Reframing History: Bananas : Throughline The banana is a staple of the American diet and has been for generations. But how did this exotic tropical fruit become so commonplace? How one Brooklyn-born entrepreneur ruthlessly created the modern banana industry and the infamous banana republics.
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Reframing History: Bananas

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Reframing History: Bananas

Reframing History: Bananas

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Hi everyone. We're doing something a little different for the next few weeks. We'd been thinking a lot about what history is taught in school and how it's taught in school.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Yeah, it's one of the reasons this show even exists. What we wanted to do is fill in the gaps and reframe the things we learned in history class.

ABDELFATAH: So a few months ago we started asking teachers for some of their favorite THROUGHLINE episodes that do just that and that they'd like their students to hear before returning to school.

ARABLOUEI: Our hope was that THROUGHLINE was of use to teachers and we heard from many of them who said it was. This week...

JEREMY KELLERMAN: Hey this is a message for THROUGHLINE.

ELIJAH SCHUMACHER: Hi this is Elijah Schumacher.

KELLERMAN: My name is Jeremy Kellerman.

SCHUMACHER: I am an AP world history teacher in Omro, Wisconsin.

KELLERMAN: I'm a professor at Oregon Tech in Koroma (ph) Falls, Oregon.

SCHUMACHER: I'm just calling to say that your episode, there will be bananas, has been used in my class to teach colonialism.

KELLERMAN: I recently used your 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 or why they are still so cheap and that's of course the legacy of everything you all talked about.

SCHUMACHER: And I find it extremely useful as a tool to teach the unintended or the unrecognized consequences of colonialism.

KELLERMAN: Thanks for everything you do. Take care.

[NOTE: This transcript reflects the original episode. There may be updates from this version not reflected here.]

DAN KOEPPEL: Right now bananas are so ubiquitous in our lives that we can't imagine life without them, but I don't think there is anything magical about the banana in and of itself that made it such an entrepreneurial success. I think it was a lot of luck, change in culture, brutality, people willing to practice that. And all these little pieces come together to create this market that probably never should have existed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And on this episode, how one entrepreneur made bananas big business and changed the world for better and for worse.

ARABLOUEI: On most days, I spend at least part of the morning preparing my 4-year-old son's favorite breakfast - a banana - and there are few things more fun than cutting it up, putting it on a plate and watching him enjoy every bite. So a few months ago, 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 Rund and 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, Rund decided to travel to the place where it all began.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

ABDELFATAH: (Speaking Spanish).

SERGIO BOLANOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: (Speaking Spanish).

BOLANOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: This is the birthplace of the banana empire - the port city of Limon, which sits on the eastern coast of Costa Rica.

BOLANOS: My name is Sergio Bolanos.

ABDELFATAH: Sergio has been giving walking tours of Limon for the past five years. I went on this tour with Sergio early in the morning. And we started the tour at Parque Vargas, but the main attraction was across the street from this park.

BOLANOS: Now, this is the palace - I like to call it a palace, by the way.

ABDELFATAH: Why?

BOLANOS: 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.

ABDELFATAH: The building is hard to miss. It takes up nearly the entire block. And whereas most of Limon 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.

BOLANOS: It's totally different. It looks like a train station.

ABDELFATAH: It does look like a...

BOLANOS: Right?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: OK, so what exactly is this United Fruit Company that he's talking about?

ABDELFATAH: OK, 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 Minor Cooper Keith, had a corner office. From there, he had a perfect view of the ocean, the port...

BOLANOS: There used to be a train station over there.

ABDELFATAH: ...And at one point, the actual train station.

BOLANOS: Actually, the train was the project that had started everything for Limon - no train, no Limon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, how Minor Keith managed to bring a city to life and, in the process, built an empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENRY WEAVER: This is Henry Weaver (ph) from Rochester, N.Y., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part I - welcome to the jungle.

ABDELFATAH: There's a story I heard over and over when I was Limon, a kind of local legend. It takes place in 1502, 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 Uvita Island, or Little Grape 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 Uvita 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 processed the indigenous name, or maybe he just thought the place deserved to be called the Rich Coast. Whatever it was, his son replied Costa Rica.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: 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 Minor Cooper Keith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: This was a time when rugged men went out to make their name in the world.

