Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Banana Republics

My course on Hispanic Civilization is winding to a close. Today, I was preparing a lecture on the economic problems of Latin American countries in the XXth century. The term "banana republic" comes up on several occasions in the texts we will be discussing in class. So I decided to search online for a precise definition of this term. And look what I found in Nicholas Kristof's recent article in The New York Times:
The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. As Timothy Noah of Slate noted in an excellent series on inequality, the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. . . So in this postelection landscape, let’s not aggravate income gaps that already would make a Latin American caudillo proud. To me, we’ve reached a banana republic point where our inequality has become both economically unhealthy and morally repugnant.
 I often use this neat trick in class (or at least I think it's neat) to illustrate how intrusive the US has been in its relations with the Spanish-speaking world: I ask the students something like "So which powerful country made it possible for a fascist dictator to remain in power in Spain until 1975?" or "Which country aided the bloody military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile?" While the students are mulling over the possible answers, a huge picture of the US flag gradually appears on the screen. So tomorrow, when the students ask me what a banana republic is, I will simply press the button and let the US flag appear on the screen once again.


Richard said...

In point of fact, the term “Banana Republics” refers to Central America especially Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras of the 1920’s when the U.S. Untied Fruit Company (Chiquita Bananas) pretty much dominated the governments of those countries with the aid of the bayonets of the USMC. See “War is a Racket” by Smeadly Butler (General USMC, ret.) . It was Butler’s book along with a decline in fruit prices that led to President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” which got the U.S. Government out of the fruit business.

eric said...

It's Smedley Butler, in case anyone has to look it up. When I was in the gyrenes, he was considered one of the official heroes of the USMC, along with Dan Daly and Chesty Puller. His book, written after he retired in 1930 (or around there), was never mentioned, unsurprisingly. The 1859 arrest of John Brown at Harper's Ferry also figures prominently in Marine Corps lore, though I never learned that Brown, an abolitionist, was trying to obtain arms for a slave uprising until much later, when I was in college.

Richard said...

Thank you catching that slip, Eric. Actually his book is still in print. It had a big impact because as you point out Butler was a hero by most rational standards.

Lindsay said...

I'd never heard about the U.S.'s role in propping up those totalitarian governments in Central and South America until I read Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine. (Which is a wonderful, eye-opening book, if you haven't read it)

But I never heard a word about that in all my years of schooling --- granted, I didn't take any history classes in college, but I took AP U.S. history in high school. So I think your trick is neat, too, because you're probably telling your students something they've never heard before and which will shock them greatly. (At least, it did that to me, and I'm a relatively sheltered Midwesterner much like your students...)

KT said...

"So tomorrow, when the students ask me what a banana republic is..."

I will hope with you that they don't already assume - from popular media representation - that Banana Republic is just a clothing company.

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eric said...

Thanks, Richard! Butler also foiled a coup attempt on the FDR White House in 1933. A real stand-up guy, who's hardly ever mentioned anymore, even in history classes. War is a Racket can be found on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/War-Racket-Antiwar-Americas-Decorated/dp/0922915865/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1289401717&sr=1-1.
It pretty much corroborates Clarissa's point in her class.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, guys, for this fascinating information. I usually talk about banana republics in terms of the United Fruit Co. Now, thanks to you, I will know a lot more on the subject.

I'm blessed with having the most intelligent readers ever.