Banana Republic or Nut Country? January 6 Put American Exceptionalism in Perspective

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tags: Donald Trump, Banana Republics, Capitol Riots

Frank P. Barajas is a Professor of History at California State University Channel Islands. He has a forthcoming book with the University of Nebraska Press titled Mexican Americans with Moxie: A Trans-Generational History of El Movimiento Chicano in Ventura County California, 1945-1975.

Detail of poster advocating Guatemalan land reform under President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who would be overthrown in a US-backed coup in 1954 at the behest of the United Fruit Company



Horrorstruck by last week’s terrorist attack on our nation’s capital by Trump’s willing executioners, former president George W. Bush, Republican Wisconsin congressman Mike Gallagher, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demurred the idea that the United States resembled a Latin American “banana republic.”


Their reactions exhibited a white supremacist hubris in and of itself. For them, only the brown people of Latin America revolted in such a way.


Alzheimer’s may explain the three forgetting the extremism of this past May and October in Michigan where Trump loyalists stormed the state’s capital with assault rifles in the first instance and plotted to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer in the second. Nor did they recall other racists marching with tiki torches through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us.”


Then there is our nation’s granddaddy of rebellions: the American Civil War that started in 1861 as secessionist forces attacked the US base that was Fort Sumter. Why did southern Confederates secede? Because President Abraham Lincoln would not allow the further expansion of slavery.


I will give non-students of history a pass for not considering Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. The former involved insurrectionists, many armed revolutionary war veterans, attacking Massachusetts courts and a federal arsenal to stop the foreclosures of farms in 1786. The latter entailed a federal excise tax on whiskey that prompted western Pennsylvania distillers to assault tax collectors in 1791.


In 1794, President George Washington led 13,000 federalized soldiers into Pennsylvania’s backcountry to quash the rebellion. Later that year in an address to Congress, he characterized the whiskey insurrection as “fomented by combinations of men who…have disseminated, from an ignorance or perversion of facts, suspicions, jealousies, and accusations of the whole Government.”


My point is that there is a notion that the US is above socio-political upheaval. This is grounded in the portrayal of brown “other” nations as culturally, if not racially, prone to political violence. Indeed, that is how media conditioned me in my youth.


As I came of age in the 1980s, I did not read much but viewed a lot of television. As a latchkey kid, I watched reruns after school: Hogan’s Heroes, MASH, and Baa Baa Black Sheep. Living in Greater Los Angeles, I also killed time with Channel 7’s KABC Eyewitness News, which featured debates between Bruce Herschensohn and John Tunney.


Herschensohn was a conservative commentator who served in the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Tunney was a one-term California U.S. Senator connected to the Kennedys who championed the liberal perspective.


In covering US foreign policy, the two regularly argued about the incessant wars and coups in the Caribbean and Central America, particularly the revolutions of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.


Back then these governments were popularly labeled “banana republics.” The origin of the epithet stemmed from the region’s economic dependency on the export of this fruit and other commodities such as coffee and sugar as dictated by US financiers and corporations such as Chiquita (formerly United Fruit) and Dole dating back to the early twentieth century.


The cognomen is also drenched with racist assumptions of American exceptionalism. As the City Upon the Hill, the US held felt obligated to mentor such nations, while “protecting” them from European interference as declared in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Ostensibly, Latin Americans, as a race, were too unstable and corrupt to govern themselves without the tutelage of the United States.


As I watched Herschensohn and Tunney reprise a nightmare of death squads, strongmen, assassins, “freedom fighters,” and insurgencies, I ignorantly bought into this epistemology and thought to myself, “Why can’t these countries just get their act together like the USA?”


Then in college I was assigned Walter Lefeber’s Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1983), which detailed a long history of US interventionism, both overt and covert, to install vicious rulers throughout the region by way of cunning regime change that entailed coups, military advisors, naval and marine invasion, and contrived elections.


If a nationalist government with ambitions of self-determination emerged, the US systematically attempted to destabilize it. Think Cuba historically and Venezuela in the present.


Further reading revealed the Central Intelligence Agency’s sponsorship of the murderous coups of the democratically elected presidencies of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. Their crime: the pursuit of their citizens having greater control of their lands’ resources at some expense of US conglomerates.


Hence, the respective installation of the merciless military dictatorships of Carlos Castillo Armas and Augusto Pinochet. To paraphrase President Franklin Roosevelt’s alleged description of the US supported Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, the two were sons of bitches, but they were our sons of bitches.


Although the ideological pretext for US interventionism was to combat the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere, the material motive was to maintain commercial hegemony while smothering alternative autochthonous economic models that privileged the social needs of Latin Americans over US business interests.


In sum, the history of the US is anything but one of continuity and tranquility. So, while we may not be bananas, history and the pro-Trump sedition of last week reminds us that we have a fair share of nuts.