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Hey, everyone, we're doing something a little different for the next few weeks. We've been thinking a lot about what history is taught in school and how it's taught in school.
Yeah, it's one of the reasons this show even exists. But we wanted to do was fill in the gaps and reframe the things we learned in history class.
So a few months ago, we started asking teachers for some of their favorite throughline episodes that do just that and that they like their students to hear before returning to school.
Our hope was that throughline was of use to teachers and we heard from many of them who said it was this week is is a message for throughline.
Hi, this is Elijah Schumacher. My name's Jeremy Telamon. I am the AP world history teacher in Monroe, Wisconsin. I'm a professor at Oregon Tech and Oregon. I'm just calling to say that your episode there will be Bonanos has been used in my class to teach colonialism. I recently used the episode in my course on sustainable human ecology. Looking at the history of the fruit and bananas is a great place to start. When you go into the store, why are they still so cheap?
And then, of course, the legacy of everything you talked about, and I find it extremely useful as a tool to teach the unintended or the unrecognized consequences of colonialism. Thanks for everything you do. Take care. Right now, bananas are so ubiquitous in our lives that we can't imagine life without them. But I don't think there was anything magical about the banana in and of itself that made it such an entrepreneurial success. I think it was a lot of luck changing culture.
Brutality, people willing to practice that. And all these little pieces come together to create this market that probably never should have existed. Emraan Abdelfattah, I'm Robert AWG, and on this episode, how one entrepreneur made Banana's big business and changed the world for better and for worse. On most days, I spent at least part of the morning preparing my four year old son's favorite breakfast, a banana, and there are few things more fun than cutting it up, putting on a plate and watching him enjoy every bite.
So when I heard about a disease that's been tearing through banana plantations in Asia, Africa and now South America, obviously I got concerned.
I thought, is this it? Game over. No more bananas for my son. No more chances for me to watch him eat them, but then run down. I started asking some questions like, why do we even eat bananas?
And when did this fruit become such a big part of our diet in America and around the world? So to answer those questions, Run decided to travel to the place where it all began.
Oh, my God. Right there.
This is the birthplace of the banana empire, the port city of Limon, which sits on the eastern coast of Costa Rica.
My name is Sergio Molineux.
Sergio has been giving walking tours of Lehman for the past five years. I went on this tour with Sergio early in the morning and we started the tour Parquet Vodka's, but the main attraction was across the street from this park.
Now, this is the palace. I like to call it a palace, by the way. It's it's like the headquarters of the United Fruit Company outside of the United States headquarters of the, you know, like the biggest company ever. The building is hard to miss. It takes up nearly the entire block. And whereas most of Lehman is filled with Victorian style buildings usually made of wood or concrete. This building is very boxy, minimalist and made of steel, American steel.
It's two stories, but seems bigger because the ceilings are really high. A row of big red windows with green framing lines, each floor totally different.
Looks like a train station, right? OK, so what exactly is this United Fruit company that he's talking about?
United Fruit is the company responsible for making bananas an international commodity.
And that distinct kind of bold industrialist vibe of its headquarters is a perfect reflection of the company's practices. And Sergio says the mastermind behind the company, a guy named Miner Cooper Keith, had a corner office from there. He had a perfect view of the ocean, the port. There used to be a train station over there and at one point the actual train station, actually, the train was the project that started everything for the moment. No train, no Limone.
When we come back, how minor Keith managed to bring a city to life and in the process built an empire. This is Henry Weaver from Rochester, New York, and you're listening to provide for NPR. This message comes from NPR sponsor Capital One. Welcome to Banking Reimagined Capital One. Checking and savings accounts have no fees or minimums and a top rated banking app that lets you manage your money any time, anywhere. Check on the account balance deposit checks, pay bills and transfer money on the go.
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With civil unrest, the pandemic and the economic crisis, you want to know what's happening right when you wake up, and that's why there is up first, the news you need in about 10 minutes from NPR News. Listen. Every day. Part one, welcome to The Jungle. There's a story I heard over and over when I was in Lehman, a kind of local legend, it takes place in 15 to the year Christopher Columbus set sail on his fourth voyage across the Atlantic as Columbus was sailing down the Caribbean coast.
