The Banana Republics

Posted on May 4, 2023


Some of you may be wondering what a “banana republic” is. You can look it up in Wikipedia but be careful, since the first definition that pops up is to an upscale clothing store with lots of boobs and legs, although there are other outfits marketed for everybody from babies to men.

Keep on scrolling down the page of definitions and shops and you will come to a short entry, “the term banana republic describes a politically and economically unstable country with an economy dependent upon the export of natural resources.” And read the entry in Wikipedia if you are really into details in the banana republics. It’s very good. Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, BTW is a graduate of both the University of Alabama and Auburn. You don’t have to grow up in Silicon Valley to make it in the digital world.

Lately I’ve been reading pundits, journalists, and sundry experts on American foreign policy about different parts of the world, each waxing on with apparent expertise on what we need to do in Sudan, or Ukraine, or to China to get the world right again, something along those lines. They write or speak in videos, television, and the dozens of ways of communicating these days with great authority.

Brazil is kowtowing to the Chinese communists who are about to gain economic and ideological control of all of South America. There goes democracy and our old hegemonic influence in Latin America. I learned a few words in Quechua, the native language of the highlands of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, which is still spoken by millions of Inca descendants in the remote mountain towns and villages of the Andes. Now they’ll have to throw in some Chinese I guess to stay abreast of the changing “dominant” foreign powers in the area.

I speak Spanish as a native since I learned it as a child in Lima, Peru and my mother was Chilean. For those whose geography is a little shaky, Chile is a long slender country occupying the southwest coast of the South American continent.

I was in Peru because my dad worked as a chemist and manager for W. R. Grace & Co. in South America, although principally in Peru. Below is an image of my first-grade class at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt School in Lima taken in 1947.

First Grade Class, Franklin Delano Roosevelt School, Lima, Peru, 1948[1]

 As I began to digitize my collection of 35mm slides I have accumulated over the years I am reminded that I seemed to have had that Contax camera with me all the time. And I am also reminded what a National Geographic photographer told me once. I forget where I ran into him, but it was somewhere like Costa Rica long ago, up in the high tropical rain forests.

“Maybe I get one good shot in a day’s work,” he said.

So, I asked him, with cameras all slung over his shoulders, “how many do you take?”

“Oh,” he answered, anywhere from five hundred to a thousand.”

“And you get one good shot?!” I asked, kind of astounded. He looked at me like a true professional taking his time to reply to this rube of a photographer who obviously knew nothing about photography and the high quality and standards of the National Geographic magazine. “If I’m lucky,” he said, turning back to shoot another series of photographs of what looked like monkeys in the high rain forest of probably Costa Rica.

My point here is that I have either worked or lived in nearly all of Latin America at one time or another as an historian of the region. I think I missed Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay, and most of the small English, Dutch, and French-speaking islands in the Caribbean. That’s it. Am I somehow educated and experienced enough to offer some honest appraisals of what’s going on in Latin America? Probably, although long visits or living in places like Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Cuba, etc. probably qualify a bit more than one-time visits to places like Bolivia and Argentina.

But when I read reports of Latin America’s selling out to the Chinese, and the end of old-style U. S. imperialism in the region, I find the reports to be shallow and so filled with exaggerations and outright speculation as to be non-sensical. Who is going to believe a twenty-second CNN, or FOX tidbit explaining why thousands of migrants are leaving the banana republics for life in America. And, equally important, why millions are not.

Which brings us back to the banana republics. American fruit importers found great markets for bananas in the U. S. at the turn of the nineteenth century and the United Fruit Company emerged by the 1920s and 1930s as the giant monopoly of the banana companies in the region. It was not only an economic monopoly, but the banana companies also imposed peace and order among the quarrelling and unstable republics like Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica for example to ensure that the supply chain of ‘naners bound for New Orleans or Boston and the ports of North America remained stable and intact. Ergo, the “banana republics” since what Americans knew of the region was largely related to bananas and the countries were at least nominally republics.

The story is huge and complicated since from the late nineteenth century until the early 1960s, American interventions and interference in the governance of the region was normal, creating, and overthrowing governments according to their level of acceptability to both U. S. economic realities (keep the bananas coming) and political expediencies (keep the Communists out especially since the post World War II era).

Today, political commentators, both professional journalists and politicians themselves, like to show their savviness by saying things like “the U. S. is becoming a banana republic.” This shows their understanding of the dynamics of what is driving our country and how we are—apparently—becoming more and more like Honduras or Guatemala. That’s an important question in determining what is right and what is wrong with our country today.

I suggest, if someone were to ask me, that a major, bipartisan commission be appointed to study the question: are we becoming a banana republic or are the banana republics becoming more like the U. S.? What are the best attributes of both?

[1] Sent to me by old friend Henry Griffin, second row, far right, April 2023. I am on top row, third in from right.

Published in Northport Gazette Wed. May 10, 2023