USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945


During the export boom, United Fruit Company turned bananas into a mass-market grocery item. In the process, the company transformed the economies of many Caribbean countries into little more than “Banana republics.” Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela all became sites of this massive banana empire. The United Fruit Company was a larger economic operation than many of the countries in which it operated, and this allowed it to exercise tremendous political and economic power within the small nations. Companies like United Fruit required huge amounts of land for growing and swallowed up millions of Latin American acres, often displacing local populations and destroying local ecosystems to make room for banana production. What’s more, all senior management of United Fruit and similar corporations was brought in from the outside, meaning that these mega-corporations did not hire Latin American white collar workers. The effects of these policies on the host countries were devastating, huge corporate profits and little or no dissemination of economic power to the population at large. Often, it was the reverse, as traditional practices were uprooted and traditional lands were taken over by Western corporations (often as shady business deals with the local elite). Local peoples, pushed into wage labor positions (like banana chopper) on these plantations, faced extreme work conditions with basically no hope for advancement or betterment of life circumstances. Wages were meager and the decline of local production meant that local Latin Americans were forced to buy imported consumer goods at high prices. It is telling for our period that the United Fruit Company had its best years in the period between WWI and the 1929 Great Crash.

Throughout Latin America, the continent’s peoples were becoming armies of exploited wage laborers while central governments guaranteed corporate and landowners’ interests through repressive tactics, as we saw in Argentina during the “Tragic Week” in which one of the most progressive governments at the time, the Argentine Radical Party, violently put down labor strikes.

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