The term gained resonance from an ugly chapter in the fruit's history
We know what Banana Republic has to do with clothing and other accessories, but what do banana republics have to do with bananas? The term, which has mostly lost its political resonance, comes originally from the writer O. Henry, in his 1904 collection of short stories Cabbages and Kings. The famed author of “The Gift of the Magi” drew on his experiences in Honduras, where he lived for a time hiding out from embezzlement charges, to come up with the sobriquet. But “banana republic” didn’t enter the popular lexicon until 1935, according to Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, when Esquire magazine reported on the machinations of American fruit companies in South America.
Banana republic, more specifically, was the term used to describe the string of puppet governments installed by United Fruit, now known as Chiquita, throughout South and Central America in the first half of the twentieth century, which effectively put foreign governments under the control of banana companies. “The banana—in order to succeed—had to be cheap,” Koeppel told me in an email (adding that the banana still is the cheapest fruit in the supermarket). “This was a nearly impossible task given the fact that bananas have to be shipped great distances and are highly perishable.”
“The ‘answer’ for banana companies was to keep costs down by controlling land and labor,” Koeppel explained. What that meant in practical—and violent—terms was overthrowing foreign regimes in cooperation with the U.S. government. Between 1900 and 1954, Koeppel says, there were over 20 interventions. For instance, United Fruit helped the CIA orchestrate a 1954 coup in Guatemala, overthrowing the first democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, and replacing him with a military regime.
“Probably during its career from the late-ish 19th century to the 1960s, United Fruit or people associated with it were responsible for more such exercises in 'regime change' on behalf of the banana than were ever carried out in the name of oil,” Peter Chapman, the author of Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World, said in an email.
Over the past half-century or so, the banana has become dissociated from the republic, but the spirit of the term remains intact.
“It is a kind of shorthand for political and economic mismanagement and corruption,” Chapman told me, “quite possibly in countries overseen by dictators who are there to rule in the way that a large foreign government or company might want them to.”