“Banana Republic” was for many years — since the novelist O. Henry coined the phrase at the turn of the 20th century — the US cultural stereotype of Latin America. Henry based his fictional country on Honduras, describing it as totally dependent on bananas, the one economic product it produced.
The 1971 Woody Allen comedy “Bananas” painted an absurd picture of unstable governments routinely toppled by either rabid socialists or military dictators every few years, or even every few months. The chief commodities of these countries, whether fruit, vegetables or tin, primarily serve a huge American market. Multi-national corporations, allied with the US CIA, either pay off or stir up resentment against tinhorn or tinpot dictators if they do not allow such corporations to extract resources, pay minimal wages, and keep the vast majority of the profits.
Another stereotype was of Latin American countries governed by strongmen, military dictators or far-left despots, “presidents for life” who steal blatantly from the public treasury and oppress the people, until the citizenry gets fed up and mobilize revolutions.
Among the notorious dictators of Latin America have been:
- Argentina: Juan Peron (1952-1974) and his legendary wife, Evita Peron, a strong advocate of women’s rights who was the subject of a famous musical starring Madonna.
- Nicaragua: Right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza (1967-79), followed by Sandinista socialist Daniel Ortega (1979-1990; 2007 to present).
- Panama: Gen. Manuel Noriega (1967-1990)
- Chile: Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1998), who with the help of the CIA replaced the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende and ended civilian rule.
- Venezuela. Left-wing strongman Hugo Chavez (1999-2013), followed by Nicolás Maduro (2013 to present, though his presidency is disputed with Juan Guaidó since January 2019.)
- Cuba: Left-wing dictator Fidel Castro (1959-2016).
If dysfunction is the only image Americans have of Latin American, it is inaccurate. From 2001 to 2015, Latin America was very stable. “Driven by China’s demand for commodities, the region had just ridden a wave of prosperity that swelled the ranks of a burgeoning middle class,” observed Judah Grunstein in World Politics Review. “Left-wing governments in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia had used progressive approaches to redistributive policy to dramatically reduce poverty and expand access to health care and education…
“Brazil was no longer a regional leader but a champion of the Global South on the world stage. The countries of South America were as likely to look west to Asia as north to the U.S. for trade, investment and aid. And with the notable exception of Venezuela—and, to a lesser extent, Ecuador and Bolivia—the continent was a model of democratic expansion and consolidation.”
That seems to be far less true in 2019, Grunstein observes, but we shall see how things turn out.
John Green of Crash Course World History teaches “about nation building and nationalism in Latin America. Sometimes, the nations of Latin America get compared to the nations of Europe, and are found wanting. This is kind of a silly comparison. The rise of democratic, economically powerful nations in Europe came about under a very different set of circumstances than the way nations arose in Latin America, so the regions are necessarily a lot different. But why? John will explore whether it was a lack of international war which impeded Latin America’s growth, which sounds like a crazy thing to say, but you should hear him out.” Transcript.
Nationalism in Latin America has not taken the form it has in other countries. With a historically rigid class structure, citizens of one nation lacked a common identity. “Creoles in one Latin American country likely saw themselves as different from their own indigenous populations, but not so different from the Creole elites in neighboring nations,” Green observes. “As Miguel Centeno put it, in Latin America, ‘The gulf between white, black, and Indian within countries was always greater than the differences between any of these groups across borders.’ ”
Centeno, Miguel Angel. Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-state in Latin America. Penn State U. Press. University Park, PA. 2002 p. 86, p. 90, p. 175, p. 275
Tilly, Charles. Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990 to 1992.