Banana Republics

“It’s a glorious thing,” said Cronin, half jestingly, “to be able to discharge a government, and insert one of your own choosing, in these days.”
“Oh, it is only a matter of business,” said Vincenti, stopping and offering the stump of his cigar to a monkey that swung down from a lime tree; “and that is what moves the world of today. That extra tax on the price of bananas had to go. We took the shortest way of removing it.”

-O Henry

There has been a lot of talk about banana republics since we experienced the shameful invasion of our capitol. The term was coined by O. Henry (not his real name), one of our greatest short story writers. Mr. Porter (his real name) was obligated to leave our country and settle in Honduras in 1897; he jumped bail as he was being investigated for embezzling the bank that he worked for.

While in Honduras O. Henry wrote a novel about corruption in Central American and Caribbean countries. These places relied heavily on one or two crops for sustenance. In the case of Honduras and Guatemala, bananas were king. Local governments forged corrupt deals with enormous American corporations. A few local families were given the means to live in splendor. In exchange, the fruit company received millions of acres of land, for free, and they did not have to pay taxes on their profits.

The biggest culprit was United Fruit Company, the growers of the famous Chiquita bananas. At one point they owned 3.5 million acres of ground in Central America and the Caribbean. They paid workers 50 cents a day; they were asked by the heads of state not to pay more, mostly to keep workers in other businesses from asking for equal pay. Hundreds of thousands of acres remained unused; this was done to keep competitors from establishing a beachhead in any country.

The financial consequences to the peasants, and the country, were devastating. While the company got to keep all the profits, any infrastructure improvements were paid by the government. Since there was no tax money coming in (remember that the companies discouraged any investment on any other business), money had to be borrowed, the currency slipped in value, and the great majority of the people were shoved deeper into poverty. Once the paper money of the country was deemed to be worthless, international agencies did not want to risk lending more.

The best example to illustrate the depths of corruption and sheer indecency that these businesses descended to is Guatemala. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, two democratically elected presidents decided to help their people. Land reform was instituted. United Fruit was paid twice the amount that they had paid for the land that was not being used. This land was given to local peasants; most of them were members of indigenous tribes whose ancestors had been expelled from their property by Spanish conquerors.

The program was a great success. Jacobo Árbenz, the second of the two presidents, decided to build on this triumph. He forced United Fruit to rehire laborers that had been fired for insufficient cause. He asked United to pay some income tax. He got ready to buy some more land from United.

None of these measures were affecting United’s profits, but they could not stomach losing control over the country and its politicians. United complained to the presidents; first Truman, then Eisenhower. Truman initially agreed to stage a coup to overthrow Árbenz, but he backed out before further plans were made.

Eisenhower was not bothered at all by the prospect of interfering in another country’s affairs by violent means. His Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was a staunch anticommunist. His CIA director, Allen Dulles, (John’s brother) was also a staunch anticommunist. He sat on the board of United Fruit.

Árbenz never had a chance. The Dulles brothers found a lower-level military officer that was willing to lead an insurrection. An intense propaganda campaign was started in the US to portray Árbenz as a budding Communist (which was false; Árbenz’s predecessor had outlawed the Communist Party, and Árbenz knew well that Capitalism was the only way to get his country to reestablish gold reserves and a strong economy). The same massive PR tools that were used to popularize bananas as a snack (remember Carmen Miranda?) were employed to make sure that every American citizen was convinced that Árbenz was a Communist, that he hated Americans, and that he was intent on destroying our way of life. Not surprisingly, and even in the absence of Facebook and Twitter, Americans took the bait.

The insurrection consisted of less than 150 troops. They could have easily been crushed by the Guatemalan military. A “portable” radio station was provided by the CIA: they were used to put out fake news, 24 hours a day, to tell the Guatemalan people that the rebellion had succeeded. The regular Guatemalan Army was disillusioned and demoralized: they decided not to fight. The CIA had spread rumors among the military; they stated that if the rebellion failed American troops would be called in (no one knows for sure if that would have happened, but there were troops being deployed nearby) and that any soldier that had remained loyal to Árbenz would be severely dealt with.

Árbenz had no choice. He resigned and went into exile. He died in Mexico City years later. His country was again taken over by dictators who were under the orders of United Fruit. The land that had been given to the peasants was taken back from them; many of them were killed when they tried to resist.

United Fruit disappeared as an entity many years later. Guatemala never recovered from its despoiling; it has been afflicted by constant violence since. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished people have no means of support, and they cannot rely on their government to keep gangs from battering, abusing, and raping them.

And we wonder why they want to come to our country.

All banana republics were preventable. If policies of land reform, a strong educational system, and free elections had been fostered 70 years ago, we would not have the mess that currently exists in Central America. At one point United Fruit earned more profit from Guatemala in one year than what was budgeted for the whole country. None of this profit stayed behind: all of it was redirected to stockholders and directors.

We are told that the invasion of the Capitol building made us look like a Banana Republic. Others say that we are far from going that deep into the rabbit hole. As always, it is best to look at the facts.

A massive media campaign to delegitimize a democratically elected government. Check. A cadre of disloyal people in government that were willing to risk their reputation to remain in power. Check. A horde of poorly armed, easily manipulated people, willing to attack the seat of power. Check. A police force that was not fully prepared to deal with insurrection. Check.

Maybe we do not have a banana republic. Yet… We should not be smug. We came close. An important politician could have been killed; the Army could have been called in as a response; the election certification could have been postponed…

For sure, we are not a banana republic.

Say that to yourself as you try to relax enough so that you can get some sleep tonight.

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