William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, had moved to New York City in 1902. A year earlier in a short story, Porter coined the phrase “banana republic” to describe a fictional Central American nation called Costaragua. In 1904, the term reappeared in a novel titled Cabbages and Kings with the fictional country name changed to Ancuria and the author’s to O. Henry.
“Banana republic” entered the political lexicon as a description of a country with an unsteady civil government with a population suffering from extreme inequality of wealth and an absence of civic participation, compounded by political control in the hands of a small oligarchy, itself the puppet of a capitalistic enterprise. O. Henry’s description generally fit that of Honduras and its dominance by the United Fruit Company, later the Chiquita Banana brand.
The hallmarks of a banana republic are generally familiar to most. Clearly, the population of such a jurisdiction functions within any democratic process in the selection of leadership or determination of public policies that guide participation in the distribution of the benefits of national resources. To most, a banana republic generates the image O. Henry depicted of a sleepy, primitive, tropical land (with a Spanish cultural history) filled with peasants and bandoliered military or police forces swaggering in town squares.
From another perspective, the appellation actually fits larger, non-tropical countries such as Russia, North Korea, and many others. Little distinguishes these countries from that characterizing banana republics except the distinction of geographical size and hemispheric location. Autocrats and oligarchs dominate banana republics while populations exist at the whim of rulers and subsist upon what is doled out, in return for civic silence and labor to support industrial production. There is no formula for a nation to become a banana republic, but surely the absence or loss of democratic engagement might be a key factor.
Yet from another perspective, the appellation actually fits larger, non-tropical countries such as Russia, North Korea, and many others. Little distinguishes these countries from that characterizing banana republics except the distinction of geographical size and hemispheric location. Autocrats and oligarchs dominate banana republics while populations exist at the whim of rulers and subsist upon what is doled out, in return for civic silence and labor to support industrial production. There is no formula for a nation to become a banana republic, but surely the absence or loss of democratic engagement might be a key factor.
In the United States, even in the most undemocratic states in the union, it cannot be said that residents have a firsthand appreciation of life in a banana republic. The experience is alien in time, culture, and values. Although felons are denied the right to vote, few other Americans have experienced that loss. Virtually everyone in this nation has a story of a family member or themselves struggling to succeed by way of gaining an education or climbing the ladder of success. At the same time, those storytellers likely voted for leaders who have provided medical care and financial support such as Social Security to those not as fortunate.
The United States cannot become a banana republic, shout boosters of its status as written in its history. Threats to restrict voting privileges will not lead to a loss of freedom or democracy. Elected or appointed officials can be trusted to decide elections notwithstanding voter results. Police should not be liable for conduct that otherwise is criminal behavior applied to others. And, yes, some books should be banned or burned. A woman’s place is in the home, not the marketplace or legislature. More folks should be in jail. Lifesaving vaccines are means to control individual freedom and increase political control. It’s not the business of any individual to challenge these notions.
And so, the road to becoming a banana republic may be paved by ennui or disbelief. This is akin to the inflation issue, where its effects tend to be immediate in pocketbooks and ignored with respect to the impact of factors such as supply chains, labor costs, and the costs of raw materials. Since an individual cannot control these, they are not relevant.
Similar views inform folks regarding political developments that are harmful to a healthy democracy. Conspiracy theories and big lies receive higher credibility ratings than the grifters who promote and promulgate them. The grifters seek to become oligarchs with the freedom to pillage the village. The evil lives after them and consumes and corrupts the rest of us.
Henry’s banana republic of the early 1900s has modern analogs and forces determined to increase the number of countries as members of the United Banana Republics. The efforts of the current US president to create a global dialogue concerning democracy within and among nations are directed specifically to counter the emergence of autocratic and/or nationalist regimes (e.g., Austria, Hungary) in formerly democratic or democratically developing jurisdictions.
It is not an easy sell, as both allies and adversaries around the world watch as the former leader of free nations has unilaterally withdrawn from climate accords, nuclear weapons agreements, and criticized military partnerships such as NATO.
To paraphrase a line from Louis Prima, “Yes, we are no banana today.” That’s a good thing.