Nineteenth-century improvements in transportation technology allowed tropical fruits to become a profitable Latin American export for the first time in the 1860s. Bananas were, and continue to be, the most profitable of the fruit exports; their commercial cultivation has been largely confined to the Caribbean Basin (including Central America and the northern coast of Colombia) and Ecuador. In addition to bananas, other tropical fruits are exported from the Caribbean Basin and Mexico, and grapes and other fruits are important to Chile's export economy.
Bananas were first exported to the Gulf coast of the United States in small quantities by shipping companies that occasionally bought the fruits from small independent producers in the Caribbean. In the 1870s the Costa Rican banana industry got off the ground as a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Tropical Trading and Transport Company. At the same time a Boston sea captain, Lorenzo Baker, began to import bananas to New England; this was to become the basis of the Boston Fruit Company. In 1899 the two companies merged to form the United Fruit Company. United Fruit was eventually organized as a vertical monopoly which included plantations, rail and sea transportation, and even a supermarket chain.
United Fruit and its major competitors, Standard Fruit and Cuyamel Fruit Company, were often deeply involved in the politics of the countries in which they operated, especially in Central America. The fruit companies operated on larger budgets than did any of the Central American republics, and the companies were able to buy off both politicians and mercenary soldiers to influence politics in their favor. Their power challenged the sovereignty of the Central American republics.
Although the fruit companies were in many ways model employers, paying higher wages than other agricultural enterprises and providing benefits such as schools and health care for employees, their power came to be resented among Latin Americans.
During the 1960s disease and political problems decreased the profitability of Caribbean-grown bananas. However, bananas continued to provide important export earnings and employment. Throughout the 1990s the Caribbean banana industry fought challenges by the United States and Ecuador over European Union (EU) tariff preferences that favored former European colonies. In the twenty-first century, however, the World Trade Organization ruled against this arrangement. Though the EU in 2007 declared a commitment to Caribbean fruit, banana farmers in the Windward Islands remained concerned.
Ecuador is now Latin America's largest exporter of bananas. Although the United Fruit Company started operations in Ecuador in 1933, the fruit industry did not expand significantly until after World War II. Unlike the industry in the Caribbean Basin, the Ecuadorian banana industry has been dominated by small and medium-sized producers who sell their produce to the large corporations. They have accordingly avoided many of the political problems experienced in the Caribbean Basin.
Chile since the 1970s has become an increasingly important supplier of fresh fruit. Between 2006 and 2007 alone, fruit sales abroad increased 10 percent. In addition to more traditional exports such as grapes, Chilean farmers have successfully experimented with exports of citrus fruits, apples, pears, blueberries, stone-fruits, and kiwi.
Since the late 1960s exports of tropical fruits such as mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, and guava have been increasinly important in Spanish America. Globalization, economic liberalization, and technology have further increased Latin America's fruit production. Many countries now grow nontraditional varieties. For instance, the apple is Brazil's number-one fruit export, and Argentina also has expanded its apple and pear exports. Mexico specializes in strawberries. Still, they had yet to threaten the dominance of the banana.
See alsoAgriculturexml .
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Thomas L. Karnes, The Standard Fruit and Steamship Company in Latin America (1978).
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Rachel A. May