How a US fruit mogul ruled Central America
- Last Updated: 12:46 AM, June 10, 2012
- Posted: 9:53 PM, June 9, 2012
The Fish That Ate The Whale
The Life and Times of America’s Banana King
by Rich Cohen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In 1910, Samuel Zemurray, head of a company called Cuyamel Fruit, was summoned to the office of the US secretary of state.
Zemurray was campaigning against a deal the United States was making with Honduras, one that would hurt his business interests there. The administration told him in no uncertain terms: butt out.
So Zemurray came up with another solution. Honduras needed a new president.
What’s shocking is that this was not the only military action Zemurray would manipulate the US government into in his lifetime.
“The Fish That Ate The Whale” is a fascinating look at Zemurray, a Russian immigrant who came to America as a teen and became not only one of the richest, most successful men in America as the several-decade head of Cuyamel, later the United Fruit Company — the Walmart of its time in terms of its breadth and influence — but a power broker of such magnitude that the fortunes of several Central American countries were held in his hands.
Penniless when he arrived here in 1891 at age 14, Zemurray was a rich man by 21, having built a business selling “ripes” — bananas that other companies discarded for being too close to spoilage. Zemurray figured out how to get them to market quicker, and later bought massive amounts of land in Honduras on which to grow bananas and ships for importing them to America.
By the early 20th century, though, Honduras owed British banks more than $100 million, and the British were threatening invasion. President Taft’s secretary of state, Philander Knox, asked J. Pierpont Morgan to buy the Honduran bonds, thus satisfying the British debt. In exchange, an official from his bank would collect a duty on all Honduran imports.
But that deal would wipe out concessions Zemurray had negotiated with the Honduran government, putting him out of business. The only acceptable solution was for Knox’s plan to die.
After a traditional lobbying campaign against the bill, including ads and editorials, was traced back to him, Zemurray was summoned to Knox’s office, and given the ultimatum. (He was also immediately put under Secret Service surveillance.)
Cohen describes what happened next as “a coup disguised as a revolution.”
General Manuel Bonilla had been deposed as Honduras’ president in 1907 and now lived “rent check to rent check in a cold-water flat on Royal Street” in New Orleans. At Zemurray’s urging and with his backing, the general’s right-hand man, a mercenary named Lee Christmas, began assembling a ragtag army, often using men who frequented the city’s legendary bordellos.
With Zemurray supplying ships and guns, an early effort to infiltrate the country failed. Zemurray realized that Hondurans hadn’t been given reason to fear Knox’s plan and that he hadn’t provided enough aquatic firepower.
He corrected the second problem first, secretly purchasing a 160-foot-long former US Navy warship that was faster than anything in Honduras.
Treasury agents kept the ship under watch, but neither Zemurray, Christmas or Bonilla ever went near it — until, that is, it sailed out of US jurisdiction, where it was met by Zemurray and the mercenary army in another boat, loading it with rifles, bullets, grenades and a machine gun.
After a five-day journey, Christmas led his men to quickly take over the island of Utila, surprising the local comandante in his underwear and ordering the man to run around his house screaming, “Viva Bonilla! Viva Bonilla!”
When the US government finally confiscated the ship, it helped turn Honduran public opinion Zemurray’s way for the appearance that the United States was interfering in a Honduran civil war.
The Honduran government surrendered, Bonilla became president of Honduras and Zemurray not only got his concessions back but much more as well, including 24,700 acres of Honduran land.
Cohen notes that Zemurray’s operation in Honduras is considered by many experts to be the model for the operations of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Over the decades to follow, Zemurray’s control over Central America would only increase. By 1942, United Fruit would own 70% of all private land in Guatemala and control 75% of the trade.
And in 1954, when he engineered a coup in that country, he was so closely intertwined with the US government that “the CIA used United Fruit ships to smuggle money, men, and guns, [and] when the CIA’s funding fell short of its budget, United Fruit made up the difference.”
Zemurray’s control over the region would eventually backfire and lead to the collapse of United Fruit as a dominant power, as the public caught on and anti-trust legislation was used to break the company’s hold on Central America.
Cohen sees Zemurray, who died in 1961, as not only a power broker of devastating consequence, but the final symbol of a centuries-old way of running the world.
“Perhaps he’s best understood as a last player in the drama of Manifest Destiny,” he writes. “A man who lived as if the wild places of the hemisphere were his for the taking.”Follow @NYPostOpinion