ABDELFATAH: A time when the American entrepreneur was king.

KOEPPEL: It's the Teddy Roosevelt era. It's the era of machismo - of doing things. Women were excluded; people of color excluded. But men like Minor Keith, the world belonged to them. It was theirs for the taking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: Minor Keith had grown up in in Brooklyn, N.Y. And he had become a cattle rancher in Texas. You know, it was a very common motif in America for sort of patrician or urban types to sort of become cowboys.

ABDELFATAH: This is writer Dan Koeppel.

KOEPPEL: I sometimes pretentiously like to call myself a thing biographer. I write about the histories of objects. I'm best known for writing a book called "Banana: The Fate Of The Fruit That Changed The World."

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: They're 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.

ABDELFATAH: Right. And Minor Keith, this city kid from a wealthy family who had tried his hand at running a cattle ranch - at being a cowboy, was at heart a budding entrepreneur. He wanted to make it really big - to be among the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the world. And he thought railroads might be that business for him.

KOEPPEL: You know, in the United States, there's a railroad-building boom. But it's controlled by moguls, by conglomerates, by people who are already rich. There's 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.

ABDELFATAH: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: At the time, there was very little infrastructure in Central America.

KOEPPEL: These were villages with dirt roads.

ABDELFATAH: But people were determined to find a way to the Pacific through Central America - what Columbus had wanted to do. Why Central America?

KOEPPEL: Because of the unimaginable - or imagined, let's say, riches that might happen there.

ABDELFATAH: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: But on the flip side, he probably thought - if I build this railroad, then I'll have access to all those riches.

KOEPPEL: I think what Minor 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.

ABDELFATAH: And Keith had another, more lofty goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: In those days, it was looked at as almost bringing civilization, bringing progress to these poor souls who otherwise would be living naked in the jungle. That was the way it was seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: 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 an un (ph) - you know, not very good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: And it was a jungle.

ABDELFATAH: The jungle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Up until the 1870s, most of Costa Rica 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.

ARABLOUEI: I imagine it's just, like, endless trees and animals and rain.

KOEPPEL: Yeah. It's very - it's beautiful, but it's very rugged terrain. And...

ABDELFATAH: 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 are monkeys everywhere, plus all sorts of other animals - some deadly. I actually saw a tarantula and a snake while I was there.

ARABLOUEI: Uh-uh, not me.

ABDELFATAH: I know.

ARABLOUEI: I wouldn't....

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

ARABLOUEI: I would not. No, I don't play that.

ABDELFATAH: From a distance?

ARABLOUEI: No, I don't do wild, scary animals.

ABDELFATAH: It actually wasn't that far off from the trail.

ARABLOUEI: I don't do that (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: Keith wanted to build a railroad through all of that - stretching 100 miles from San Jose to Limon.

VICTOR ACUNA ORTEGA: It wasn't an easy task. You have to say that.

ABDELFATAH: This is Victor Acuna Ortega. He's a professor emeritus at the University of Costa Rica.

ACUNA ORTEGA: He faced technological challenges, environmental challenges and financial challenges.

KOEPPEL: I mean, this was really, really crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, ANIMAL SOUNDS)

ABDELFATAH: In 1872, Keith began construction in Limon.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISE, ANIMAL SOUNDS)

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: They are tearing the jungle down with hand tools.

ACUNA ORTEGA: Their work conditions were very, very hard because the climate, because the tropical diseases.

KOEPPEL: Yellow fever, malaria, dysentery - you know, everything you could die of out there - they'd die of wounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: They were like, we're not going to do this because no job is worth dying for.

ABDELFATAH: Construction stalled, and Keith was back at square one. He had to find workers somewhere else.

KOEPPEL: 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 tempts 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.

ABDELFATAH: He also brought workers from China and parts of Europe.

KOEPPEL: And once they get down there and they hear what's happening and they see what's happening and they see how dangerous it is, they begin going AWOL.

ACUNA ORTEGA: It was a total disaster.

KOEPPEL: I mean, they were dying at levels equivalent to deaths on the beaches of Normandy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: Among the workers who died on this project were Keith's two brothers - you know - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Progress was slow, and money was tight. A few years into the project, they were 30 miles from their end goal - San Jose. But Keith remained determined. And desperate for workers, he decided to recruit prisoners.

