Friday, October 10, 2008

Jungle Capitalists (2)

Chapman characterises United Fruit as a precursor of the modern multi-national, setting against its multifarious abuses its equally numerous acts of 'social responsibility', a layer of corporate activity it might even be said to have invented. (The company built an excellent hospital at Quiriguá, where it also funded the excavation of the Maya ruins.)

While there is a degree of truth in this, my own perspective on el pulpo is closer to that of García Márquez when he referred in his autobiography to the "absolute empire" of UFC - the late nineteenth century Americas were self-consciously post-colonial, so entities such as this were the only way that the great new power was going to be able to participate in the frantic imperialism of the period. (Something similar was achieved by the British in Argentina which joined our own empire at the same time in all but name.) 

Chapman also notes that UFC was one of the ways that American capitalism could experiment with its purer 'liberal' form long before the advent of Reagan and Thatcher. Back home in the democratic West welfare systems were taking shape, but down in bananaland, United Fruit maintained its own labour laws, generally paying its workers in scrip which could only be spent in company stores.

Yet the power of United Fruit proved to be, in Chapman's words, "a huge confidence trick", seemingly built on smoke and mirrors, and it evaporated all very suddenly - a tendency we can observe today with other systems built on unadulterated economic liberlism! 

Men like Keith and Zemurray could well have aspired, deep down, to bring material and cultural progress to Central America, but they were also highly opportunistic capitalists, who insinuated their organisations into countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica by invitation, because they had at their disposal the resources for rapid modernisation that were largely absent in these nations. The very nature of this relationship encouraged them to behave in a similar fashion to filibusters like William Walker

When necessary United Fruit destroyed its own crops to keep prices up and always held kept vast quantities of land un-cultivated, as a hedge against future adversities, such as the ever-present danger of disease. When the inevitable happened and their banana trees perished, they even went about dismantling the infrastructure they had constructed, ripping up railway track and chucking it into the sea.

Few of the railroads that UFC managed across the region are in use today, and as Chapman puts it. today "Central America follows broadly the US public transport model whereby the better-off travel by air and the poorer by bus, if at all."

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