Summer 2003

Leftovers / Exploring Cuba’s Sugar Bowl

The colonial legacy of United Fruit

Rachel Kushner

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

In the United Fruit sugar-mill town of Preston, in Cuba’s Oriente Province, American executives lived on La Avenida in ornate and rambling plantation homes with wraparound verandas and manicured tropical gardens, a stone’s throw from the company swimming pool and a five-minute walk from a rolling, verdant golf course. By the 1950s, expatriate life in Cuba had reached something of an apotheosis. Here in soil-rich, cane-covered Oriente, the Latin variant of the American dream had been steadily honed since the United Fruit Company first arrived at the turn of the century to a decadent tropical demesne with its own traditions, its own rules, and even its own totalizing aesthetic principle: trademark company paint. A bright ochre yellow covered every architectural structure in Preston, from the executives’ luxury homes to the mill workers’ unplumbed one-room cottages, to the commissary, hospital, American movie house, and company headquarters on the town square. Set against the monochrome green of cane fields was a golden hue as peculiar and conspicuous as the realm it was meant to brand.

At the Preston dock, company sugar boats tied in offshore and launches and pleasure yachts bobbed. A popular yachting destination was Cayo Saetia, an uninhabited island with pristine white sand beaches that was ideal for company picnics and fishing excursions, when United Fruit executives and their sons pulled great, dripping octopi and vermilion-hued lobsters from its clear green water. Cayo Saetia was a former United Fruit citrus orchard, abandoned by the company during the 1920s sugar boom, when the motto “Cane is King” was born. By the 1950s, only one remnant of United Fruit’s presence in Cayo Saetia lingered: an enormous, boarded-up plantation manager’s house, its faded exterior painted the trademark ochre yellow.

Documentation as to why United Fruit chose this particular color is scarce, but the company began using it in the late teens and early twenties, in both Preston and nearby Banes, its other big sugar-mill town. An agricultural trade journalist named Irene Aloha Wright visited Cayo Saetia in 1909, just before United Fruit purchased the land, and she described the plantation manager’s house as white. As the company annexed privately owned fruit and sugar operations—exploiting opportunities in a turn-of-the-century Cuba that was newly freed from Spanish colonial rule—the striking, easy to maintain yellow paint was a way to demarcate acquired territories as part of the United Fruit empire. The company bought huge quantities of paint at a wholesale price, cut it with DDT to safeguard against malaria, and then distributed it among its Cuban holdings, which by the 1950s included 330,000 acres—over 90 percent of the arable land in the Nipe Bay region. The color branding of company towns seems to have had many useful effects for promoting corporate ideology. For the Cuban workers, the paint emphasized the fact that the land was entirely foreign-owned. And for the American executives, their luxurious homes may have underscored their position at the top of the town’s pecking order, but beyond the magenta bougainvillea and white oleanders, the exterior walls of their dwellings were United Fruit yellow, an unavoidable reminder that the good life was offered by, and contingent upon, the graces of their powerful employer. Most people know something of United Fruit’s history and scandals, its sponsorship of Guatemala’s 1954 coup, or the CEO who drove the company into bankruptcy in the 1970s and, facing personal financial ruin and the allegation of bribing foreign governments, charged through a 44th-story office window overlooking Park Avenue. Lesser known, but exotic in its own way, is the bygone world of day-to-day life in a sugar-mill town like Preston, whose colonial culture all but vanished in 1960, when Cuba’s sugar mills were nationalized. Memories of Preston differ dramatically by the color and class of the person who is speaking. My late grandmother, Mary Lou Drosten, a National Lead executive’s wife who came to Preston from nearby Nicaro to shop and socialize, boasted in one of her letters of attending a ladies’ luncheon hosted by the United Fruit manager’s wife, a Mrs. Smith, whose sumptuous home, my grandmother wrote, “out-Hollywoods Hollywood.” Guests sat on the screened, jalousied veranda in bentwood chairs listening to the United Fruit radio news as diffuse midday light filtered through the wooden slats. The butler appeared with highballs as the news was ending with the usual United Fruit market quotes, and then the women adjourned to the dining room for a lunch of duck, tender green peas, almonds, and champagne.