The winds blew him towards Costa Rica and he happened upon a small island just off the coast of Limon. Today, it's called Uvda Island or little grap Island. Legend has it. Columbus was so taken with the beauty of this place and the seeming hospitality of the indigenous people who had appeared on the shore that he anchored at every island. Columbus was suffering from gout and couldn't get off the ship. So his son got off. Instead, he traveled into the jungle and spent several days with the indigenous people there when he returned to the ship.
He reported that he'd seen advanced cities in the most unlikely place, a place seemingly impossible to conquer, and that he was treated with the utmost respect. Columbus asked what this place was called, and maybe it was the way his ears process the indigenous name. Or maybe he just thought the police deserve to be called the rich coast, whatever it was, his son replied. Costa Rica. Columbus and his crew set sail once more, continuing their journey towards the Indies and for centuries after the eastern shores of Costa Rica remained mostly untouched by Western powers.
Then came miner Cooper Keith. This was a time when rugged men went out to make their name in the world, a time when the American entrepreneur was king. It's the Teddy Roosevelt era. It's the era of máximo of doing things. Women were excluded, people of color excluded. But men like mine are Keith. The world belonged to them. It was theirs for the taking minor Keith had grown up in in Brooklyn, New York, and he had become a cattle rancher in Texas, you it's a very common motif in America for sort of patrician or urban types to sort of become cowboys.
This is writer Dan Koeppel. I sometimes pretentiously like to call myself a thing biographer. I write about the histories of objects and I'm best known for writing a book called Banana The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. Dan says the shift towards aggressive entrepreneurship started around the time of the Civil War, when communication and transportation networks rapidly expanded thanks to advances in mining and agriculture, which enticed people to develop new lands. Railroads began moving people west, and the world seemed ripe for the taking the gold rush people.
Basically, all these American business people were trying to find some form of gold. So any business that could make them a lot of money. Right. And minor Keith, the city kid from a wealthy family who had tried his hand at running a cattle ranch, being a cowboy, was at heart a budding entrepreneur. He wanted to make it really big to be among the Carnegie and Rockefeller of the world, and he thought railroads might be that business for him.
You know, in the United States, there's a railroad building boom, but it's controlled by by moguls, by conglomerates, by by people who are already rich is not a lot of room for entrepreneurship.
There's not a lot of room for a Brooklyn born Texas cattle rancher to sort of become a big wheel.
So Keith decided to look beyond the U.S. for opportunities, his uncle was working on railroads in Chile, Peru and Costa Rica and invited him to come there.
At the time, there was very little infrastructure in Central America, these were villages with dirt roads, but people were determined to find a way to the Pacific through Central America what Columbus had wanted to do. Why Central America? Because of the unimaginable or imagined, let's say, riches that might happen there, things like coffee, minerals, maybe actual gold. And even though Keith knew pretty much nothing about Costa Rica, he figured, hell, why not?
I can do this. This is my chance to make it big, whatever challenges may come. But on the flip side, he probably thought if I build this railroad, then I'll have access to all those riches. I think what miner Keith understood was that if you build infrastructure in these places where there is no infrastructure and you make the right financial deals by hook or by crook, honestly or dishonestly, you are going to get very rich and you're going to get very, very powerful.
And Keith had another, more lofty goal. In those days, it was looked at as almost bringing civilization, bringing progress to these poor souls who who otherwise would be living naked in the jungle. That was the way it was seen. So there was this element of mission and manifest destiny that we really don't understand today or that we understand better as being quite and, you know, not very good thing. If you're wondering why a government would open their arms to a fairly inexperienced foreign businessman, it's pretty simple.
They needed the help. They wanted to find a way to export their coffee crops, the country's main export to Europe. And to do that, they needed to tap into their eastern coast. And it was the jungle. The jungle. Up until the 70s, most of Kusturica, east of the capital, San Jose, was completely undeveloped, just miles and miles of nearly impenetrable rainforest. The Spanish had made few inroads there. They'd killed and resettled some indigenous communities, but they didn't actually manage to build much.
Now, minor Keith would attempt it. And I have to say, when you're actually there, you realize how far fetched this must have seemed. I imagine it's just like endless trees, animals, brain. Yeah, it's very it's beautiful, but it's very rugged terrain and and every square inch is basically green, I mean, dense beyond belief. You look up and it's just webs of winding branches and leaves. So many different ecosystems, forests, mountains, wetlands, beaches, huge volcanoes drive three hours in any direction and you'll probably experience all of them there.
