Spring 2017 – Matthew Unangst Sample Research Assignment #5

Sample Research Assignment #5

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**Revisions made since research assignment #3 are in red.

Title: Blood for Bananas: United Fruit, Racial Politics, and the Overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz (**Your title should appear as the post title, as “Sample Research Assignment #5” does here).

In April 1913, former Guatemalan dictator General Efrian Rios Montt stood trial for the crime of genocide committed against indigenous Mayans during the early 1980s. Survivor Tiburcio Utuy recalled his captivity by Guatemalan military forces in the town of Sacapulas where he and others were tortured: “The shoes, the belts were piled two meters high and wide, you could see the traces of people who had been killed there.” [1] Forensic anthropologists testified that exhumed bodies revealed evidence of violent deaths of children, systematic rape of women, and mass beheadings. In other words, the evidence of genocide was overwhelming. But after testimony that lasted four weeks, a judge granted the defense’s request to annul the trial on technical grounds. The prosecution was expected to appeal the annulment. The genocide occurred amidst 36 years of conflict in Guatemala during which over 200,000 people died. Despite horrific levels of violence, the US administration of Ronald Reagan openly backed Rios Montt’s regime, claiming that his anticommunist stance was essential to US foreign policy in Central America. [2] The trial’s annulment raises questions about pressure from current US officials eager to prop up current Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, who was an army commander during the genocide. The trial also raises historical questions about the deeper legacy of violence against indigenous people and other peasants in Central America and the role of imperial powers, including the United States, in condoning that violence.

Thesis paragraph: The trial over Rios Montt’s late Cold War genocide campaigns in Guatemala and recent violence in Central America is not new or without historical roots. This violence is the predictable extension and likely outcome of a history of regime change and economic imperialism in Central America. The roots of this violence lie not only in US anticommunist imperatives during the Cold War but more deeply in the history of US economic demands for food products and raw materials on the region in the early twentieth century. While US corporations sought to control and profit from the flow of tropical products including sugar, coffee, and coca out of the region, it was United Fruit Company and the banana that became the symbol of US ties to the region. United Fruit Company infused its economic desires for banana profits with a racialized campaign designed to assure white consumers in the US that unfettered access to bananas and to Central American products more broadly was paramount to peace and security in the hemisphere. In reality, United Fruit’s brutal agricultural policies spurred massive resistance in Guatemala, which culminated in the popular election of Jacobo Arbenz. In reaction, United Fruit convinced US government officials and the American public that it was in the national security interests of the US to support Arbenz’ overthrow in 1954.

Upon US entrance into World War I in 1917, United Fruit Company embarked on a series of advertising campaigns designed to exploit the emotions and sense of adventure of a growing American middle class and furthered the racial polarization and political tension between the U.S. and Central America, all for the sake of selling their bananas. By 1917, the company had well established plantations in numerous countries in Central and South America, in Guatemala. All they needed now was to convince Americans to regularly consume  exotic tropical products, including bananas.  At the time, companies and their consultants argued that advertisements should target consumers’ rationale, not their emotions. So United Fruit hired scientists to author positive scientific reports about the health benefits of its products.  Food Value of the Banana: Opinions of Leading Medical and Scientific Authoritiespublished in 1917, offered a collection of articles by prominent scientists that promoted the nutritional value, health benefits, and stimulating taste sensation derived from the banana. [3] Today we know that bananas are good for us, but in the early 1900s, there was no way for these scientists to determine the nutrition value and other properties they claimed to have researched. However, Americans appear to have believed the scientists, for United Fruit’s banana sales began to soar.

Figure 1: United Fruit Company Steamship Service Advertisement, 1916.

Beginning in the 1920s however, companies increasingly began to appeal to consumer’s irrationality and emotions rather than their practicality. A successful young propagandist named Edward Bernays changed American advertising forever. [4] Bernays discovered that targeting people’s emotions instead of their logic caused people to flock to a product. His first experiment in this type of advertising was for the American Tobacco Company. Bernays thought that cigarette sales would sky rocket if it was socially acceptable for women to smoke, so at an important women’s rights march in New York City, Bernays had women light cigarettes in front of reporters and call it the cigarettes “Torch of Freedom.” [5] By convincing women that cigarettes were an expression of the growing women’s liberation movement, women all over the United States were soon smoking cigarettes. After this initial public relations stunt, companies all over America began using emotionally-loaded advertising. United Fruit was no different. They launched an advertising campaign revolving around their new cruise liner called “The Great White Fleet.” [6] This cruise liner sailed civilians to the United Fruit-controlled countries in Central and South America to appeal to Americans’ sense of adventure and foster a good corporate reputation among US consumers. When the cruise liner docked in a country, cruisers often toured one of United Fruit’s plantations. During tours, the guides only revealed small areas of the banana plantations, theatrically set up to present the plantation as a harmonious place to work. In reality, these plantations were places rife with brutal working conditions, racism, and corruption. [7] United Fruit’s advertisements were key in swaying the American people to set out on an exotic adventure with the Great White Fleet. Figure 1 describes Central America as a land of intrigue and romance: a place where “Pirates hid their Gold.” By giving the American tourists a false sense of the romanticism on offer in Central America, United Fruit sold more cruise tickets, and through association, more bananas.