United Fruit Company picnic at Cayo Saetia, 1951. The Cuban boat captain on the steps is waiting until it is time to ferry the drunken passengers home. Photo F. W. Drosten.

My mother, in her preteen years when she was a regular at Preston, remembers going to the United Fruit department store to purchase her first Little Lady box set: soap, lotion, eau de cologne, and shampoo. And she often swam in the company pool. Cubans were not allowed in the Preston swimming pool; rather, they remember the armed company guards who manned the gates at one end of La Avenida and admitted only those nonwhites with badges proving they worked as gardeners, butlers, cooks, or laundresses for one of the American families on the row. In its many films and publications, the United Fruit Company claims to have paid its workers a higher salary than any Cuban-run sugar operation, and the company insists that its employees, given housing and plots to garden, were relatively better off than the average rural Cuban. But a former cane cutter recalls the Americans as cheap, the pay terribly low and the labor backbreaking, and says he lived on boiled yucca during the dead season, which lasted eight months of the year. Mill workers, relatively better off than cane cutters, could take a draw from next season’s pay to buy inflated-priced goods from the company store, but as a result they often worked through the cane-crushing months only to receive no pay; checks arrived with stars in place of a monetary amount, and workers joked about being “four-star generals.”

Fidel Castro grew up on a farm in Biran, twenty kilometers southwest of Preston. His father Angel raised sugar cane for United Fruit, and as a teenager Fidel was fascinated by—and excluded from—the Americans’ privileged lifestyle. In speeches, he still mentions the company’s vast enclave, which seems to have had a great impact in shaping his anti-Americanism.

Like all glorious empires, United Fruit eventually crumbled under its own weight. In sifting through its lore, the company can seem either a mythological Sans-Souci or a greedy behemoth indenturing half a hemisphere, or both. One detail unanimously agreed upon is the ochre-yellow company paint. I visited Preston recently, which has been renamed Guatemala, and on building after building, edifices that have not been repainted since before the Revolution, are faint, lacy patches of United Fruit yellow paint. I saw the crumbling social club and the drained and leaf-grimed swimming pool, and I stood on the tiled porch of the old Preston hotel, where forty years earlier my mother and her three sisters had sat sipping guarapo, waiting for their mother to finish the grocery shopping. I strolled La Avenida, whose enormous homes, despite many decades of neglect, still stand, the only paint on their exteriors remnants of peeling yellow, their solid mahogany foundations a rueful vestige of the many tropical hardwoods that flourished in eastern Cuba before United Fruit harvested them to extinction in the 1920s. The Smiths’ house is now occupied by several families and no longer out-Hollywoods Hollywood; it sags dramatically and has cardboard over its unglazed windows. There is flaked company paint on its exterior, memento mori of the rambling estate’s embattled, Edenic past.

After touring Preston I went to Angel Castro’s farm, which was in the midst of being restored as a museum. Although it was not yet open to the public, a friendly tour guide allowed me to stroll the grounds. The large Castro family hacienda had just been repainted. The color of the house, in what seemed an ironic twist of fate, was precisely United Fruit yellow, in all its tangy ochre brightness. Perplexed by the color choice, given Castro’s consistent rhetoric about the evils of the United Fruit Company and the imperialist values it symbolized, I asked my guide why the house had been painted that particular color. He responded, without any mention of the company: “It’s a traditional color in this region of Oriente; I think it repels insects.” Silently, I wondered at what point the paint itself took on the qualities of the pesticide with which it was originally mixed, as we walked toward a cluster of cane cutters’ crude, palm-thatched bohios, left standing as a testament to the economic disparities of old Cuba.

Rachel Kushner was a contributor to the anthology She’s a Bad Motorcycle: Writers on Riding (Thunder’s Mouth, 2002), and her art writing has recently appeared in Artforum, Art and Text, the Believer, and Grand Street. She is currently working on a novel about Americans living in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

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