Monkeys everywhere, plus all sorts of other animals, some deadly. I actually saw a tarantula and a snake while I was there, not me.
I went, oh, no, I don't play that from a distance. No, I don't do wild and scary.
And it actually wasn't that far off from the trail. Keith Keith wanted to build a railroad through all of that, stretching 100 miles from San Jose.
It wasn't an easy task. You have to say that.
This is Victor Akuna Ortega. He's a professor emeritus at the University of Kusturica.
He faced technological challenges, environmental challenges and financial challenges.
I mean, this was really, really crazy. In 1872, K'iche began construction in Lemont. At first, he recruited Costa Rica's population to build the railroad, which at the time was very small. But as the project got underway, many began to realize just how difficult and dangerous it was. They are clearing the jungle down with with hand tools there. Work conditions were very, very hard because the climate because the tropical diseases, yellow fever, malaria, dysentery, you know, everything, you could die out there.
They die of wounds. Trees would sometimes fall on them. It rained a lot of the time, so they were often working in mud. If they got any sort of cut or wound, it could easily become infected. And mosquitoes were everywhere, some carrying diseases. So after a little while, Costa Ricans laid down their tools. They were like, we're not going to do this because no job is worth dying for. Construction stalled and Keith was back at square one, he had to find workers somewhere else, you know, luckily or unluckily, there's this huge immigrant population in the United States.
And so Keith returns to the U.S. and hires a couple of thousand Italian immigrants and he temps them. You know, he says we're going to pay you a lot of money. We're going to give you a lot of work. He also brought workers from China and parts of Europe. And once they get down there and they hear hear what's happening and they see what's happening and they they see how dangerous it is, they begin going AWOL. It was a total disaster.
I mean, they were dying at levels equivalent to deaths on the beaches of Normandy. Hundreds died then thousands in part because these men had never been to the tropics, so they weren't used to the climate or its diseases and the work was just really grueling.
Among the workers who died on this project were kids, two brothers, you know, so so this was deadly not just for the poor souls who were sort of suckered into coming and working on it, but the guys at the very top as well.
Progress was slow and money was tight a few years into the project. They were 30 miles from their end goal, San Jose, but QIf remained determined and desperate for workers. He decided to recruit prisoners, hopeless prisoners, people in in jail in New Orleans, people who have no way out.
And he basically calls for volunteers and he says anybody who volunteers helps build my railroad to completion, is going to get a pardon. Seven hundred prisoners volunteer. Only twenty five prisoners survived to get their pardons. Twenty five out of seven hundred. Mean the absolute persistence and scrappiness on Keith's part, like bringing in group after group, even prisoners, so many deaths, including his own brothers, is like. Both horrifying, but also, like Daniel, play view from there will be blood inspiring, you know what I mean?
Yeah, like like absolutely hell bent on just like getting this done. It's like that scene in there will be blood. Where is they discovered oil and it causes a huge like fire and his son gets hurt and goes death. But all he can think about is like the money that basically discovered. It's exactly what this is. I mean, this guy, miner Keith, he he was ruthless, right? Like, yeah, it was it was just the process of trial and error for him.
People would die. He'd find more. They died. More came. He was relentless. Eventually, miner Keith figured out that if he brought Jamaican's over from the Caribbean, they would have an easier time working on his railroad. Since they spoke English and were used to the climate. Thing is, by this point, minor Keith had another problem, he'd burn through millions of dollars and was nearly out of money.
And the Costa Rican government, which is sort of funding this thing partially also goes broke. I mean, at this point, most people would just throw in the towel and go home. That's the logical thing to do, probably. Mm hmm.
But instead, Keith goes to England and he borrows one point two million pounds, which is, I think, about the equivalent of maybe 150, 200 million dollars today. Then he goes back to Kusturica and proposes a new deal to the government. This sort of crazy deal, he says, I'll build the railroad for free. In return, you give me 99 years concession along the route, I have 800000 acres of land tax free alongside the tracks and I have full control of the port of Lemont.