Great White Fleet Postcard Advertisement, United Fruit Company, 1928.

The Great White Fleet reminded white Americans of their sense of racial superiority over their neighbors to the South, and in doing so, justified the extremely racialized politics on United Fruit plantations. The company pitted racialized groups of workers against one another to control revolts that would otherwise be aimed at the company. [8] American whites held the most prestigious positions, including managers and financial advisers, while people of color toiled in the banana fields. The company made rigid distinctions between Hispanics and black West Indian workers. It administered different privileges and punishments to each racial group, which diverted their attention from the real source of repression: United Fruit itself. [9] United Fruit used the Great White Fleet to further these racial tensions. If the name was not obvious enough, all the ships were painted bright white and all the crew members wore pristine white uniforms. [10] The Fleet went so far as to encourage the passengers to wear white. Figure 2 further embodied the racial divide between US tourists and United Fruit laborers. The large, white, American ship dwarfed the small, run-down, brown ship, symbolizing the power and prestige that colonial whites had over the locals. The Central Americans in the corner of the picture stare in awe of the massive ship, and are dressed in tropical garb that befit Americans’ idealized versions of their tropical subjects. 

United Fruit continued to advertise throughout the mid twentieth century until they found a new use for their public relations skills. A politician named Jacobo Arbenz was elected president in Guatemala, one of the Central American countries occupied by United Fruit. [11] Arbenz was a popular nationalist who ran on an anti-poverty and anti-imperial platform. One of the most important issues to Guatemalans was scarcity of land. As United Fruit had begun to operate in Guatemala in the late nineteenth century, it had bought out many of the local farmers to acquire land for their plantations. This left little room for the peasants, who relied on farming as the sole source of their income. Arbenz created an agrarian reform that took land from the company and gave it back to the poor farmers that needed it. [12] United Fruit was outraged by this reform. It immediately launched a propaganda campaign led by Edward Bernays to convince the US government and US citizens that Arbenz was a communist dictator. [13] In a 1953 article the New York Times described Guatemala as “operating under increasingly severe Communist-inspired pressure to rid the country of United States companies” [14]. United Fruit manipulated the media to make it sound like agrarian reform was simply an extension of Soviet tyranny against free enterprise. The CIA hired civilian militias from Honduras to invade Guatemala and wage a low-intensity conflict against Arbenz and his supporters. United Fruit also convinced U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to threaten Arbenz because Eisenhower and many other prominent American government officials had stock in United Fruit. [15] With these pressures, Arbenz feared for his life and submitted his resignation.

However, this did not satisfy United Fruit. The company wished to make an example of Guatamala so that other host governments would not dare oppose it. United Fruit urged the CIA to bribe Guatemalan military military officials to concede to the demands of the Honduras militia. [16] After the alleged victory, the leader of the Honduran militia, Castillo Armas, was appointed president of Guatemala and remained a puppet of United Fruit Company for the rest of his term. [17] He returned all of United Fruit’s confiscated land, and gave them preferential treatment in all Guatemalan ports and railways. The company continued to influence the media of North and Central America to justify what they had done. They called Armas the “Liberator” and told the inspiring tale of how he freed Guatemala from communism. [18] Shortly after the coup, the New York Times declared that “President Castillo Armas is continuing to act with moderation and common sense,” and “Jacobo Arbenz, anyway, is a deflated balloon, hardly likely to cause any more trouble.” [19] The media praised Armas for his good policy making, yet most of his policies were proposed by United Fruit or the US government. United Fruit and American controlled media also made Armas into a war hero to increase his acceptance and popularity with the Guatemalan people. Arbenz was made to look like an easy defeat to give the American people confidence in the ability of their government to eliminate communist threats.

