The Fish That Ate the Whale
The Life and Times of America's Banana King
Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
It's called Musa paradisiaca, the fruit of paradise. They believe that it was the banana, not the apple, that tempted Eve. Or,

    According to another legend, the banana was the holy fruit from the East, sustenance for the wise men of India, the peels rotting in piles beside the bodhi tree where the Buddha attains enlightenment.

Some claim that in the jungle, after a rain, "you can hear the banana trees growing." But the banana doesn't grow on a tree. It's an herb, classed as a berry, "the world's tallest grass ... the largest plant in the world without a woody trunk." Cohen compares the stem to a "roll of dollar bills."

    The plant grows from a rhizome, which, in the way of a potato, has no roots.

If you cut one down, and cut it into a pieces, and bury the pieces, new banana 'trees' will erupt from the ground.

Most winters, I live on a banana plantation near the equator. I use the word "plantation" as a show off ---- because there are only about forty banana plants (or were, before the last hurricane). The fronds move nicely in the breeze, and in a place where the sun can be hurtful, they provide a spacious, constantly agitated shade.

When a bunch of bananas erupts (suddenly!) the plants will double over in agony at the weight of their new babies. At that time, Juan will hack off the bananas and set them aside to ripen (plastic bag, sealed, with half an apple inside). He will then cut off the rest of the plant down low, at the diagonal. Within a couple of weeks, we have a clone, taller than me.

The plants also carry another dividend. There is a yellow wasp as long as my thumb that feeds on the nectars produced by the flowering and fruiting plants. They like us, these avispas, like joining us for lunch, want to feed on our bread and salad and beans and tortillas. Last year one got in my plate and I slapped him and the son-of-a-bitch stung me smartly on the thumb which promptly doubled in size and gave me a restless night of fever and cursing the bichos (and bananas) of Oaxaca.

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The politics of bananas is the heart of The Fish That Ate the Whale. It all comes from the fact that bananas don't and won't grow in the United States --- their biggest market --- but, instead prosper in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama and Columbia. The politics of that area have come, over the years, to be married to the politics of the United Fruit Company.

When UF first got into the business 150 years ago, bananas were a luxury: a small slice sold for 10¢ at the World Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. United Fruit --- then known as Boston Fruit --- colonized Central America and promptly colonized the banana, spent years ramping up our desire for this funny curved yellow sickle ... which is kind enough to carry its own protective packaging.

The Fish That Ate the Whale is the story (and it is a fascinating story) about how the banana took over America, and how one man, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, Samuel Zemurray, became the banana king.

He did eat the whale: he started out as a jobber, selling what were called "turnings" (bananas dumped from freight cars because they would soon spoil) on the streets of New Orleans. By the time he had turned fifty, he had taken over United Fruit, and thus controlled a majority of the banana imports into this country.

Cohen is a droll writer, and can turn a nice phrase. One of the most felicitous asides here tells of Huey Long. Long denounced Sam Zemurray in his 1928 gubernatorial campaign with a circular that read "THE BLOOD OF AMERICAN SOLDIERS THAT IS SPILLED FOR ZEMURRAY." He was referring to the various American-backed wars waged in Central American countries to protect United Fruit's monopoly. Here is Cohen's brief on Huey Long:

    It's not just what Long said, but also how he said it. His face was expressive in a way unimaginable in the pallid politics of today. He spoke with his hands, got his whole body into it. Goofy yet strong, he seemed like he was having a great time. Here's the crucial quality often overlooked by historians of the era: Huey Long was funny; comedy was a big part of his appeal from the beginning. He delivered his kickers not to shouts but to laughter. The man who wanted to make the bastards pay was the scariest thing of all: an evil clown.

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To me, the most interesting aside in a book filled with fascinating asides has to do with Jacobo Arbenz. He was elected president of Guatemala in 1952, but he did something fatal, something that destroyed him and his government. He said that the people of Guatemala should have some say-so about who owned land in their country, like large banana combines from the colossus of the north. He began a process of taking back the land.

That was all that United Fruit needed. Zemurray hired on some heavies from the East Coast political scene (Tom Cocoran, Howard Hunt, Edward Bernays ... one of the earliest and most successful "public relations" people) to bring Arbenz to heel.

They enjoyed a wonderful new leverage, for Arbenz had permitted Communists to participate in the country's government. It was 1951. Joe McCarthy had just made anti-Communism a big business. It was a windfall for Zemurray and Arbenz never knew what hit him. All of a sudden little Guatemala became the biggest threat in the world. The CIA had just deposed Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It was time to go after Arenz in Guatemala. It was labeled "Operation Success."

The keywords were "MENACE (zap!), CONTAGION (zap!), DOMINOS (zap!)" Make United Fruit's problem a problem for the whole of the United States. Get the CIA involved, along with the state department's John Foster Dulles. John Peurifoy became ambassador to Guatemala. He famously said, "If Arbenz is not a Communist, he will certainly do until one comes along."

After that, Ike was sure to follow. In an address to Congress, he said, "The Reds are in control in Guatemala, and they are trying to spread their influence to San Salvador as a first step to breaking out of Guatemala to other South American countries." From there it took but a little imagination to see the same threat not only everywhere to the south of us, but later, off, far off in the Far East, in a place called Vietnam.

--- Richard Saturday
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