Our story starts in Guatemala, just after the dictator of over a decade, Jorge Úbico, was overthrown during a military coup. That year, 1944, was the year the Guatemalan Revolution began. With their time under harsh authoritarian rule finished, the Guatemalan people rejoiced, looking forward to new freedoms and opportunities. This new era would come to be known as the Ten Years of Spring.
Soon came the presidency of Juan José Arévalo, who immediately implemented an effective social reform program with near-universal suffrage and a successful literacy campaign. Arévalo's presidency spearheaded the establishment of a social security system, as well as policies lifting up farm workers and Indigenous people.
In 1951, a new president, Jacobo Árbenz, was democratically elected, who carried on with Arévalo's reforms and began his own land reform which benefitted Indigenous Guatemalans and helped them gain autonomy and confidence. Everything was going well until 1954, when Árbenz's presidency came to an end after a military coup carried out by none other than the United States' CIA. The revolution was interrupted and the president was deposed.
The land reforms that had been the central focus of the Árbenz administration threatened the United Fruit Company, a company from the United States that had risen to power as the largest landowner in Guatemala.
This was the 1950s, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in the midst of the Cold War. The U.S. was passionate about fighting against communism, and feared that the countries with whom it shared the American continent would move towards more communist governments. With the formal legalization of the communist party The Guatemalan Party of Labour, that fear only grew.
The Guatemalan people were winning in their battle for human rights now that they had more power to speak up and create labor unions.
The United Fruit Company was not happy with the choices the government had made to empower individuals and decided that the compensation they received was not good enough. They began an anti-communist lobbying campaign to persuade the United States to become involved with Árbenz's presidency.
U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower told the CIA to move forward with recruitment for covert operation PBSUCCESS, with orders to isolate Guatemala and use psychological warfare, including broadcasting anti-government propaganda and distributing leaflets.
On the 27th of June, 1954, the government was overthrown by a force of 480 men led by Carlos Castillo Armas, a Guatemalan general who had opposed the revolution and began working with the CIA after two failed coup attempts of his own. The Ten Years of Spring had come to an end at the hands of the CIA. Castillo Armas became the new president of Guatemala, and is known for his authoritarian rule.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that Guatemala had been saved from communist imperialism, and the U.S. perceived this as a great success. Many Guatemalans see it differently, however, because United Fruit was able to get much of its land back.
The United Fruit Company is infamous for its desire to hold monopolies in the fruit industry, as well as its exploitation of workers and paying little taxes to the governments of the countries in which it operated. Such countries became known as "banana republics," which refers to nations being economically exploited by the United States for limited resource products such as bananas.
Although UFC built railroads and created schools for its workers, being a banana republic was ultimately not beneficial for Guatemala. The company's presence resulted in national poverty and sociopolitical discontent because of uneven land distribution, uneven economic development, and an economy dependent upon limited-resource export crops.
Today, the United Fruit Company goes by a different name: Chiquita. For a brand so familiar, its backstory in Guatemala is not well known enough. Chiquita operates in 70 countries and has been criticised for unethical treatment and disrespect of workers, as well as mistreatment of the land they work on. Decades of neocolonial presence have impacted the vibrant cultures and livelihoods of their employees and communities, and their farmers are disproportionately affected by the results of frequent pesticide and herbicide use.
The story of the Guatemalan Revolution can help us understand the power that corporations have over vulnerable governments, and remind us that the companies we see every day may not be who we think they are.