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What is a Banana Republic?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 23, 2024
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As a term of critique, a banana republic describes a country whose government is primarily concerned with economics benefiting a colonial or corporate power, rather than values of democracy and social welfare. Specifically, "bananaland," or "banana republic" was coined to refer to Central and South American dictatorships set up for the purpose of foreign exploitation of natural resources such as agricultural crops.

The pejorative "banana republic" can be traced back to the original experience of the United States' involvement in banana importing in the 1870s. A corporate honcho named Minor Keith anticipated the wild popularity of the exotic fruit and wanted to encourage cheap export of bananas from Costa Rica. He established political advantage by marrying into the Presidential family, and was soon running miles of railroad tracks, flanked by banana plantations, using exploited labor. Next, he advanced his grand plan by founding or buying other American fruit companies, eventually controlling the monopolistic United Fruit Company. This gave him power over numerous agricultural centers in Cuba, Jamaica, Columbia, Santa Domingo, Guatemala, Panama, and Nicaragua.

Conditions ideal for exploiting workers are propagated by sham democracies in banana republics. A pseudo-democracy means that elections are rigged, so that a pre-selected candidate is guaranteed victory. This puppet leader has ensured the colonial or corporate power that he will follow their directives to make the most profit. Other methods of instituting a compliant government include the staging of political coups, where the foreign power backs an insurrection, often resulting in assassination of the current leader. The military coup only succeeds with weapons and resources secured by a foreign power. Once in control, the new government might be further supported with foreign subsidies to their agricultural crops.

The concept of banana republics has evolved with the changing political climate. For instance, more than fruit, resources such as oil and coffee spurred banana republics in the 20th century. Corruption at all levels usually arises in these unstable governments, breeding a system rife with bribes and black markets. Increasing privatization of basic social services leaves the population with reduced wages and worsening living conditions. Critics of the United States frequently relate its policies to the phenomenon of banana republics both in South America and the Middle East.

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Discussion Comments
By anon230347 — On Nov 18, 2011

The connection with the company, judging by the wiki page, seems to be that it was originally a sort of high-end tourist apparel store, with tropical and safari themes. It was apparently quite unique and authentic, making it likely that the original founders were aware of the irony (hopefully.)

GAP eventually bought the store and changed it into what it is today.

By B707 — On Jun 01, 2011

@Clairdelune - I have visited Costa Rica and it's not at all the place it was back in the days of the corrupt corporate leaders.

It seems to be a democracy now. I talked to some people over there. They said that most people are middle-class, they get a good education, good healthcare, and most have jobs.

Bananas and coffee is not their main exports, like they used to be. Now electronics are made and exported. The tourist business is big - it's a beautiful place to visit. Growing bananas and coffee is still important, but it isn't the only product.

I wonder if some of the other countries that were called banana republics have made as much progress as Costa Rica has.

By Clairdelune — On May 31, 2011

@dimpley - That's an interesting point you brought up about the store, Banana Republic,and Costa Rica's history of being referred to as a banana republic.

It was well over 100 years ago that American corporate leaders were setting up corrupt governments to gain big profits from selling bananas and coffee.

It's hard to say why the popular clothing store decided on the name of Banana Republic. I don't think the term has been used much in years. So, they might not have thought it had a negative reputation. I think that Costa Rica has changed a lot in recent times. Any information?

By dimpley — On May 30, 2011

I just have to wonder if a banana republic is this bad, why in the world would anyone name their retail chain that? And, does that have anything to do with the actual meaning of banana republic at all.

I live in a small town, which is near a touristy coast. Our Banana Republic store is located there, and for small town folks, actually a little bit expensive. It’s really there for the wealthier tourists.

Anyway I can’t help but think that maybe the original meaning behind banana republic (affluent monopolists = money = prestige) is perhaps some sidewise way of touting the clientele's status in society.

By anon137435 — On Dec 27, 2010

Is this situation something to do with the reason why the well known company, Banana Republic, is not in Costa Rica?

By anon123298 — On Nov 01, 2010

this article does not clearly state whether or not costa rica is currently considered to be a banana republic.

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