Banana Republic Tour (September 2010)

Recently, Meg’s brother Jake came for Guatemala for a brief visit. After spending a few days touring Antigua, Lake Atitlan, and Guatemala City, Jed and Jake went to Tikal (while Meg went to the US to teach medical board review classes):

Then Jed set off to explore the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, which is geographically and racially distinct from the rest of Guatemala. Dominated by tropical low lands, filled with fruit plantations, this portion of the country also has a significant Garifuna population (the Garifuna are descended from African slaves) and thus looks more like Barbados than Guatemala. In addition to the Garifuna, this area of the country also contains another vestige of the America’s commercial history, albeit a more recent one: bananas. So Jed took this opportunity to do a little banana republic history tour.

First some historical background- as many know, Guatemala was one of the original banana republics. The United Fruit Company played a huge role in Guatemala for much of the 20th Century and became to be known as The Octopus for the manner in which its tentacles reached into all aspects of society. United Fruit’s business in Guatemala was banana export. In Guatemala, United Fruit owned hundred’s of thousands acres of land and also controlled Guatemala’s railroad lines (which crisscrossed the banana plantations) and Guatemala’s only modern ports (Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast and Puerto San Jose on the Pacific coast).

In fact, United Fruit was in part behind the 1954 presidential coup in Guatemala, through which the United States help to depose President Jacobo Arbenz (who, not coincidentally, had just put in place a major land reform though which United Fruit was forced to give up some its unused land- United Fruit was compensated with a payment equal to what they had declared the land to be worth for tax purposes, but they claimed that they should actually be paid ten times that amount). Interestingly, at the same time that the CIA and the State Department were orchestrating a coup, the Justice Department was preparing to bring suit against United Fruit for monopolistic practices. (There is much more information on the 1954 coup and United Fruit in the interesting book, Bitter Fruit.)

As a result of this suit, United Fruit was forced to sell a portion of its Guatemala assets to its rival, Standard Fruit (now known as Dole), and in 1960’s sold its Guatemala operations to Del Monte. Nonetheless, bananas remain big business and even on a short trip to the Caribbean coast it is impossible not to witness the impact of this banana history.

First, the Atlantic Highway in Guatemala is packed full of tractor trailers representing every brand of banana you’d ever see on a supermarket shelf in the US. Second, while the land next to the highway is dedicated to more commercial uses (restaurants, fruit stands, hotels, etc) a short drive off the main road and you’re engulfed in a banana plantation. Third, a quick look at the map reveals a vast (and now defunct) rail network that runs from these banana plantations, in towns like Bananero, to the coast.

So Jed planned his own tour of Guatemala’s banana past. The most common relic of the country’s banana past is the vestiges of railroad network where old tracks and the wrecks of railroad stations still dominate the center of many towns.

(Near Bananero's town center)

While any towns are content to let these facilites serve as an informal local dump, the town of Zacapa has created an interesting rail museum, where it turns out that the last train in the country ran some five years ago.

While the railroad is out of use at this point, having been replaced by modern container shipping, United Fruit’s shipping facility in Puerto Barrios is still very much in use (though it has been converted to a container facility). And still in use, though certainly not modernized like the port, is the old banana baron hangout Hotel Del Norte- a classic company town wooden structure facing the port in Puerto Barrios (all the better to monitor the banana exports) with the word's widest porch:

While Puerto Barrios is not much of a company town anymore, it turns out that some banana enclaves remain in the region. For example, in Bananero there is still a banana company town. Next to the defunct railroad station, Del Monte has a little town with wooden houses and sports facilities (note the logo at center court):

And best of all, the town a Del Monte landing strip cum golf course- a good way to fully take advantage of the land and to allow the banana executives to step off the plane and play a round (see golf flag in foreground and landing strip behind):

Jed is thinking of turning all of this into the Guatemala Banana Republic Tour (maybe we’ll even include a round of golf on the Del Monte course)….