KOEPPEL: Hopeless prisoners - people in jail in New Orleans, people who have no way out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: And he basically calls for volunteers. And he says, anybody who volunteers - helps me build my railroad to completion is going to get a pardon. Seven hundred prisoners volunteer. But only 25 prisoners survive to get their pardons - 25 out of 700.

ARABLOUEI: I 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 Plainview from "There Will Be Blood" inspiring. You know what I mean?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, like absolutely hellbent on just, like, getting this done.

ARABLOUEI: It's like that scene in "There Will Be Blood" where his - they discover oil and it causes this huge, like, fire. And his son gets hurt and, like, goes deaf, but all he can think about is, like, the money that he basically discovered.

ABDELFATAH: That's exactly what this is. I mean, this guy - Minor Keith - he was ruthless. Right? Like...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: ...It was just a process of trial and error for him. People would die; he'd find more. They died; more came. He was relentless.

Eventually, Minor Keith figured out that if he brought Jamaicans over from the Caribbean, they would have an easier time working on his railroad since they spoke English and were used to the climate.

ARABLOUEI: Hmm.

ABDELFATAH: Thing is - by this point, Minor Keith had another problem. He'd burned through millions of dollars and was nearly out of money.

KOEPPEL: And the Costa Rican government, which is sort of funding this thing partially, also goes broke.

ARABLOUEI: I mean, at this point, most people would just throw in the towel and go home.

ABDELFATAH: That's the logical thing to do probably.

ARABLOUEI: Mmm hmm.

ABDELFATAH: But instead...

KOEPPEL: Keith goes to England.

ABDELFATAH: And he borrows 1.2 million pounds.

KOEPPEL: Which is, I think, about the equivalent of maybe 150, $200 million today.

ABDELFATAH: Then he goes back to Costa Rica and proposes a new deal to the government.

KOEPPEL: This sort of crazy deal.

ABDELFATAH: He says...

KOEPPEL: I'll build the railroad for free.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: In return, you give me 99 years concession along the route. I have 800,000 acres of land tax-free alongside the tracks, and I have full control of the port of Limon.

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: You know, I don't know what, you know, prompted the president to accept it, but I'm going to guess that, you know, these guys also wanted to modernize their countries. They saw railroads as needed. And people love building monuments to themselves. What greater monument than a railroad in a place that was all jungle?

ABDELFATAH: 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.

ACUNA ORTEGA: Minor Keith, he was a very good entrepreneur. He was, too, very able to negotiate. He was able to put himself called somebody indispensable for the Costa Rican government who was capable of finishing the railroad.

ABDELFATAH: It also helped that Keith was tight with the political elite in Costa Rica - so close that...

ACUNA ORTEGA: He was able to marry the daughter of one of the most important person in Costa Rica in the 19th century, the daughter of Jose Maria Castro Madriz.

ABDELFATAH: Jose Maria Castro Madriz had served two terms as president of Costa Rica.

KOEPPEL: He ensconces himself in Costa Rican society by marrying the president's daughter.

ACUNA ORTEGA: He was able to became a part of the ruling class in Costa Rica.

ABDELFATAH: He knew how to win people over.

KOEPPEL: Those elites loved Minor Keith, and he was their patron, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: So work on the railroad continued.

ARABLOUEI: And at this point, Keith had, like, really managed to dig himself out of a hole, right?

ABDELFATAH: 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 Limon and 800,000 acres of tax-free land.

KOEPPEL: 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 the dozen or two dozen.

ABDELFATAH: 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...

KOEPPEL: This rare tropical fruit...

ABDELFATAH: ...To the United States. And after planting a few banana trees alongside the railroad, Minor Keith realized why.

KOEPPEL: It's really easy to grow. You know, you get a few banana trees, and from those few, you can grow a farm. And from those farms, you can create a plantation with rows after row of banana trees. And from that plantation, you could create a nation of banana trees.

