Monday, January 3, 2011

Bananas for your country

by Miguel A De La Torre

The question that should be asked when dealing with the present Hispanic immigration debate is why are they here, and why do they keep coming. For some they come here to take away our jobs and use up our social services. For others they come in search of the American Dream hoping to find a better life for themselves and their families. 

These are the two most common answers given when asked why they cross the border—ignoring that it was the borders that crossed Hispanics with the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. Nevertheless, the real reason they keep coming is bananas. Yes— bananas.

Our refusal to honestly deal with the role of bananas contributes to much of the misinformation surrounding the current immigration debate. 

Before 1870, most Americans never heard of bananas. Two individuals, Lorenzo Dow Baker and Minor Keith, independently of each other, are credited with being the first to introduce bananas to the American consumer. By 1890, Baker and Keith, along with Andrew Preston, a Boston entrepreneur, joined forces to create the Boston Fruit Company. By 1899, Americans were consuming over 16 million bunches a year. They literally went bananas over bananas. That was also the year that Boston Fruit merged with United Fruit to create the notorious United Fruit Company, the largest banana company in the world, with plantations throughout Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.

Around this time, President Teddy Roosevelt stated talking about “gun boat diplomacy” and “speaking softly but carrying a big stick.” While most of us remember these sayings from grade school, few understand their impact on the histories of Central and South America. Teddy was describing how the full force of the US military was protecting the interests of US corporations, such as the United Fruit Company.

When Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the Guatemalan dictator, in 1901, gave the United Fruit Company free rein to own land so the company could grow bananas, not only was Guatemala under the control of US companies - hence the term “banana republic”—but so was every nation along the Gulf of Mexico (and several South American countries). No country could have a leader without the expressed blessing of the US ambassador to that country.

By the 1950s, 70% of the land in Guatemala was controlled by 2.2% of the population, with only 10% of the land available to 90% of the, mostly Indian, population. Much of the land was unused, and owned by large landowners.  Jacobo Arbenz was eventually elected president through a free and open election. He implemented land reforms to deal with this injustice but he ran into a major problem: the United Fruit Company was a major holder of unused land.

This was where the Dulles brothers intervened.  John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, his law firm had previously represented the United Fruit Company. His brother, Allen Welsh Dulles, was the head of the Central Intelligence Agency and he had earlier served on the Board of Directors of the United Fruit Company. A covert operation overthrew the democratically elected government and replaced it with a military dictatorship under the pretense that Arbenz was a communist.

US actions in Guatemala led to persistent political unrest where hundreds of thousands died or were disappeared. Of course, Guatemala is not the only country where brutal dictators that would protect the business interests of US corporations were installed. Every country along the Caribbean was invaded by the United States at least once during the 20th century. The result of US installed “banana republics” created poverty, strife, and death in all of these countries.

This brings us, then, to the real question that needs to be answered concerning immigration: why do “they” keep coming? For over a century the US military protected US corporations  building inroads into developing countries throughout Latin America, and to extract, by brute force if necessary, their natural resources and cheap labor.

Some of the inhabitants of those countries, deprived of a livelihood, followed the resources taken from them. They followed what had been stolen. They escape the violence and terrorism unleashed during the confiscation of their resources and cheap labor.
The real question we are faced with is not whether they should come or stay, but was the role of the US over a century of its foreign policy in  helping to create the present immigration dilemma.  

* Miguel A. De La Torre is Professor of Social Ethics at the Iliff School of Theology and has received several national book awards. His most recent book is Latino/a Social Justice: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking (Baylor University Press, 2010).

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