Saturday, June 16, 2012

New book by an author specializing in "tough jews"

The beginning of Businessweek's review of The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King by Rich Cohen:
In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup d’├ętat in Guatemala that was more ruse than revolution. Agents transmitted fake newscasts of a right-wing uprising, dropped smoke bombs on Guatemala City, and sent a 39-year-old ex-colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas to invade the country with a band of 400 mercenaries. That the operation succeeded in ousting Guatemala’s democratically elected leader, Jacobo Arbenz, was a surprise. That the CIA itself had been manipulated was a catastrophe.

Behind the ruse-within-a-ruse was the most powerful man in Central America, banana salesman Samuel Zemurray, the subject of Rich Cohen’s The Fish That Ate the Whale. Zemurray epitomized the gumption it takes to rise from the depths of poverty to great heights. But his story is also a lesson in what it means for a business to have too much power.

The author of Tough Jews and Sweet and Low, Cohen has created a cottage industry of books about ruthless Jews. Among them, Zemurray stands out as a contradiction: He supported FDR’s New Deal, donated bundles to Tulane University, and built hospitals across Central America—but he crushed fledgling democracies when elected leaders had the gall to demand anything resembling fair play. In the same way Halliburton maintained cozy ties with the Bush Administration, Zemurray’s executives at United Fruit swung easily between government roles and positions at the giant fruit importer. State and corporate interests blurred and the country carried out Zemurray’s dirty work.

By the early 1950s, United Fruit owned 70 percent of all the private land in Guatemala. It grew crops on only 15 percent of it and kept the rest in reserve. To open the land, President Arbenz signed a decree expropriating Zemurray’s uncultivated acres and distributed it to peasant farmers. He had made a terrible enemy.
Read on.