ABDELFATAH: 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 - bananas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRITTANY WINES: Hi. This is Brittany Wines (ph) from Denver, Colo., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR. I just want to say I absolutely love your show. I can't wait to see what comes next week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part II - everyone goes bananas for bananas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: In the mid-1880s, a sizeable banana market was beginning to appear in the U.S. thanks to a company called Boston Fruit. Before them...

KOEPPEL: The banana was known in the United States, but it was considered a rare, weird - I wouldn't even want to call it delicacy because it wasn't. You know, if you look at some books from the 1800s, 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's shape. So a banana has to be served in a crystal bowl, you know, with foil around it and sliced into certain ways and - you know, anything to avoid that very suggestive shape.

ARABLOUEI: I mean, like, I get it. Like, it looks weird.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, yeah, and especially, like, the 1800s - they were, like, probably just traumatized...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: ...Looking at it. You know what I mean?

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter).

ABDELFATAH: And this company, Boston Fruit, they had to find a way to market an immoral fruit.

KOEPPEL: Breaking that taboo is critical to mass acceptance of the banana.

ABDELFATAH: Imagine having to be the person to market...

ARABLOUEI: I know.

ABDELFATAH: ...This fruit.

ARABLOUEI: Basically a phallic fruit...

ABDELFATAH: Right.

ARABLOUEI: ...That you eat. Anyways...

ABDELFATAH: Well, the guy at Boston Fruit Company who was responsible for just that - his name was Andrew Preston, and he began chipping away at that taboo.

KOEPPEL: 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.

ABDELFATAH: 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...

KOEPPEL: He doesn't have to rent it. He doesn't have to pay for it.

ABDELFATAH: ...Plus a cheap workforce and cheap transportation.

KOEPPEL: He owns the railroad, so there's no middleman.

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: The pieces of the business model have fallen into place and make this emerging business model possible.

ABDELFATAH: 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 Limon were being filled with bananas to send to the U.S. By the time the railroad was completed in 1890, Minor Keith was officially in the banana business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: A few years later, Minor 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.

ARABLOUEI: It's interesting because in a way, they kind of needed each other.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. I mean, Keith controlled the chief production line - right? - on the one hand. And Preston was really good at marketing, so he could raise demand for bananas.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: And if you combine the two, it's sort of a match made in entrepreneur heaven, right?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: So it makes sense that in 1899, they struck a deal. They formed a new joint company called United Fruit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The business model for United Fruit built on the one Keith had devised - if you control every step of the process and control the narrative, you can control the market.

KOEPPEL: This is like Amazon in a lot of ways, 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.

ABDELFATAH: Especially because bananas are perishable. They don't have a long shelf life.

KOEPPEL: 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 loop was not a fast-moving place.

ARABLOUEI: Seven days?

ABDELFATAH: Seven days. And this is how they might have done it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Day 1.

ABDELFATAH: Keith's workers in Costa Rica pick the bananas from his 800,000 acres at the exact right time, when they're still green.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Day 2.

ABDELFATAH: The bananas get transported to the coast on the railroad Keith built.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Day 3.

ABDELFATAH: Transferred onto refrigerated ships, the first of their kind, that United Fruit owned at the port of Limon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Day 4.

ABDELFATAH: Taken up the Atlantic to the port at New Orleans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Day 5.

ABDELFATAH: Distributed to cities across America by the fruit dispatch company.

KOEPPEL: A gigantic railroad network...

ABDELFATAH: Operated by United Fruit.

KOEPPEL: A monstrous spiderweb of banana trains that delivers bananas quickly all over the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Day 6.

ABDELFATAH: The bananas are delivered and put on shelves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Day 7.

ABDELFATAH: Customers can buy those bananas at a low cost in their local store.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: 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.

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: So everything they did was designed to squeeze profit out.

ABDELFATAH: Land and transportation costs were more or less fixed, right? But labor was where they could really increase their margins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: 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.

ARABLOUEI: So, like, a Goldilocks banana.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah - would've been a good nickname. But the variety of banana was called Gros Michel, and so its nickname became Big Mike. He put ads in magazines, got doctors to endorse the health benefits of bananas for babies, published cookbooks with banana recipes. This is a commercial United Fruit made decades later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONICA LEWIS: (As Chiquita Banana, singing) You can put them in a pie any way you want to eat them...

