Cliché and Caricature: Why January 6 Was Not Like a Banana Republic

tags: Latin American history, Capitol Riot

Dario A. Euraque is professor of history and international studies at Trinity College.

After the January 6 insurrection, many observers, including former US presidentscurrent legislators, pundits, journalists, and editorial writers invoked the mob violence and bloody mayhem as the usual political culture of so-called “banana republics.” Although it is an easy comparison to make, Latin Americanists found this galling, because the term refers to a specific economic and political trope created by and in service to US interests. Using the phrase banana republic to describe any attempted coup or insurrection draws on a century of stereotypes about Latin America created by the US to serve US interests. As a description of the events of January 6, the comparison lacked both subtlety and accuracy. 

When it is invoked to describe nations, banana republic conjures up a range of clichés and caricatured images of US–Central American and Caribbean diplomatic relations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Coined by O. Henry in a 1904 story collection, Of Cabbages and Kings, banana republics referred to countries led by dictators, oligarchs, and “strongmen,” who ruled over Indigenous and/or mixed-race peasants, and managed economies dependent on agricultural exports, stereotypically coffee or bananas. The labor force in these economic ventures in the Caribbean were usually descendants of enslaved people participating in anti-imperial struggles against Spanish colonialism. 

US citizens, diplomats, and military men who ventured into Latin America in the late 19th century brought with them visions of their country’s place in the world grounded in white supremacy and colonialism. Drawn to the region’s rich agricultural products, mining, and natural resources, Americans viewed the region as a racially backward place ripe for exploitation. From the outset, so-called banana republics were linked to racial and cultural legacies left by colonialism in Honduras, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Panama. Honduras, the first nation to be branded a banana republic in 1904, denounced American involvement in the region’s economics and government as early as the 1850s. 

By 1929, Honduras was the main exporter of bananas in the world. Enterprises owned by two US corporations, the United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company, financed wars among Honduran elites to secure concessions to build railroads, develop banana plantation infrastructure, and obtain tax-free imports. O. Henry’s writings on Honduras served as a primer on the region for Americans arriving after these wars. As John Soluri has shown in Banana Cultures, marketing campaigns promoting the general consumption of bananas among US citizens at this time assumed O. Henry’s views about the countries where this commodity originated. 

Henry’s writings did far more than create a US market for an agricultural commodity; they shaped an expansionist US policy in the region. For many in this generation of US agents in Latin America, the end goal was to annex these economically productive but politically unstable so-called banana republics, including Cuba and Honduras. Long before he headed the FBI between 1924 and 1972, J. Edgar Hoover favored the annexation of Cuba in a primary school debate. In fact, before the CIA was created at the end of the 1940s, Hoover placed FBI agents in much of the Caribbean and Central America to support the dictators who ruled these nations.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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