Not a great deal for the Costa Rican government, but they were in a pretty bad position at this point and just needed to finish the railroad. You know, I don't know. I don't know what. You know, prompted the president to accept it, but but I'm going to guess that, you know, these guys also wanted to modernize their countries. They saw railroads as as needed. And people love building monuments to themselves. What greater monument than a railroad in a place that was all jungle?
Keith probably understood that he seemed to know which cards to play when, and he knew how desperately the Costa Rican government wanted to build that railroad to export coffee. Well, he was an American entrepreneur. He was still very able to negotiate if he was able to put himself call somebody indispensable for the Costa Rican government who was capable of finishing the railroad. It also helped that Keith was tight with the political elite in Costa Rica so close that he was able to marry the daughter or one the most important person in the 19th century, the 13th century.
It is Jose Maria Castro. Maytrees had served two terms as president of Costa Rica.
He is sconces himself in Costa Rican society by marrying the president's daughter.
He was able to became a part of the ruling class in Costa Rica. He knew how to win people over.
Those elites loved minor Keith and he was their patron.
Really. So work on the railroad continued, and at this point, Keith had, like, really managed to dig himself out of a hole, right? Absolutely. I mean, now he had the support of the country's elite, a workforce that could handle the climate total control of the poor of Lehman and 800000 acres of tax free land.
And what he did with that land at first was he grew bananas and he didn't grow them to make money. He grew them to feed his workers, the ones who weren't dying by that, by the dozen or two dozen. As an American, Keith had little experience with bananas, they weren't really available in the U.S. since they only grow in tropical climates. But around this time, some people were beginning to experiment with ways to bring bananas, this rare tropical fruit to the United States and after planting a few banana trees alongside the railroad miner, Keith realized why it's really easy to grow.
You know, you get a few banana trees, and from those few, you can go to a farm and from those farms you can create a plantation with rows after row of banana trees. And from that plantation, you can create a nation of banana trees. And that's when the light bulb went off. He had a lot of land at his disposal and soon he would have a railroad and a port all to himself. So minor Cooper Keith set his sights on another potentially much bigger business opportunity.
Hi, this is Britney flying from Denver, Colorado, and you're listening to Throughline on NPR. I just want to say I absolutely love your show and I can't wait to see what comes next week. Support for NPR comes from Newman's Own Foundation, working to nourish the common good by donating all profits from Newman's Own food products to charitable organizations that seek to make the world a better place. More information is available at Newman's Own Foundation.
Doug, good question. That's a really good question. It's a great question. This is free therapy. Thank you for asking me that. God, that's such a good question.
That's an interesting question. But what fresh air interviews are really about are the interesting answers. Listen and subscribe to Fresh Air from Why and NPR.
Everyone goes bananas for bananas in the mid 80s. A sizeable banana market was beginning to appear in the US thanks to a company called Boston Fruit. Before them, the banana was known in the United States, but it was considered a rare weird. I wouldn't want to call it a delicacy because it wasn't. You know, if you look at some books from the eighteen hundreds, for example, one of the things that's interesting about the banana is it was taboo because of its shape.
When a banana is mentioned in early accounts, pre banana industry, a lot of attention is paid to how to properly disguise the banana shape. So a banana has to be served in a crystal ball, you know, with with foil around it and sliced into certain ways and you know, anything to avoid that fact. Very suggestive shape. I mean, like I get it. Like it it looks weird.
I mean, and especially like the eighteen hundreds, they're like probably just traumatized, you know.
And this company bought some fruit. They had to find a way to market an immoral fruit.
Breaking that taboo is is critical to mass acceptance of the banana. Imagine having to be the person to market.
I know this is basically a phallic fruit and you eat well.
The guy, a massive fruit company who was responsible for just that. His name was Andrew Preston, and he began chipping away at that taboo. He starts issuing these postcards and these postcards show these Victorian ladies sitting under trees at picnics, you know, and they're holding bananas and putting bananas in their mouths. And this is to break the taboo that a lady could not hold or touch a banana. He knew that Americans would only buy bananas if they saw them as good, healthy and cheap, cheaper than any other fruit.
And that last part is where minor Keith had the upper hand. He had cheap land and lots of it. He doesn't have to rent it. He doesn't have to pay for it. Plus a cheap workforce and cheap transportation. He owns the railroad, so there's no middleman. And he had control of the port so minor Keith could build a business in which he'd control every step of the production process at very little cost to him and low cost to consumers while still making a lot of money.
