06/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Banana Republic

Through two centuries of history guided by the Monroe Doctrine (1823), the Roosevelt Corollary (1905), and the Washington Conventions (1907), no Latin American nation has dangled at the end of the U.S. State Department's marionette strings more wretchedly than Nicaragua. From William Walker's crusading filibuster in the 1850s to the 1921-33 Marine incursion and occupation; from the kleptocratic, American-backed Somoza Dynasty of 1936-79 to the crippling economic sanctions imposed by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, today's Nicaragua harbors a particularly personal distrust--and dislike--of the Yankee colossus.

In a New York Times op-ed essay, Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, explains how oil is but one of a host of commodities with steadily rising prices.

"Yes, We Will Have No Bananas," The New York Times, June 18, 2008.

Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined, which is especially amazing when you consider that not so long ago, bananas were virtually unknown here. They became a staple only after the men who in the late 19th century founded the United Fruit Company (today's Chiquita) figured out how to get bananas to American tables quickly -- by clearing rainforest in Latin America, building railroads and communication networks and inventing refrigeration techniques to control ripening. The banana barons also marketed their product in ways that had never occurred to farmers or grocers before, by offering discount coupons, writing jingles and placing bananas in schoolbooks and on picture postcards. They even hired doctors to convince mothers that bananas were good for children.

Once bananas had become widely popular, the companies kept costs low by exercising iron-fisted control over the Latin American countries where the fruit was grown. Workers could not be allowed such basic rights as health care, decent wages or the right to congregate. (In 1929, Colombian troops shot down banana workers and their families who were gathered in a town square after church.) Governments could not be anything but utterly pliable. Over and over, banana companies, aided by the American military, intervened whenever there was a chance that any "banana republic" might end its cooperation. (In 1954, United Fruit helped arrange the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala.) Labor is still cheap in these countries, and growers still resort to heavy-handed tactics.

The 42nd Parallel, Part I of John Dos Passos's U. S. A. trilogy, offers the following prose poem describing railroad-cum-fruit magnate Minor C. Keith's--and by corollary, the U.S.'s--conquest of the Central American isthmus through the cultivation and exportation of the banana.

• "Emperor of the Caribbean," from The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos, 1930.

In 1882 there were twenty miles of railroad built and Minor Keith was a million dollars in the hole;
the railroad had nothing to haul.
Keith made them plant bananas so that the railroad might have something to haul, to market the bananas he had to go into the shipping business;
this was the beginning of the Caribbean fruittrade.
All the while the workers died of whisky, malaria, yellow jack, dysentery.
Minor Keith's three brothers died.

Minor Keith didn't die.
He built railroads, opened retail stores up and down the coast in Bluefields, Belize, Limon, bought and sold rubber, vanilla, tortoiseshell, sarsaparilla, anything he could buy cheap he bought, anything he could sell dear he sold.
In 1898 in cooperation with the Boston Fruit Company he formed the United Fruit Company that has since become one of the most powerful industrial units in the world.
In 1912 he incorporated the International Railroads of Central America;
all of it built out of bananas;
in Europe and the United States people had started to eat bananas,
so they cut down the jungles through Central America to plant bananas,
and built railroads to haul the bananas,
and every year more steamboats of the Great White Fleet
steamed north loaded with bananas,
and that is the history of the American empire in the Caribbean,
and the Panama canal and the future Nicaragua canal and the marines and the battleships and the bayonets.

Why that uneasy look under the eyes, in the picture of Minor C. Keith the pioneer of the fruit trade, the railroad builder, in all the pictures the newspapers carried of him when he died?

The so-called "Knox Note," written from U.S. Secretary of State Philander Knox to Felipe Rodriguez, the Nicaraguan Charge d' Affaires in Washington, demanded that José Santos Zelaya, a popular reforming president, be replaced with someone more amenable to American geopolitical interests. Three days after Knox delivered his note to Rodriguez, President Zelaya announced his resignation to President Taft, who then sent in the Marines to oversee the installation of a friendly regime.

• "The Knox Note," by Philander Knox, Dec. 1, 1909.

Department of State,
Washington, Dec. 1, 1909.


...To insure the future protection of legitimate American interests, in consideration of the interests of the majority of the Central American republics, and in the hope of making more effective the friendly offices exerted under the Washington Conventions, the Government of the United States reserves for further consideration at the proper time the question of stipulating also that the Constitutional Government of Nicaragua obligate itself by convention for the benefit of all the Governments concerned as a guarantee for its future loyal support of the Washington Conventions and their peaceful and progressive aims.

From the foregoing it will be apparent to you that your office of Charge d' Affaires is at an end. I have the honor to inclose your passports for use in case you desire to leave this country. I would add at the same time that, although your diplomatic quality is terminated, I shall be happy to receive you, as I shall be happy to receive the representative of the revolution, each as the unofficial channel of communication between the Government of the United States and the de facto authorities to whom I look for the protection of American interests pending the establishment in Nicaragua of a government with which the United States can maintain diplomatic relations.

Accept, Sir, the renewed assurances of my high consideration.

(Signed) P. C. KNOX.
To Felipe Rodriguez, Esq., Washington, D. C.