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Samuel Zemurray was a poor Jewish immigrant, selling freckled bananas out of a boxcar before amassing a fortune in the banana trade. His rags-to-riches story is unveiled in a new biography by Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone Magazine contributing editor Rich Cohen. Cohen joins us to discuss Zemurray’s life in relation to American capitalism, foreign relations in Latin America and beyond.

Guests:
Rich Cohen, author and contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone Magazine

  • AmericaAndIsraelRunByCrooks

    From Wikipedia:
    “in 1911, Zemuray allied himself with Manuel Bonilla, a former President of Honduras (1904–07), and Gen. Lee Christmas, an American mercenary soldier, to effect a coup d’état against a Liberal régime disliked by the U.S. State Department for being too politically liberal and too indebted to Britain, and install a government more amenable to the business interests of the Cuyamel Fruit Company. “

  • Rhet

    John Perkins touches on how the USA converted many countries into debt-enslaved banana republics, in his book Confessions of an Economic Hitman. This story of a rags to riches story of Zemurray obscures the rags-to-rags story of millions of people who have become just so much chattel of the American empire, even if they don’t know they are.

    http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Economic-Hit-John-Perkins/dp/1576753018

  • Sick story about a man who played a key role in a sick period of American history. Why this “American success story” should be of interest to us is beyond me. Ask the people who died as a result of this man’s vile and predatory machinations how they feel about his so-called success. I doubt they are much enamored of it.

  • Unme

    This is not only the story about ‘the banana king.’ For God’s sake…get really real…this is a historical ‘how to’ of the machinations of capitalism!

    If Americans had a clue of the truth, the *oceans* of blood we are drenched in at the behest of the profit motive, the American ‘system’ wouldn’t be what it is as we know it today. What was the Civil War about? It wasn’t slavery. It was about how the economies of the wealth in the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ *functioned*…and were at odds.

    This is what ruins life on Earth…all at the command of wealthy elitists…of all nations. It just happens that America is pulling the strings because America has the greatest wealth.

    Can you say ‘viscious?’ Can you say ‘predatory?’

    I love our country…but this hits a deep nerve that is conveniently numb in our moral conscience.

    • Rhet

      The untold detail is that after the USA helped enslave the many small countries of the world, the banking system still needed new debt slaves. That is why they finally turned on us — the American students, homeowners, taxpayers, and finally the subprime borrowers. We are at a debt endgame now because there is no one else to enslave with debt.

  • Alex

    United Fruits also had a huge influence on the dictatorships in Nicaragua and in a sense negatively impacted Nicaraguan perception of the USA as being an imperialist country – exactly because of protecting those dictators to keep those banana republics under their thumb.

  • Monique

    Hitler was an awful dictator and murderer, but what he did to take control of a nation was incredible.  We shouldn’t just not study or learn about Hitler because of the atrocities that he committed. I think it’s the same parallel with the Banana King.  We can learn something from his life. Some of what he accomplished was incredibly good and some was terrible, but it’s still worth learning about. Monique  

  • Manjari

    I heard the lady  caller and I totally agree with her. This book from what I am hearing on the program does seem to  glorify the horrific methods of achhieving the “American Dream”.  

  • Sam

    Perhaps we should view this book as a condemnation of the notion of the American dream and the values it implies than a glorification of a despicable human being.

    What American businesses did in Latin America was reprehensible. Exposing it and helping people to understand it is necessary.

  • mel

    A good companion book to “The Fish that Ate the Whale….” is Dan Koeppel’s “Banana, The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World” which while focusing on the botanical history and peculiarities of the banana, relates this info as it determined many specifics of the banana import business, and was a driver in the creation of banana republics, and the role played by the US govt. It provides good historical context.
     
     

  • Handozo Primero

    I was fuming and furious listening to Mr Cohen’s transparent attempt to whitewash Zemurray’s life, and even more incensed at the downright rudeness with which he addressed the caller who questioned him on the angle which he decided to pursue in hus book. Cohen must have been fantasizing about the movie rights he’s hoping to sell, and did not want to be interrupted from his reverie. 
    As a South American immigrant, I am sick of US entrepreneurs treating Latin America as a stomping ground for their greed, where they exploit locals and disgrace themselves in pursuit of the “American Dream.” This story is a nightmare. Thanks to all of you who have commented here, and to the caller who braved Mr Cohen’s condescending arrogance. Your enlightened perspectives are part of why I love the Bay Area, and KQED.

