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United Fruit In Costa Rica Essay

1050 words - 5 pages

Among the multitude of American corporations, few stand out like the United Fruit Company. Reviled the world over, United Fruit was one of America’s most notable early multinational corporations. Operating all over Latin America and peddling their produce across the globe, United Fruit would get its start in Costa Rica, a small Central American country nestled between Nicaragua and Panama. The decision to attempt to modernize Costa Rica by General Tomás Guardia would prove to be a fateful one that forever altered the course of Central America.
To understand the machinations of General Guardia, we must first look briefly at Costa Rica’s historical situation. As noted by innumerable books ...view middle of the document...

This gave rise to so-called coffee-barons who, similarly to other industry barons in the United States, exerted great sway over politics. To illustrate the centrality of coffee to the Costa Rican economy, the Costa Rican Reader notes that between 1850 and 1890, “coffee accounted for almost 90 percent of the country’s export earnings” (55). The coffee-barons, or cafetaleros, would solidify their power as an oligarchy over the mid-19th century, until 1870, when General Guardia seized power (Watkins). Seeking to modernize Costa Rica by building a railroad to break the power of the oligarchy and open up dual-coast trade, Guardia invited the American Henry Meiggs to help (Colby 36-37). Meiggs, already busy building railways in the Andes, passed the job to his nephews, Henry Meiggs Keith and Minor Cooper Keith (Colby 37).
The Keith brothers took on their uncle’s job with great fervor, which soon turned sour. Building a railroad across Costa Rica sounded like an easy proposition, yet as always, the devil is in the details. The brothers’ first steep task was securing a suitable workforce. Native Costa Ricans wanted no part of the rail, leaving the brothers to look elsewhere. Cheap workers from the U.S. were found in New Orleans, many of them Civil War veterans or accomplices of William Walker. This option proved infeasible as these men fell victim to malaria and yellow fever, with perhaps as many as four thousand dying in the eastern lowlands of Costa Rica. These setbacks forced the Keith brothers to get an exemption from the Costa Rican government to import Asian and black workers, groups that had been denied admission to the country since the passage of the 1862 “Law of Settlement and Colonization” (Colby 36-37, Chapman 31). Eventually, the brothers would settle on Jamaicans as their workers of choice, due to their higher rates of survival and knowledge of the English language (Colby 38, Chapman 31). A second, and even more daunting task, was funding the enterprise. Guardia intended to pay for the railroad entirely on the country’s dime, and when it became apparent that this would be impossible,...

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