Wrestling with El Pulpo: Honduras, United Fruit Company, and the fight to reform American business

Lecture Description

In 2014 journalists identified deported gang members from Los Angeles as the culprits of violence and the forced migration of youths from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. While the drug wars created instability, this story hides a longer relationship between the United States and the region. A century of banana cultivation and capital extraction at the hands of US-based fruit companies contributed to the economic malaise that now passes for normalcy in these nations. Honduras suffered under the control of the United Fruit Company, whose business model depended on the complete submission of workers to the whims of corporate owners. During the 1960s, however, a glimmer of hope emerged when a new corporate executive, Eli Black, led a successful takeover of United Fruit. Black, an ordained rabbi and Polish immigrant, increased Honduran wages, provided free electricity to workers, and made it possible for employees to become homeowners. Seen as a precursor to the “socially conscious” capitalist of today, Black tried to reverse years of exploitation and change the image of the United States abroad. The experiment did not last as economic volatility, political turmoil, and environmental catastrophe doomed his reform efforts in the 1970s. What started as a noble dream ended in tragedy when Black took his own life. This overlooked chapter of a multinational corporation and the country it exploited reveals lessons about the limits of ethical business practices in an emerging era of free trade.

CATEGORIES

Business and Economics Latino Latina

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