Yes, we have no bananas; We have no bananas today.
As though reeling from the pages of a comic novel, comes a true-life story, not even halfway humorous, about the Big Banana Split.
It involves the largest banana importer in the United States and the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua, separated by a lot of heated words that cloud their real need for one another. It only lasted a few weeks, but it neatly sums up much of what you need to know about modern U.S. relations with the small nations of Latin America.
Back in mid-December, Nicaragua decreed that it was going to take over production and marketing of its bananas -- one of its important sources of foreign exchange -- as a means of improving the lot of some 5,000 low-paid, poorly housed banana workers.
A week later, the U.S.-based Standard Fruit & Steamship Co., the largest buyer of the Nicaraguan fruit, said, in effect, okay, keep your bananas. We will no longer carry them to American breakfast tables.
Standard Fruit kept its word. And for the next three weeks, its banana ships stayed away from Nicaraguan ports.
Vile deed, responded Nicaragua's interior undersecretary, Luis Carrion Cruz. "Even if we have to eat every last banana, we are not going to allow these imperialists to humiliate the revolution," he said.
At the rate Standard Fruit buys bananas from Nicaragua, that would be a lot of homemade pies, fritters, cakes, puree and nut bread. Standard Fruit buys about $24 million worth of the fruit annually, about a third of the amount it places in western U.S. markets.
Now, in other times, if a small banana-producing republic in Latin America had offended a big-time U.S. fruit company, there would have been hell to pay.
But these were other times. It is no longer business as usual in those countries, and even in decidedly revolutionary Nicaragua, which is desperate for operating capital, Standard Fruit is needed as much as it needs the bananas.
So when Standard Fruit diverted its banana fleet, the Sandinistas were stunned. They sensed an American corporate political gambit aimed at embarrassing their revolution. They promptly wrote to then-Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie.
And then they appealed to Standard Fruit's parent firm, the Honolulu-based Castle & Cooke Inc., a multinational agribusiness outfit, for talks at the "highest levels."
The talks ended in San Francisco in mid-January, with the two sides announcing an agreement to "insure the continuation of normal business operations by Standard Fruit in Nicaragua."
Standard Fruit's ships quickly resumed banana pickups and the fruit began reaching the United States again.
In the sweeping vacuity of diplomatic communiques, the announcement said that all sides -- government, producers, workers, shipper -- were satisfied and that stability would prevail. For now, Nicaragua and Standard Fruit have pledged to disclose no details.
But at about that time, the Wall Street Journal quoted Castle & Cooke's chief financial officer, Robert Cook, who said the agreement changed nothing, that Nicaragua made all the concessions and that the announcement was "for Nicaraguan comsumption."
If true, the Sandinistas had slipped on a revolutionary banana peel.
C&C's top banana, president D. J. Kirchoff, hit the roof about as quickly as a whole cluster to top bananas hit the roof in Managua. Kirchoff protested to the Journal, saying middle-banana Cook had been misquoted in a way that could harm relations between Nicaragua and the United States.
The Journal has not backed away from its story or published the C&C letter, but Kirchoff made certain that copies reached Nicaraguan hands.
Among other things, Kirchoff's letter said, the San Francisco agreement was "a signal example of the sort of cooperation and 'arms length' dealings that can be achieved where (as in this case) both sides approach the solution of difficulties in a spirit of good faith and fair compromise."
"Neither side capitulated nor made substantial concessions," the letter went on. And, Kirchoff added, C&C now has "a better understanding of the needs of the Nicaraguan nation and the Nicaraguan government has a better understanding of the significant problems we face in competing successfully in the global banana industry."
Francisco J. D'Escoto, minister councilor at the Nicaraguan embassy and one of the banana negotiators, said the quoted remarks ("which we prefer to ignore") rankled feelings sharply in his country.
"Those remarks brought back my youth when I read novels about foreign companies operating in developing countries," he said. "Both countries have a lot to learn about mutual respect . . . But we are pleased with Mr. Kirchoff's letter and with his rebuke of the statement."
As explained by D'Escoto, Nicaraguan banana production will remain in private hands but be overseen by a new regulatory agency that is to assure that the plantation workers -- about 3,000 heads of households -- receive better pay and benefits.
Castle & Cooke owns none of the operations, but shares in the action by providing management and technical advice, assisting in the packing of about six million boxes of fruit per year and buying the bananas that meet U.S. market standards.
"We want Standard Fruit to remain in Nicaragua," D'Escoto said, "but we were puzzled about why they would leave. The Nicaraguan government is not interested in taking over lands that are in production. We welcome people who are producers. We need them."
"We want good relations with the United States. You will find very few small, developing countries saying that today," he added. "We are so set on foreign investment law for us. This is the case because we trust the American people. We don't have the experience. We inherited a damaged, hungry country from the Somoza regime."
One of the benefits Standard Fruit got from the government of the late Anastasio Somoza, unlike other major banana-producing countries in the Western Hemisphere, was no tax on export bananas. There may be now.
"We are not going to tax companies just because they are rich. But we are committed to restructuring our contry socially and economically," D'Escoto said. "The banana workers were unhappy. Their standard of living is not proper, health and housing conditions are very poor -- you must see it to understand it. Landowners and banana producers must play a larger role in helping them."
"Leonard Marks Jr., executive vice president of Castle & Cooke agreed with D'Escoto's assessment, adding that years of poor communication and mutual distrust have caused tough sledding for both sides.
"We were convinced they were going to nationalize the industry and we made other arrangements to obtain fruit," he said. "Some people were surprised when Nicaragua came back and asked for high-level talks on the issue."
But, Marks continued, "the country deserves fair consideration because it has some very tough problems. Had we not reached agreement with them, others could have wondered about their future in Nicaragua . . . We had a real communications problem. At the end, we acknowledged we'd come a long way but that we were not at the millenium. We still need to work hard at the local level for understanding."
So yes, we have more bananas today.