The United Fruit Company was an American corporation that did business in South and Central America from 1899 until the 1970s, when it was merged with another company to create the United Brands Company. In 1984, United Brands was reorganized, becoming Chiquita Brands International. The original company has become famous as a result of its often questionable business practices in Latin America, with many critics believing that the company was essentially a colonial entity.
The beginnings of the United Fruit Company were fairly humble; a railroad entrepreneur began planting bananas along the easements of his South American railroads, realizing that the railroad could be used to transport the fruit. When the sale of bananas in the United States and Europe proved to be a success, the company was established, and it began to acquire vast tracts of land in Central America and the Caribbean.
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As part of its business practices, this company regularly bribed and manipulated public officials so that it could receive special concessions. It made it very difficult for other corporations to break into the market in Central America, thanks to its massive holdings, and it met with opposition from peasants, who wanted to try their hand at growing tropical fruit as well. The United Fruit Company was often accused of exploiting its workers, typically paying them low wages and providing minimal benefits.
In addition to controlling large amounts of land, United Fruit also had a stranglehold on transportation, with its own fleet of ships and railroads. This allowed the company to provide tropical fruits like bananas and pineapples at a lower cost than the competition, ensuring market security.
Although it has been difficult to prove such accusations, the company has also been implicated in several coups in Central America, and it has been suggested that it essentially controlled several Central American governments to protect its interest. Countries in which it did business were sometimes called “banana republics,” referencing the company's influence. United Fruit was most certainly involved in a 1928 workers' strike in Colombia, which ended in a massacre when military troops opened fire on the crowd; this event came to be known as the “Banana Massacre.”
When the company transitioned into United Brands, it made a number of efforts to shed its neocolonialist reputation. United Brands worked to restore land to landless peasants while also providing medical care, education, and other forms of assistance to impoverished Latin American communities. Despite these efforts, the legacy lives on, and the company is often invoked when discussing the exploitation of workers and Central American resources.