ABDELFATAH: You can still hear Preston's influence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEWIS: (As Chiquita Banana, singing) And since they are so good for babies...

ABDELFATAH: Point is, his marketing strategies were really effective, and bananas went viral. People loved them.

KOEPPEL: The demand for bananas is a weird miracle.

ABDELFATAH: Everything seemed to be falling into place for United Fruit.

KOEPPEL: 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 realized they've got to get more bananas.

ABDELFATAH: 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.

KOEPPEL: So the model of Costa Rica, it sort of starts to regionalize.

ABDELFATAH: 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 El Pulpo, the octopus, and Keith...

KOEPPEL: Sort of became known as the uncrowned king of Central America.

ABDELFATAH: United Fruit was wildly successful, and Minor Keith had achieved his dream of greatness. But there was a dark shadow looming over all this success.

KOEPPEL: You're already on the land, already on the means of transportation. What do you have to own also? The workers.

SUYAPA PORTILLO VILLEDA: There was a ton of pressure to work quickly because demand grew very fast. They could 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.

ABDELFATAH: This is Suyapa Portillo Villeda.

PORTILLO VILLEDA: I am an associate professor of Chicana, Chicano, Latino, Latina, transnational studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.

ABDELFATAH: Beyond the long hours, a banana plantation was a really difficult place to work.

KOEPPEL: It was then, and it is now.

PORTILLO VILLEDA: Bananas have to grow where it rains. So a lot of these regions, it rains every day. There is a monsoon season where it rains for days in, days out. So workers had to work in a lot of wet environments, very muddy environments.

KOEPPEL: Banana bunches are heavy. That meant human labor.

ABDELFATAH: People would carry a hundred pounds or more of bananas on their backs.

KOEPPEL: And it's dangerous.

ABDELFATAH: There's actually a type of snake that lives on these banana plantations.

PORTILLO VILLEDA: Known to workers as barba amarilla, and it's this very poisonous snake that hides under all the foliage. And many workers get bitten.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: 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.

ABDELFATAH: From what we can tell, Minor Keith and the people at United Fruit weren't all that bothered by this.

KOEPPEL: It's probably too simple to say, but it is pretty simple. The money was there, and so the rationalizations came to keep that flow of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: 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.

ABDELFATAH: 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 1900s...

PORTILLO VILLEDA: It was mostly men.

ABDELFATAH: With the exception of a brothel or two.

ACUNA ORTEGA: The life in the banana plantation was a little bit like the life in the Wild West - violence, alcohol, prostitution.

PORTILLO VILLEDA: They self-medicated with alcohol, so there's this rise of alcoholism in the regions.

ABDELFATAH: And there were people from different countries working alongside one another, and they tended to divide themselves by ethnicity and race.

PORTILLO VILLEDA: So there were all these racial tensions constantly and bitter fights. You know, the machete would define them, define their masculinity, their ability to survive. So they all were very proud and carried their machete with them everywhere, so if a fight ensued, they would have these battles that were pretty bloody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ACUNA ORTEGA: The best way to understand how it was working in the banana plantation is the novel by Carlos Luis Fallas, "Mamita Yunai."

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

ABDELFATAH: Many people mentioned this book to me while I was in Limon. It's considered to be a landmark Costa Rican novel, and the title, "Mamita Yunai," is how a lot of Costa Ricans refer to United Fruit.

DANNY STERLING: They don't say mother united. They do it in Spanish - mamita united - with mother, you know? So they - mamita like a mother boss. They boss everything here.

ABDELFATAH: This is Danny Sterling.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He's famous here in Limon.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, really?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: What are you famous for?

STERLING: Well, I'm famous because we made the carnival here in Puerto Limon. And I...

ABDELFATAH: When does that happen?

STERLING: In October.

ABDELFATAH: I'll come back for that...

STERLING: (Laughter).

ABDELFATAH: ...Because that sounds fun.

I met Danny at the domino house in downtown Limon, next to the old railroad yard. It's said that the domino house popped up when the railroad stopped running in Limon in the 1990s. Almost everyone in here was of Afro-Caribbean descent, over the age of 50, male, spoke English and was very serious about their dominoes.

ARABLOUEI: OK, but - so why did you talk to Danny?