The pieces of the business model have fallen into place and make this emerging business model possible. So the railroad that was intended to export coffee for the Costa Rican government was now mainly exporting bananas for minor Keith and the ships docking at the port of Lehman were being filled with bananas to send to the U.S.. By the time the railroad was completed in 1890, miner Keith was officially in the banana business. A few years later, miner Keith was in financial trouble.
He lost a big chunk of money when one of his investors went broke, so he traveled to Boston to meet with Andrew Preston. It's interesting because in a way, they kind of needed each other.
Yeah, I mean, Keith controlled the TV production line right on the one hand, and Preston was really good at marketing so he could raise demand for bananas. And if you combine the two, it's sort of a match made in entrepreneur heaven, right? Yeah. So it makes sense that in 1899 they struck a deal. They formed a new joint company called United Fruit. The business model for United Fruit builds on the one Keith had devised. If you control every step of the process and control the narrative, you can control the market.
This is like Amazon in a lot of ways. This this idea that you can control all aspects of the chain, from the import to the distribution to the marketing to the sales and centralize a business is really, really radical, especially because bananas are perishable. They don't have a long shelf life. Every time the banana is pulled off a tree, there's a two week at the most clock ticking. And it's really a seven day clock because you want to have about seven days in the store from green to brown, you really have to move fast.
And the world was not a fast moving place.
Seven days, seven days. And this is how they might have done it. Day one keeps workers and Costa Rica picked the bananas from his eight hundred thousand acres at the exact right time when they're still Green Day to the bananas get transported to the coast on the railroad, Keith built day three transferred onto refrigerated ships, the first of their kind that United Fruit owned at the Port of Limone. Day four taken up the Atlantic to the port at New Orleans.
Day five distribute it to cities across America by the Fruit Dispatch Company, a gigantic railroad network operated by United Fruit, a monstrous spiderweb of banana trains that delivers bananas quickly all over the United States. They six the bananas are delivered and put on shelves. Day seven customers can buy those bananas at a low cost in their local store. OK, there's so many moving parts to this whole process like this should have been really expensive and time consuming, and they're still managing to make it like the cheapest produce in the supermarket.
Right. It makes no sense on the surface. And the only reason they could do that is because they managed to monopolize every step of the process. Right. Going back to Keith's business model, they could bend the process to their will, maximize how much money they were making because they owned every step of the process.
So everything they did was designed to squeeze profit out land and transportation costs were more or less fixed.
Right. But labor was where they could really increase their margins.
And as Keith was focused on streamlining the production process, Preston launched a massive marketing campaign to generate more and more demand for bananas. In particular, one type of banana that wasn't too big or small wasn't too sweet or bitter. So like a Goldilocks banana. Yeah, but going a good nickname. But but the variety of banana was called Grow Michel. And so its nickname became Big Mike. He put ads in magazines, got doctors, endorsed the health benefits of Bananas for Babies, published cookbooks with banana recipes.
This is a commercial United Fruit made decades later.
You can put them in a pie any way you want to eat them.
You can still hear Prestes influence.
And since they are so good for baby, point is his marketing strategies were really effective and bananas went viral.
People love them. The demand for bananas is a weird miracle. Everything seemed to be falling into place for United Fruit. Soon the amount of money coming in is beyond remarkable. It was the oil industry of its day and many people are getting really, really rich. And there is this seemingly inexhaustible demand on the part of the American consumer for bananas, and Preston realized and Keith realizes they've got to get more bananas. All they really needed to meet this demand was more land and more labor.
So Keith began traveling to other countries in Central and South America, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, making deals with their governments. He'd help them build infrastructure like he'd done in Costa Rica if they gave him land and they agreed. So the model of Costa Rica, it sort of starts to regionalize. Keith had his hands in everything. He ran the Postal Service in Guatemala. He set up a telegraph communications network throughout Central America, built rail lines between Mexico and Guatemala, Guatemala and El Salvador, connecting cities across the region.
And he controlled ports all along the Caribbean coast of Central America. People in these countries gave United Fruit the nickname Al Pulpo, the octopus. And Keith sort of became known as the uncrowned king of Central America.
