In the days after the Donald Trump-inspired siege of the U.S. Capitol, many Americans are still seeking to make sense of what transpired. But some politicians and businesspeople have found one aspect of the mob that hoped to overturn the election especially unnerving: its suggestion of “banana republic” politics.
“This is banana republic crap,” asserted Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a Republican, in demanding, during the violence, that President Trump call off efforts to overturn the election. Explaining the concerns of fellow CEOs outraged at what had occurred, Richard Edelman, head of a major public relations firm, said, “They don’t like the idea America is a banana republic.” And former President George W. Bush, after calling the rioting “sickening and heartbreaking,” described it as “how elections are disputed in a banana republic.”
Both invoking and rejecting the image of a banana republic — a pejorative term that broadly refers to undemocratic developing nations — reflects how many Americans perceive much of the world. It also reveals how they understand the United States: at least in normal times, as the banana republic’s antithesis.
Such understandings dovetail with misty-eyed nationalist myths like those that gave rise to the violence that unfolded on Capitol Hill, not only delusions about a “stolen” presidency, but about U.S. history and the country’s place in the world. These myths also obscure the role long played by the United States in producing “banana republics.” Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the proverbial banana republic’s economic capital was Boston.
The term first appeared in O. Henry’s “Cabbages and Kings” in 1904. Many understand his reference to “that banana republic, Anchuria” — a mythical Latin American country — as representing Honduras, since the famed writer lived there in the late 1890s.
It was a time when U.S.-based banana companies first became active in Honduras. As historian Walter LaFeber wrote in “Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America,” U.S. companies “built railroads, established their own banking systems, and bribed government officials at a dizzying pace.” As a result, Honduras became “a one-crop economy whose wealth was carried off to New Orleans, New York, and later Boston.”
Lafeber’s mention of Boston speaks to how the city was home to the headquarters of the United Fruit Company, a corporate behemoth whose influence went far beyond Honduras. Called “the octopus” by its detractors, the multinational entity worked with its allies in Washington and overseas to secure its interests throughout Latin America. In 1928, this entailed a sordid role in the massacre of hundreds of striking banana workers in Colombia. In Guatemala in 1954, it involved the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of a democratic government seeking to nationalize and redistribute some of the company’s enormous landholdings. And in 1961, United Fruit ships sailed to Cuba’s Bay of Pigs as part of the U.S. effort to depose Fidel Castro’s government.
United Fruit Company is no longer (it morphed into Chiquita Brands International). But the legacy of the banana republic-like ties between the United States and many countries endures.
Contemporary Honduras, whose ruling class has long depended on Washington for support, is an example. Manifesting the Pentagon’s global footprint and gargantuan budget supported by congressional Democrats and Republicans alike, it is a country where hundreds of U.S. soldiers are stationed. It is also one wracked by pervasive poverty, political terror and a kleptocratic government born of the military’s overthrow of the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, a liberal reformer, in 2009. While the Obama administration officially condemned his ouster, it effectively supported his military-imposed successor — by doing nothing to challenge the coup, working to prevent Zelaya’s return and granting legitimacy to the post-coup government. Such policies have helped to fuel persistent migration to the United States — to places like Greater Boston — that the Trump administration rails against.
Following last week’s chaos, many in Washington decried the violence and the resulting damage to the United States’ standing abroad. Violence, declared Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, “is always unacceptable.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it “intolerable both at home and abroad.” Meanwhile, many pundits and leading political figures wonder what it will take to restore what they call U.S. moral leadership on the world stage.
The history of the banana republic reminds us that the notion of the United States as a beacon of human rights and democracy is, for all too many across the globe, a lie. The uncomfortable truth is that this history — like the long record of American racism, overt and structural, and the endless involvement in war — demonstrates that violence is as American as apple pie. Recognizing and atoning for this history is an important step in preventing future banana republics — at home and abroad.
This column first ran on WBUR.Print