The 20th century has been defined by the rise of the U.S. Empire. President Theodore Roosevelt introduced “gun boat diplomacy” and “speaking softly but carrying a big stick,” policies which laid the foundation for the development of today’s multinational corporations. Roosevelt’s foreign policy described how the full force of the U.S. military, specifically the marines, were at the disposal of U.S. corporations, specifically the United Fruit Company, to protect business interests.
Nicknamed “El Pulpo” — the Octopus — because its tentacles extended into every power structure within Central America, the United Fruit Company was able to set prices, taxes and employee treatment free from local government intervention. By 1930, the company had a 63 percent share of the banana market. Any nation in “our” hemisphere attempting to claim their sovereignty to the detriment of U.S. business interests could expect the U.S. to invade and set up a new government. Hence the term “banana republic” — coined in 1935 to describe servile dictatorships. It is no coincidence the rise of U.S. banana consumption coincided with the rise of U.S. actions throughout the Caribbean Basin.
Throughout the 20th century, 11 Caribbean countries experienced 21 U.S. military invasions and 26 covert CIA operations. During most of the 20th century, no country would be allowed to determine who would serve as its leaders without the expressed permission of the U.S. ambassador to that country. For banana republics to function, the foreign U.S. entity required the cooperation of a charismatic strongman, a caudillo who cooperated with their hegemonic northern neighbor in return for wealth, power and privilege. With a veneer of patriotic nationalism sustained through fear of the “other,” intellectuals, social workers, labor leaders and anyone else who questioned authority, these strongmen (seldom, if ever, women) appointed cronies to governmental posts which skewed the wealth of the nation toward a handful of powerful families. Most Caribbean nations existed for the benefit of empire, and in return, to enrich few nationals.
The consequences resulting from these U.S.-installed “banana republics” were the creation of poverty, strife and death for the masses, even while many of them supported the political establishment. The art of the con was to convince the majority of the people that only the caudillo had the answers to their poverty and problems, only he could make their country great again. All too often, the church became a willing accomplice, establishing a space within the regime from where they too could profit. True, some clergy — Catholic and Protestant — resisted, especially those who committed themselves to liberation theological praxis; but like others who also resisted, they too were martyred for making a preferential option for the oppressed. During the 1980s, U.S. foreign policies designed to safeguard established “banana republics” in Central America led to military conflicts, especially in places like El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
As the century wore on, invading other countries for the purpose of “regime change,” and/or poorly masked CIA interventions led to more sophisticated methodologies for the creation of banana republics. Rather than participating in military ventures, influencing elections became preferable; as was the case in Chile where the CIA, through clergy, channeled $5 million to help Eduardo Frei’s failed attempt to beat Salvador Allende in the 1964 presidential elections. Of course, when said strategy failed, Allende was eventually overthrown anyway with CIA support.
With the dawn of the 21st century, we must wonder if a new banana republic is emerging in the Western Hemisphere. The public pleading with a foreign power by a presidential candidate to hack their opponent’s emails, and the daily revelations of foreign influences in possibly skewing the results of this past election leaves us speculating if we have become the newest banana republic? Is the end of an empire, any empire, signified when other foreign powers have a hand — regardless as to how miniscule — in determining one’s national sovereignty?