Here is the transcript for the video essay “Bananas, Sardines and Sharks”. If you’d like to translate the film into another language, you can use this as a reference. Please email me with a .vtt file plus your website or twitter handle for credit. Thanks!
So, long before we were obsessed with all these things, and even these things, there was something else entirely.
Yep, this is going to be a story is all about a fruit…ok that’s a lie, because bananas aren’t actually a fruit.
It’s true. They’re a berry. And that isn’t the only thing we have wrong about them.
Maybe the most surprising thing about bananas is that they’re so cheap. Think about it - they’re grown on plantations thousands of miles away…transported, loaded, shipped…but when they arrive on our supermarket shelves they are usually cheaper than the apples which are grown just around the corner.
And they pretty much always have been. Even a hundred years ago, 25¢ would get you a dozen bananas, but only two apples.
That’s got everything to do with this friendly looking sailor, and this less friendly looking train operator. In 1899 they teamed up to create the United Fruit Company, and within 10 years they made bananas available and affordable everywhere. And their secret? Complete control.
United Fruit owned the plantations. United Fruit employed the workers. United Fruit built the railway line, and they even owned the ports and operated the ships.
[Old narrator] “The whole operation right from the first cutting is planned and timed…”
United Fruit turned an exotic delicacy into something cheap and convenient for everyone.
And man, we loved our cheap bananas.
[Lyrics] “I’m Chiquita Banana and I’m here to say that bananas have to ripen in a certain way. And when they’re flecked with brown and have a certain hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you. Anyway you want to eat them, it’s impossible to beat them. Bananas are a solid food that doctors now include in babies diets. And since they are so good for babies, I think we all should try it. Si! Si! Si! Si!”
Long before these came along, the banana proved our appetite for all that is cheap and convenient.
But the story of the banana also comes with a warning…
[Old newsreel narrator] “Communist aggression has incited rebellion against established governments. In France, communist aggression has fomented strikes against essential industries in attempts to discredit the free government. In Iran, in Eastern Germany, in Korea and in China. And with the deadliest of all weapons available to the Russians, no peoples in the world can feel secure against this aggression”
Just 1400 miles from the American border, the shadow of communism was looming dangerously large.
The newly elected president of Guatemala - Jacobo Arbenz - was a well known communist sympathiser.
High level reports warned that the country was overrun with communists…many were even working in the government. Then, in 1952, Arbenz announced a new plan: to buy up all the unused land in Guatemala and distribute it equally to the country’s workers.
And even worse, he planned to nationalise the country’s railways and its ports.
Watching closely, the United States government was sure of one thing. Communism couldn’t be allowed to get a foothold in the Americas…Arbenz had to go.
So in 1953 President Eisenhower ordered his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to fix the problem. He spoke to his brother, Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA. And together they came up with a secret mission to depose the Guatemalan president.
Now this was a dangerous idea: to remove a democratically elected president from someone else’s country…and do it without getting caught.
Did the Dulles brothers think they could pull it off? They must have done. They called it Operation Success.
Here is the CIA Guide to removing a democratically elected president in six weeks without anyone knowing it was you.
Step One: set up a radio station in Miami Florida, but tell everyone that you’re based in the Guatemalan jungle.
Step Two: assemble a rag tag group of a hundred or so mercenaries and stash them on the border.
Step Three: announce on the radio that an army of thousands of well trained soldiers has just invaded the country - even though they haven’t.
Step Four: send a few light aircraft to strafe the capital city and scare everyone into running away.
Step Five: keep up the radio broadcasts and announce that your made up army is marching towards the capital.
And Step Six: sit back and wait for your man to break.
Just a few days later on June 28th 1954, Jacabo Arbenz resigned and fled from an army that never existed.
In his place the CIA installed this guy - happy to do as he was told…and definitely not a communist.
Except…Jacobo Arbenz…wasn’t a communist either.
He wasn’t even remotely dangerous…until that is you realise that Guatemala was known by another name…
[Old narrator] “Here is a banana plantation, and it is our first introduction as to why this rich area is known as Bananaland”
The stories that the country was overrun with communists were made up… all part of a big PR campaign…paid for by United Fruit.
But hang on…we’re talking about a fruit company here - how did they convince the president of the United States to stage a secret coup? Well it’s pretty easy actually…if the Secretary of State and the head of the CIA used to be your company lawyers…
Castillo Armas did as he was told and gave United Fruit all their land back.
And so the bananas kept on coming, as convenient as ever and still cheaper than apples.
The operation to remove Arbenz was remarkably quick and clean…but the 36 year civil war that it started was not.
[Lyrics] “I’m Chiquita Banana and I’m here to say that bananas have to ripen in a certain way. And when they’re flecked with brown and have a certain hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you. Anyway you want to eat them, it’s impossible to beat them. Bananas are a solid food that doctors now include in babies diets. And since they are so good for babies, I think we all should try it…”
Around 200 thousand people died…or simply disappeared. Mass graves are being discovered.
Today we’re in love with cheap convenience more than ever…but usually someone somewhere pays the price.
Question is…as long as WE still get what we want…do we care?
[Old Narrator] “So now that you’ve seen where bananas come from before they reach your table, our journey to Bananaland has ended. We hope you’ve enjoyed the trip. We know you like bananas!”