United Fruit was wildly successful and miner Keith had achieved his dream of greatness, but there was a dark shadow looming over all this success. You already own the land already on the means of transportation. What do you have to own also? The workers. There was a ton of pressure to work quickly because demand grew very fast. They can do you know, what would be backbreaking work for about 14 hours a day? And if there was a rush, people had to work sometimes 24 hours a day to get some of this accomplished, this is Suyapa Purity of.
I am an associate professor of Chicana, Chicano, Latino, Latina Transnational Studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Beyond the long hours, a banana plantation was a really difficult place to work. It was then and it is now. Bananas have to grow where it rains. So a lot of these regions, it rains every day. There's a monsoon season where it rains for days and days out, so workers had to work in a lot of wet environments, very muddy environments.
Banana bunches are heavy, heavily damaged human labor. People would carry 100 pounds or more of bananas on their backs. And it's dangerous. There's actually a type of snake that lives on these banana plantations known to workers as Bahbah Amaria, and it's this very poisonous snake that hides under all the foliage and then many workers get bitten. The actual life expectancy of the average male in Central America starts going down because so many people are employed by the banana industry and are dying.
From what we can tell, minor Keith and the people at United Fruit weren't all that bothered by this. It's probably too simple to say, but it is pretty simple, the money was there and so the rationalisations came to keep that flow of money. In the banana world, the workers are slaves. I mean, that's really the only way to put it. It's an era of sanctioned slavery with the support of the United States government. Workers lived in dorms the company provided, which were small and dirty.
They were paid in company currency, not actual money, and they could only use it to buy food, clothes, whatever else they needed at the United Fruit Store. United Fruit created a universe, and that universe began to develop its own culture for the first few decades of the nineteen hundreds, it was mostly men, with the exception of a brothel or to live life in the banana plantation was a little bit like the life of the Wild West.
Violence, alcohol, prostitution, the self medicated with alcohol, so there's this rise of alcoholism in the regions and there were people from different countries working alongside one another and they tended to divide themselves by ethnicity and race.
So there were all these racial tensions constantly and bitter fights. You know, the market that defined them, defined their masculinity, their ability to survive. So they all were very proud and and carried they're much happier with them everywhere. So if a fight ensued, they would have these battles that were pretty bloody. There is a way to understand how was working on a plantation. Is the novel by colourist fighters? Let me tell you, nine. Many people mentioned this book to me while I was in.
It's considered to be a landmark Costa Rican novel and the title Mamita Yuni is how a lot of Costa Ricans refer to United Fruit.
They don't say Mother United. They view that Spanish Mamita United the mother. Yeah. So they might be like a mother, boss, the boss, everything. This is Danny Sterling.
He's famous here anymore. Oh, really? Yeah. What are you famous? Well, I'm famous because we make the carnival here in Baltimore and I. When does that happen?
In October. I'll come back for that.
I met Danny at the Domino House in downtown Lehman, next to the old railroad yard.
It said that the domino house popped up when the railroad stopped running in Lehman in the 1990s. Almost everyone in here was of Afro Caribbean descent over the age of 50. Mail spoke English and was very serious about their dominoes.
OK, but so why did you talk to Danny? Danny's grandparents, like a lot of the folks there, came to Costa Rica from Jamaica to work on Minor Keys Railroad.
They didn't know a lot was people that know what to read and write in the same manner to trust them to come to Jamaica.
Baltimore and his dad worked for United Fruit, transporting the bananas to the docks and getting them onto the ships.
He said his dad was grateful for the job because it was much better than working in the fields on the plantations where they used to treat the mule better than a worker.
And then Danny broke out in song.
Yeah, they be like, Oh, my Mhlongo job, I recognize is the banana boat song.
It is the banana boat song. He called it the anthem of the banana plantations.
Me to tell them about one six foot seven and eight foot bunch of Taliban.
What the like said I was the boss. I'd be like, Oh. That he's that day, when we come back, the workers strike and United Fruit strikes back. My name is Katie and I'm calling from Anchorage, Alaska, where I reside on beina YNA Athabascan land. And you're listening to Throughline from NPR. Support for this podcast and the following message come from the Walton Family Foundation, where opportunity takes root. More information is available at Walton Family Foundation.