Figure 3: Victory–In El Salvador, Col. Castillo Armas (left) and Col. Monzon confer on Guatemalan peace aims. New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954.

Yet some US observers of the 1954 coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz felt that the overthrow only partially addressed the “problem of communism” in Central America. Writing in the New York Times Magazine on July 11, 1954, staff reporter Milton Bracker argued that American liberals critical of the recent military overthrow of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz fail to fully understand the “tangible” and “deadly” communist threat “gripping a volcanic republic in the heart of the Americas.” [20] Bracker identified three key lessons of the 1954 coup. First, he argued that not all Latin American anticommunists are motivated by the same principles that motivate American anticommunists. Here, Bracker seems to suggest that while US anticommunism proceeds more or less democratically, Latin American anticommunism has tendencies toward repression. US officials, he warned, must be careful with which Latin American governments they associate.

Second, Bracker claimed that Latin Americans are even more wary of US intervention than of communism and thus, US anticommunist policy in Latin America must proceed cautiously. He recalled past abuses of Guatemalan workers by the US-based United Fruit Company as one of the primary reasons Latin Americans deplore “embarrassing legacy” of US intervention. But Bracker denied any direct US involvement in the overthrow of Arbenz. Still, Bracker offered a third lesson: from the perspective of Latin Americans, their own internal national political struggles always superseded concerns about grand ideological battles between the United States and the Soviet Union. He recommended that the US engage in a propaganda campaign to “convince the Latins, who already outnumber us and are growing much faster, that our [capitalist] way of life is better than the Communists’ way of life.” [21]

Conclusion: Why the 1954 coup matters to US-Latin American relations today [22]


[1] Mary Jo McConahay, “Who Says There Was No Genocide?: Guatemalan Dictator on Trial,” La Prensa San Diego, April 26, 2013, http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu:2182/docview/1349968225?accountid=14902 (accessed December 23, 2015).

[2] La Prensa San Diego, April 26, 2013.

[3] United Fruit Company, Food Value of the Banana: Opinions of Leading Medical and Scientific Authorities (Boston: United Fruit Company, 1917), 1.

[4] Stuart Ewen, PR!: A Social History of Spin (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 3.

[5] Ewen, PR!, 4.

[6] Catherine Cocks, Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 37.

[7] Cocks, Tropical Whites, 34.

[8] Jason Colby, The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 119.

[9] Colby, The Business of Empire, 8.

[10] Cocks, Tropical Whites, 1.

[11] Piero Gleijeses, “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz,” Journal of Latin American Studies 21, 3 (1989): 453.

[12] Gleijeses, “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz,” 453.

[13] Stephen M. Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives,” The History Teacher 34, 1 (2000): 64;

[14] New York Times, November 8, 1953.

[15] Gleijeses, “The Agrarian Reform of Jacobo Arbenz,” 479.

[16] Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala,” 63; Jim Schrider, “CIA Coup Files Include Assassination Manual,” National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 1997, http://www.systems.wsu.edu/scripts/wsuall.pl?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9707293008&site=ehost-live (accessed January 6, 2016).

[17] “Peeling Back the Truth on Guatemalan Bananas,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 28, 2010, http://www.coha.org/peeling-back-the-truth-on-the-guatemalan-banana-industry/ (accessed January 6, 2016).

[18] Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 U.S. Intervention in Guatemala,” 63.

[19] New York Times, September 11, 1954.

[20] Milton Bracker, “The Lessons of the Guatemalan Struggle,” New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954, http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu:2182/docview/112872620?accountid=14902 (accessed December 23, 2015).

[21] New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954.

[22] Stephen M. Streeter, “Interpreting the 1954 US Intervention in Guatemala: Realist, Revisionist, and Postrevisionist Perspectives,” The History Teacher 34,1 (2000): 61-74.


Figure 1. 1916 advertisement for the United Fruit Company Steamship Service, 1916, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Fruit_Company#mediaviewer/File:United_Fruit_Ad_1916.jpg.

Figure 2. Great White Fleet, United Fruit Company, 1928, http://www.ediblegeography.com/spaces-ofbanana-control/.

Figure 3. Victory–In El Salvador, Col. Castillo Armas (left) and Col. Monzon confer on Guatemalan peace aims. New York Times Magazine, July 11, 1954, http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu:2182/docview/112872620?accountid=14902

This project adapted from an actual History 105 digital history project completed by Lindsey Morey in Fall 2014.