ABDELFATAH: Danny's grandparents, like a lot of the folks there, came to Costa Rica from Jamaica to work on Minor Keith's railroad.

STERLING: They didn't know a lot. It was people that know to read and write. And so Minor Keith contract them to come to - from Jamaica to Puerto Limon.

ABDELFATAH: 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...

STERLING: They used to treat the mule better than a worker.

ABDELFATAH: And then Danny broke out in song.

STERLING: (Singing) Day-o, day-o. Daylight come and me want go home.

ARABLOUEI: I recognize this. It's "The Banana Boat Song."

ABDELFATAH: It is "The Banana Boat Song." He called it the anthem of the banana plantations.

STERLING: (Singing) Come, mister tally man, tally me banana.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O (THE BANANA BOAT SONG)")

HARRY BELAFONTE: (Singing) Daylight come and me want go home. Lift six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch. Daylight come and me want go home.

STERLING: Tally man was the checker, like saying they pass (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O (THE BANANA BOAT SONG)")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Daylight come and me want go home. Day, me say day-o.

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, the workers strike, and United Fruit strikes back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY-O (THE BANANA BOAT SONG)")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Me say day, me say day, me say day. Daylight come and...

KATIE: My name is Katie (ph), and I'm calling from Anchorage, Alaska, where I reside on DenaŹ¼ina Athabaskan land. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE line from NPR. Thanks.

ARABLOUEI: Part 3 - the Empire Strikes Back.

ABDELFATAH: In the 1910s, as Minor Keith and United Fruit continued to see enormous profits, pockets of resistance began cropping up among workers throughout Central America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: 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.

PORTILLO VILLEDA: Basic rights in the workplace - right? - eight-hour days, health care to have hygienic barracones or dormitories for men, you know, not waiting a month to be paid but being paid at the end of the week.

KOEPPEL: 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 - in America, too.

ABDELFATAH: So United Fruit workers began to strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: 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 bloodshed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: But the company had one weak spot. Remember how United Fruit was only producing one kind of banana?

ARABLOUEI: The Big Mike.

ABDELFATAH: The Big Mike. That left them really vulnerable to one thing, the thing that's hardest to plan for - disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PORTILLO VILLEDA: Banana diseases would kind of just eradicate not just, you know, one banana tree, but a whole finca of them.

ABDELFATAH: If a banana plantation gets infected, the soil becomes useless for 30 years.

ARABLOUEI: Damn.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it's a really long time.

KOEPPEL: And so if you have a plantation and it gets sick, you're done there. You will never grow bananas there again.

ABDELFATAH: And in around 1910, a disease cropped up in Panama, destroying every banana tree in its path.

KOEPPEL: They're rotting away. And nobody really knows what this disease is, but it's rendering these plantations fallow very quickly. Nobody knows how it spread. Nobody knows what it is, whether it's a fungus, bacteria, 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.

ABDELFATAH: Soon, this Panama disease began seeping into the soil throughout Central America, killing banana tree after banana tree after banana tree.

KOEPPEL: The disease happens. It 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.

ABDELFATAH: 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.

ARABLOUEI: The workers?

ABDELFATAH: The workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: In Colombia, the government started to grow frustrated with United Fruit for how they were treating their workers.

KOEPPEL: 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.

ABDELFATAH: United Fruit workers in Colombia began to organize and demand basic rights.

KOEPPEL: 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, 32,000 banana workers go on strike. It's a big strike.

ABDELFATAH: And when the higher-ups at United Fruit caught wind of this, they panicked.

KOEPPEL: Because there seems to be some government support, and the - United Fruit prompts their supporters in the government of Colombia to go and occupy Magdalena.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile, U.S. officials there were trying to figure out how to deal with the situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

PORTILLO VILLEDA: U.S. officials in Colombia are communicating to the U.S. State Department - these are communists; these are subversives. So, you know, this was sort of - these communists 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 the strike down.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

ABDELFATAH: On Sunday, December 6, 1928, in the town of Cienaga, banana workers assembled at the church in the town square.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KOEPPEL: And as these workers are in church with their families, machine gun nests 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.

PORTILLO VILLEDA: 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 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.