Doug. Part three, The Empire Strikes Back. In the 1910s, as miner Keith and United Fruit continue to see enormous profits, pockets of resistance began cropping up among workers throughout Central America.
The banana workers were not dumb, obviously, and they know that they are the weakest piece of this business, they know that they're being exploited and so they begin asking for their rights, basic rights in the workplace. Right. Eight hour days, health care to have a hygienic baragwanath or dormitories for men, you know, not waiting months to be paid, but being paid at the end of the week.
And you've got to remember, this is also happening after the Russian Revolution. So there's, you know, the ideal of socialism back then is coming into play of communism. There are workers movements beginning all over the world and America to.
So United Fruit Workers began to strike, these are mostly workers who are not educated, and so their attempts to gain their freedom really are very limited and are suppressed over and over again with BLETCHER. But the company had one weak spot. Remember how United Fruit was only producing one kind of banana, the big mike, the big mike, that left them really vulnerable to one thing, the thing that's hardest to plan for.
Disease. Banana diseases would kind of just eradicate not just, you know, one banana tree, but a whole think of them. If a banana plantation gets infected, the soil becomes useless for 30 years. Yeah, it's a really long time. And so if you have a plantation and it gets sick, you're done there. You will never grow bananas there again. And then around 1910, a disease cropped up in Panama, destroying every banana tree in its path.
They are rotting away and nobody really knows what this disease is, but it's rendering these plantations fallow very quickly. Nobody knows how it's spread. Nobody knows what it is, whether it's a fungus, bacteria or something else. But what is for sure is that once it appears, it moves very quickly and it can wipe out an entire district or even a country in a matter of months. Soon this Panama disease began seeping into the soil throughout Central America, killing banana tree after banana tree after banana tree.
The disease happens, chases the bananas out of this one field, out of this one district, out of this one country and into another. The disease comes again. And every time it comes, you've got to take more land. This is the way the banana guys see it. Because your demand is growing and growing and growing and the places that you can grow bananas are shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. United Fruit had to spend a lot of money developing these new plantations, but they needed to keep making a profit.
And bananas had to remain the cheapest fruit in the store. So something had to be squeezed. The workers, the workers. The disease is both a reflection of the business model, and it is what makes the business model so deadly. This disease is not just sort of a hindrance, it is a driver for the ugliness that happened. In Colombia, the government started to grow frustrated with United Fruit for how they were treating their workers. So, you know, in Colombia, the nation of Colombia is actually maybe beginning to sort of like say, you know, maybe we should take care of our people.
Maybe the banana companies are getting too rich. United Fruit workers in Colombia began to organize and demand basic rights. They are asking for, you know, health care, a little bit of money, you know, the ability to live better lives. So in October 1928, 32000 banana workers go on strike, it's a big strike. And when the higher ups at United Fruit caught wind of this, they panicked because there seems to be some government support and.
The United Fruit prompts their supporters in the government of Colombia to go and occupy Magdaleno.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials there were trying to figure out how to deal with the situation. U.S. officials in Colombia are communicating to the U.S. State Department, these are communists, these subversives. So, you know, this was sort of these communists are are going after sort of the belly of the beast, if you will. Right. And they must be stopped. So there was a lot of thinking and premeditation that went on between the company, the U.S. State Department and the Colombian government on how to bring this strike down.
On Sunday, December 6th, nineteen twenty eight in the town of Cienega, banana workers assembled at the church in the town square. And as these workers are in church with their families, machine guns are set up at four corners of the square. So these workers don't know what's going to happen because they're all inside the church. I think for the workers, it was another day, you know, another day striking. You know, not that they didn't expect the military would come in and divide and conquer.
I think what they were mostly used to is seeing sort of divide and conquer strategies from both the state and the company. I don't think anybody saw this coming. These machine gun positions are set up. The people get out of church and they're told you must leave the square within five minutes or we'll open fire. Well, you can't leave a town square when you have a thousand people, children in the square, so they can't disperse. More than 3000 people, workers, women and children have spilled out of the open space in front of the station, repressing to the neighboring streets and army have closed off.