  • Peter Jacobson

    Sam Z, who I knew as “Uncle Sam,” took me to Cuba and Guatemala as a young boy, and I remember him as a very righteous and kindly man. He went out of his way to treat people graciously and generously. The first memory I have of him was at his hotel suite in Boston when he sat me on his lap, saying, as closely as I am able to paraphrase his words, “Boy, they all say its about money but it’s not about money. What is important is to make sure that there is enough food to eat, that there are doctors, and hospitals to treat people who are sick, and railroads tho take sick people to the hospitals…” Why was he telling me this, I wondered. I was just a little kid, I thought, and this tall, strange man that everyone treated with such deference and respect – not words I then had in my vocabulary, but that I recognize in retrospect – took the time to be kind to a young boy who had been rather ignored by the adults in the vicinity. Looking back on the very first of what were to be many trips to Latin America. I knew he was someone special, but I didn’t quite know why. That he took time to talk to me. a young boy, later encouraged me to learn about radio electronics, and subsequently to travel and study, and to pursue a degree in political science and Latin American studies at Stanford University. And to travel the seas, working on the ships that he himself had traveled upon.Shortly after our trip to Cuba and Guatemala, he sent me my first portable radio, followed by a kit to build my own amateur radio transmitter and receiver. Why did he do this, I wondered, but I accepted with thanks and not until much later returned to New Orleans to vista him and ask for his aid in getting work on a banana freighter. But that is a story for another time.

    That these generous impulses were the parts that I saw and was aware of, the talk of food for all and medicine, building parks and conserving the art and culture of the indigenous, held his attention and were at the top of his priorities begins to explain why he was loved and admired by so many during his lifetime. He had an aura of authority, I now identify in retrospect, not given to small talk or frivolity, when he spoke it was of serious matters, and I now look back and recognize his idealism, seriousness, and stately presence.

    It is ironic that this reserved, self-taught intellectual businessman, ahead of his time in such important ways, now in the light of popular history is relegated to a simplistic category, the “robber barons” and exploiters who are responsible for the poverty of the many. And worse, torture and cruelty, that this man would never have tolerated or allowed in his domain. (He resigned from United Fruit at the time of the effort to undermine and then overthrow the government of Guatemala, allowing the local military/reactionary factions to take control.  It is clear that the right-wing was asserting itself as the Cold War was building in the wake of World War Two, and that Zemurray, aging and increasingly ill, felt unable to stop these developments and was forced to resign since he could see a future that was tragic to him, that he wanted no part of.

    The full irony here is that this impressive man, industrious and high-minded, takes the “rap” so to speak, for the worst injustices and ills, while he himself strove to improve life not simply for himself, but for others around him. Not that he was a saint, but as I now look back at what I observed of him and of his times as an observer of the scene, there was surely somehing prophetic in his manner and his stature.

    In retrospect, I believe he was highly aware of this paradox in his situation to which his sudden wealth had catapulted him. As a Jew and doubly an “outsider,” he had to work in a climate where as new immigrant in America with a thick Russian (Yiddish-inflected) accent in a world where German Jews held a tight circle and the Sephardic Jews another, mastering Spanish so as to be able to speak with his employees, dealing with the complicated affairs of life in New Orleans and Boston, the closed corporate world of the wealthy industrialists who saw him as a gatecrash or uninvited guest. He was a populist and progressive, out of what now could be termed a labor zionist tradition, befriended Ben Gurion and Chaim Weitzmann – who wrote of their friendship in his journals and autobiography – and exchanged dialog with Felix Frankfurter and Bernard Baruch, a firm supported of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. And as philanthropist, contributed generously to Israel as well as funding philanthropical and charitable works throughout Central America.

    Most to the point from my own personal experience: He supported my interest in revolution and reform, encouraged me to go to Cuba and investigate the uprising against the government of Batista then growing on the island, and headed by a bearded young man hardly older than myself: Fidel Castro.
    The United Fruit steamer that I embarked on from New Orleans to Havana had an earlier life, taking fleeing Jews from Europe to find safety and new lives in the New World. The tall, retiring Jewish Russian that I remember  was among the generation of my grandparents who came to this country to find a better life and to share what they could. Sam Zemurray gave bace what he could, and the life of his only son, shot down in World War Two, was for him the ultimate sacrifice. Michael Krasny speaks of movie materiel here, and I concur. Possibly an opera, I think how old Uncle Sam would chuckle at the thought!Peter Jacobsonpjcj@me.com

  • Peter Jacobson

    Sam Zemurray, who I knew as “Uncle Sam,” was the uncle of my mother’s husband and took us to Cuba and Guatemala when I was a youngster, and I remember him as a very righteous and kindly man. He went out of his way to treat people graciously and generously.The first memory I have of him was when he sat me on his lap, saying, as closely as I am able to paraphrases his words, “Boy,” he called me, “They all say its about money but it’s not about money. What is important is making sure that there is enough food to eat, that there are doctors, and hospitals to treat people who are sick, and railroads tho take sick people to the hospitals…” Why was he telling me this, I wondered. 

