculpted a banana worker, leaping up into the sky, shaking his fist defiantly and wielding a machete. He faces north, toward Brooklyn, New York, where Keith was born. And buried.

This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 18, 2014.

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