KOEPPEL: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SHOUTING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Reading) More than 3,000 people - workers, women and children - had spilled out of the open space in front of the station and were pressing into the neighboring streets, which the army had closed off with rows of machine guns.

KOEPPEL: Five minutes - countdown.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Reading) The captain gave the order to fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN COCKING)

KOEPPEL: And they opened fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Reading) They were pinned in, swirling about in a gigantic whirlwind that, little by little, was being reduced to its epicenter, as the edges were systematically being cut off, like an onion being peeled by the insatiable and methodical shears of the machine guns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: This was, like, a massacre - a total massacre.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. Gabriel Garcia Marquez would go on to describe this massacre in his novel "One Hundred Years Of Solitude." The estimated deaths that day range widely, but it's suspected that at least a thousand people were killed.

KOEPPEL: 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 1,000 - the honor to report. I mean, what can you say? It's horrific.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Minor Cooper Keith died a year after the Columbia massacre, but his business lived on. United Fruit remained 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 continued 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOLANOS: OK, this is quite an amazing view.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it's pretty.

BOLANOS: And it's because Limon is really flat, and then there's only one hill.

DAVID VARGAS: And if I were Minor Cooper Keith, that's where I'd put my house, no doubt. You can oversee the port, you can see Uvita Island, and you can see practically the whole town.

ABDELFATAH: That's - wait. That's the island in the distance where Columbus would have landed?

VARGAS: Yes. That's where, on his fourth trip...

ABDELFATAH: 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'd created. Today a man named Don Hernan Garron Castro (ph) lives there.

DON HERNAN GARRON CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: (Speaking Spanish).

CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: (Speaking Spanish).

CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: Don Hernan and his two dogs came out of the house to greet us.

CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: (Speaking Spanish).

CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: (Speaking Spanish).

Oh, wow.

CASTRO: Wow.

ABDELFATAH: Piki (ph) wants to be interviewed.

And then he took us into the house to show us around.

CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: (Speaking Spanish).

It's a one-story house mostly made of wood on a huge plot of land that stretches for miles.

CASTRO: I was born - not born, but I was raised here as a kid, running horses and eating fruits that Mr. Keith had planted...

ABDELFATAH: Really?

CASTRO: ...Like mangos, caimitos. And there were cacao farms, cacao plantations.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: Did he have any sense of who Minor Keith was? Like, had he heard stories about him growing up?

ABDELFATAH: 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 Hernan's father was a politician in Costa Rica for 40 years from the 1930s on, just after Keith died.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ABDELFATAH: Don Hernan then took us outside to show us the fruit trees that Keith had planted.

CASTRO: It's like a drawing - (speaking Spanish).

VARGAS: Living picture.

CASTRO: Living picture, yeah.

ABDELFATAH: Living picture - I mean, you have a 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 entrepreneurship that he demonstrated?

CASTRO: 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's criticized by people that think different, that private enterprise is exploiters. But for me, it's - it was a good man. And maybe we could have more people like him. The country would be better, not worse. But it would be better.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ACUNA ORTEGA: In Costa Rica, Minor Keith is a fundamental figure - that's very clear - because in the national identity of Costa Rica, Minor Keith is a kind of mirror, a negative mirror. Costa Rica built its national identity against Minor Keith, but at the same time, for the elite, Minor Keith remains somebody very exemplary.

KOEPPEL: 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 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUCALA SONG, "THE SUN UNITED COMPANIES")

ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

LU OLKOWSKI, BYLINE: Lu Olkowski.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: N'jeri Eaton.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Jay Divinagracia (ph), Hannah Hagemann and Isabella Gomez Sarmiento for their voiceover work, and a special thanks to David Vargas and Austin Horn.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, and a special shoutout to my tour guide in Limon, Sergio Bolanos, and his band Cucala (ph) for providing the song you're listening to, called "The Sun United Companies."

ARABLOUEI: If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter @ThroughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Also, we'd love to hear from you. Send us a voicemail to 872-588-8805 and leave your name, where you're from, and say the line, you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. And tell us what you think of the show. We might even feature a voicemail on a future episode. That number again is 872-588-8805. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUCALA SONG, "THE SUN UNITED COMPANIES")

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