INGROSSO machines five minutes countdown. The captain gave the order to fire. And they opened fire. They were penned in throwing about the gigantic whirlwind that little by little was being reduced to its epicentre as the edges were systematically being cut off. I can only feel that insatiable, methodical shares of the machines. This was like a massacre, a total massacre. Yeah.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez would go on to describe this massacre and his novel 100 Years of Solitude. The estimated deaths that day ranged widely, but it's suspected that at least a thousand people were killed. The U.S. ambassador reported these events to his superiors in Washington. I have the honor to report that the Bogota representative of the United Fruit Company told me yesterday that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military exceeded 1000. The honor to report. You know, I mean, what can you say it's it's horrific.
Miner Cooper Keith died a year after the Columbia massacre, but his business lived on United Fruit, remain ruthless in its mission in partnership with the U.S. government, it would go on to overthrow the government of Guatemala in the 1950s and in the 1960s, it participated in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro, which led to the Cuban missile crisis. United Fruit continue to control much of Central America until the 1970s when it became Chiquita in a merger.
Those countries are known to this day as banana republics. OK, this is quite an amazing view. Yes, and it's because the woman is very flat and then there's only one hill. And if I were a miner, Cooper, Keith, that's where I put my house. No doubt you can oversee the port. You can see with island and you can see practically the whole town.
That's the way that's the island in the distance where Columbus would have landed. Yes.
That's where his fourth trip, David and I drove up to the house where minor Cooper Keith used to live from up there, minor Keith would have been able to look down on the universe he created today. A man named Don got on Castro lives there.
Mr. Donovan and his two dogs came out of the house to greet us, to greet me.
Oh, wow. Thank you. Wants to be interviewed.
And then he took us into the house to show us around.
It's a one story house, mostly made of wood on a huge plot of land that stretches for miles.
I was born, not born, but I was raised here as a kid, running horses and eating fruits that it had planted. Mangoes gave me tools. And there were Cachao for cocoa plantations.
Did you have any sense of miner? Keith was like had he heard stories about them growing up very much?
Well, he said the spirit of Keith filled the house and that he was told he was a great businessman who'd built the railroad.
And what's interesting is that Don Vernon's father was a politician in Costa Rica for 40 years from the 1930s on just after Keith died.
First Don and then took us outside to show us the fruit trees that he had planted, like growing in a picture living picture.
I mean, you have a very, very positive opinion of him. And often these people are very complicated. Right. And things always come at a cost.
And so I wonder, do you see any negatives to that sort of, um, entrepreneurship that he demonstrated?
Well, I don't see negative. I just only see positive things that he did. He had money. He had he worked hard for it, but he was criticized by people that think different private enterprises, exploiters. But for me, it's it was a good man and maybe we could have more more people like him, the country would be better, not worse, but it would be better.
In Costa Rica, minor kids, these are fundamental figures that the really big because if the national of Costa Rica. My kid is a kind of mirror, a negative mirror. Costa Rica, Bill. It's national identity, I guess, the kids, but at the same time for the elite minor kids remains somebody very exemplary. I don't think that he's seen as a hero or as a villain. I think he's probably seen as an historic figure. He's an outsider.
But maybe one way to look at it is the way we might look at Thomas Jefferson, you know, who held slaves yet was responsible for a lot of our democracy. They're sort of seen in, you know, a way that that is probably nuanced. But the banana industry itself has a sort of invisible memory. There's still great problems in the banana industry. The business model is still hugely problematic. Workers are still exposed to amounts of pesticides that are unhealthy.
And so minor. Keith, may or may not be forgotten, but the business model he created. Still exists. That's it for this week's show. I'm Robert Unitab, Louis, I'm Randolph Adath, and you've been listening to Throughline from NPR. This episode was produced by me and me and Jamie York. Lawrence Lane, Kalpen Levinsohn, Lu Olkowski, Nyjer eaten. Fact checking for this episode was done by Kevin Vogel.
Thank you to Jadeveon Iglesia Hannah Hagaman and Isabella Gomez Sarmiento for their voiceover work and a special thanks to David Vargas and Austin Horne. Thanks also to Anagramming. Our music was composed by Ramtane and his band Drop Electric and a special shout out to my tour guide Engleman Sergio Bolanos and his band Kukali for providing the song you're listening to called The Sun United Companies. If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please read us at through line at MPEG or hit us up on Twitter and through line NPR.
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