    I was just a little kid, I thought, and this tall, strange man that everyone treated with such deference and respect – not words I then had in my vocabulary, but that I recognize in retrospect. Looking back on the very first of what were to be many trips to Latin America. I knew he was someone special, but I didn’t know why. That he took time to talk to a shy young boy, later encouraged him to learn about radio electronics, and subsequently to travel and study, and to pursue a degree in political science and latin american studies at Stanford University I look back on now as I look bad at the formative experiences of my life And to travel the seas, working on the ships that he himself had traveled upon, had an effect I did not understand until much later.
    That these matters, food and medicine, building parks and conserving the art and culture of the indigenous,held his attention and were at the top of his priorities explains why he was loved and admired by so many. It is ironic that this reserved, self-taught intellectual now in the light of popular history is relegated to a category, the “robber barons” and exploiters who are responsible for the poverty of the many.My understanding is rather a different take on the problematic role of capital, creating wealth and building societies while having much trouble distributing that wealth in a manner  that is equitable and just while encouraging free expression and personal liberty. In sum, the dilemmas we continue to confront, a global problem not simply a pursuit of the “American Dream” but a worldwide situation that confronts a planet.The irony in the story of Samuel Zemurray is that this industrious fellow, of humble background yet high-minded and serious, a proponent of social democracy and philanthropy takes the “rap” so to speak, for the worst injustices and ills, while he himself strove to improve life not simply for himself, but for others around him.Of course he was highly aware of this paradox, a Jew and an “outsider,” he had to work in a climate where as new immigrant in America with a thick Russian (Yiddish-inflected) accent, mastering Spanish so to speak with his employees, dealing with the complicated affairs of life in New Orleans and Boston, the closed corporate world of the wealthy industrialists who saw him as a gatecrash or uninvited guest. He was a populist and progressive, out of what now could be termed a labor zionist tradition, befriended Ben Gurion and Chaim Weitzmann – who wrote of their friendship in his journals and autobiography – and exchanged dialog with Felix Frankfurter and Bernard Baruch, a firm supported of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.He supported my interest in revolution and reform, encouraged me to go to Cuba and investigate the uprising against the government of Batista then growing on the island, and headed by a bearded young man hardly older than myself: Fidel Castro.

    Woman caller is speaking about the horror and cruelty that we hear about in Latin America, and emotionally lashes out at the author. How can you be sympathetic with such a robber baron. It is fascinating how people are polarized and want to blame rather than understand both the complexity and nuances of human behavior. More to say but basically, that to shed light on the subject seems more constructive than to try to find blame.The United Fruit steamer that I embarked on from New Orleans to Havana had an earlier life, taking fleeing Jews from Europe to find safety and new lives in the New World. The tall, retiring Jewish Russian that I remember  was among the generation of my grandparents who came to this country to find a better life and to share what they could. Sam Zemurray gave back what he could, and the life of his only son, shot down in World War Two, was for him the ultimate sacrifice. 

    Michael Krasny speaks of movie materiel here, and I concur. Possibly an opera, I think how old Uncle Sam would chuckle at the thought!

    Peter Jacobson
    pjcjacobson@gmail.com

  • Ivandnav

    I agree with the caller. As a Latin American, I am very disturbed by the tone of the author. You can make say the same things about Adolf Hitler, but I doubt anyone would ever go on speaking so lightly and with such admiration of him or someone like Bin Laden. I’m sure those two were great guys to know and blah, blah, blah. Maybe Mr. Cohen doesn’t realize that he speaks from a position of privilege. He is insensitive and crude. I wonder how his tone and perspective would be different, had his parents and grandparent, and family continued to die and suffer from these colonialist monsters. The argument that it was the times and he was just doing what everyone else was doing is dumb. To use Hitler as an example again, he was doing what evil ruthless tyrants had been doing for centuries. He didn’t know anything else.
    He and others gave Jewish people a bad name in Latin America. There is a lot of anti-semitism there because of the suffering people have endured because of jerks like Zumurray. 
    I’m very disappointed in NPR for having such a horrible and insensitive show. Who’s next, some Klan sympathizing biographer? You should check out KPFA. They have a bit more integrity. You might learn something about journalism. I wish NPR was better because I love the weekend shows so much. Do you think Ira Glass would be so nice to or even have this Cohen guy on his show. No, I don’t think so. 

  • racumin

    Boo Forum!

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