An old racist term appears again. It’s a haughty metaphor for moments that don’t fit into your own self-image.
Obviously, an obscure linguistic comparison always makes for horror. After the storming of Trump supporters on the Capitol in Washington, it was quickly heard that the US was like a “banana republic”. Ex-President George W. Bush based his indignant statement on this word: “This is how election results are contested in a banana republic.”
But the term was also used extensively in this country, for example ZDF journalist Elmar Theveßen in Markus Lanz: “This is more like a banana republic than a functioning democracy”. This comparison evidently expressed the utmost concern.
But where are these banana republics? Which countries do you mean? Or is namelessness a synonym for the strange and uncanny? The rhetorical trick that works here works like this: The current drama in the USA is an exceptional case, just a part of the reality in distant, unfamiliar countries where things are really bad. A slip, this storm on the Capitol, bizarre but exotic; the real chaos does not prevail here, but in the “banana republics”. The banana as a symbol for wild, chaotic topographies and their inhabitants: inside is a well-known word in various racist contexts.
The term “banana republic”, originally from English, is, ironically enough, a very own word from US economic and cultural history. United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands International, founded in 1899, acquired land in many Central American countries in the early 20th century and controlled the transport system for tropical fruits, especially bananas. Countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica have become dependent on the company’s funds and networks. They therefore traded as “Banana Republics”.
The name was more of a compassionate expression of dependence on corrupt corporate practices than a description of the political culture in these countries. There are impressive examples of resistance against the dominance of the United States, such as the “Great Banana Strike” in Costa Rica in 1934. The strike was organized by local initiatives that fought for better wages and working conditions.
Latin American journalists have repeatedly referred to companies like the United Fruit Company as “octopus”. The managers intervened in the political network of states like a multi-armed animal. Through bribery, promoting paramilitaries and influencing local governments, they tried to impose low taxes on fruit exports and permanently low wages. There were many local actors from the “banana republics” who fought against the overgrown system.
The mafia-like structures within the tropical fruit business, in which US economic policy, corporations and local governments were involved, are deeply rooted in the economic logic of the USA in the 20th century. When western politicians and journalists speak of a banana republic today, they should consequently add: Our history is returning. And not: surprisingly, the structures of the others also show up in us.
The “Banana Republic” is also a creation of US American literature: the writer O. Henry, actually William Sydney Porter, lived in Honduras for a while at the end of the 19th century and in 1904 wrote the book “Cabbages and Caballeros” (Cabbages and Kings ) in which he invented the fictional Central American Republic of Anchura. He called it the “banana republic”, a place that resisted the gag agreements of the big companies.
In the years that followed, the metaphor became a derogatory word for underdeveloped countries and mafia-like government structures. In the 1980s, the word gained popularity in the West for various countries in Africa and Latin America. Even if the countries in question do not sell bananas at all, the metaphor should send the reader a distinctive shiver down the spine in the West: That is the other, the imponderable and chaotic, from which we have to distance ourselves. The realization that chaos could possibly be deeply anchored in one’s own culture was and is rare.
Political rhetoric must be graphic. She wants to provoke and attract attention. However, it becomes problematic when it suggestively devalues other cultures and systems. The banana republic is the haughty metaphor for events that do not fit into one’s own self-image.
The fact that the USA, of all things, the great symbol for a self-confident Western democracy, is sinking into violence and chaos at times should have nothing to do with the internal contradictions as such. Almost all statements by European governments present this reading: The strong forces of democracy will prevail. This is not our USA. It’s not American.
It should read: Our history is returning. And not: The structures of the others are also evident in us
But wouldn’t it be more honest and more democratic to ask: Isn’t the current chaos a consequence of American politics and the social conditions in the country? A diagnosis should get to the root of the problem. One of these roots is the language that we trust and use in the political arena. It’s not about bananas and conditions “like elsewhere”. It is about a clear analytical look at the prerequisites for such phenomena of violence in Western culture. Starting with the language, with the history of the terms we use, is a reliable step towards self-knowledge.
Gernot Wolfram is an author and cultural scientist. He teaches culture and media management at the Macromedia University in Berlin and at the University of Basel. Most recently he published the essay “Continent Paths. A short guide to learn to love Europe ”(Verlag Hentrich & Hentrich).