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Post Banana Republics
Created by John Eipper on 09/14/14 7:36 AM

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Banana Republics (Bienvenido Macario, USA, 09/14/14 7:36 am)

When commenting Tor Guimaraes's post of 12 September, John E described a banana republic as "a small, corrupt nation that relies on the monoculture of--well, bananas, sugar, or coffee. Usually there are just a handful of powerful families that call all the shots, often with a foreign sponsor."

I thought "banana" republic was coined because bananas die after bearing fruit. It bears fruit only once and a new plant will grow from the underground stem.

The US usually supports a strongman regime like Nicaragua's Somoza, Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, and most recently Egypt's Mubarak. But after they leave office or are ousted, the relationship is dead. Just like a banana plant that dies after bearing fruit.

JE comments:  I've never heard this interpretation before.  How many knew that the "classic" model of the banana republic was established by the New Orleans fruit baron Sam "Banana Man" Zemurray, a Jewish immigrant from Russia (now Moldova)?  Zemurray (United Fruit Co.) basically took over Honduran politics, ousting and installing presidents at will, to favor his banana plantations.  For more, I recommend Rich Cohen's very enjoyable book, The Fish that Ate the Whale:  The Life and Times of America's Banana King (2013).

The term "banana republic" was actually coined by the writer O'Henry, to refer to the fictional republic of Anchuria in Cabbages and Kings (1904).

I've pointed out before that political correctness and the retail industry have condemned the term to obscurity.  For my students, Banana Republics are found at the local mall.  Nothing more.

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  • Banana Republics; a Visit to Quirigua, 1962 (Richard Hancock, USA 09/15/14 1:04 PM)

    The term "Banana Republic" reminds me of an experience that Nancy and I had while we were in El Salvador in 1962-63. We decided we would like to spend Christmas of 1962 in Guatemala. After driving to Antigua and Chichicastenango, we felt that we should visit one of Guatemala's famous Mayan ruins. Since our son Jim was only 18 months old at the time, we didn't wish to fly out to the great ruin of Petén with him. We looked for a site that we might reach by highway. We found that Quiriquá lies close to the highway that goes from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios on the Caribean coast. We drove to a point that was close to the ruins and found there a parked car. When I inquired of the driver about how I could get to Quiriguá, he said, "I don't suppose you would want to carry that baby out there?" As I recall that would mean a hike of six miles. When I replied in the negative, he said, "Why don't you go have lunch at the United Fruit compound and then have them call Dr. X, who is concerned about Quiriguá."

    We did as he directed and found the United Fruit dining hall to be a typical US-style buffet service such as are found on college campuses all over the country. After lunch, we did call Dr. X and explained our situation to him. He told us to go the the Hotel del Norte in Puerto Barrios and get back there at about 10:00AM and he would have a railroad motor car waiting for us. We did as he suggested, enjoying the elegant 1900-style service of the dining room and the ancient but very clean room, and returned the next morning to meet a somewhat exasperated motorman. The hotel had fixed us a lunch and we motored out to the beautiful tropical reserve which contains the ruins. While the motorman patiently waited, we spent the greater part of the day all by ourselves, roaming through one of the world's most fantastic displays of old ruins. We saw intricately carved giant stelae and thousand-year-old ruined palaces and temples, surrounded by beautiful tropical vegetation while viewing exotic tropical birds and hearing the monkeys chatter and call in the jungle. This was all complements of our unknown benefactor, Dr. X, whose day job was that of a physician for United Fruit.

    I never returned to Quiriguá, but have sent several groups there as part of my job at the University of Oklahoma. Nancy and I feel blessed to have seen those magnificent ruins before modern tourists reached them. I was never able to thank our unknown doctor friend. Sometimes when I am exasperated with current Latin American problems, I remember that, in terms of hospitality to strangers, Latin Americans have no equal.

    JE comments:  A priceless anecdote from Richard Hancock, which shows a generous and human side to United Fruit.  Hispanists are accustomed to the Neruda poem "La United Fruit Company," which depicts the fruit multinational as a purveyor of debt slavery, environmental devastation, and colonialism.  Scroll down for a couple of different English translations:


    United Fruit, several iterations later, is now known as Chiquita Brands International.

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