We’ve all heard the words ”banana republic” at some point. But how many know what it means?
The word was coined in the heyday of the american United Fruit Company, which lasted for the first half of the 20th century. The company built entire countries’ infrastructures with railways, ports and telegraph lines to transport the bananas from its huge plantations all around Latin America. But the company also ran many countries’ governments, sort of like an international puppet show. As soon as they protested, United Fruit threatened to leave the country. And as soon as a government tried to stand up to the company, the US army came to the company’s rescue. That happened, for example, in Guatemala in 1954 when US-backed military overthrew president Jacobo Arbenz who nationalized United Fruit’s unused land and distributed it to the farmers.
In Latin America the United Fruit Company was called ”El Pulpo” – the octopus. And the countries in the palm of the company’s hand were called banana republics. Today, the company has changed its name and is called Chiquita. It’s also gotten rid of its plantations, railways, telegraph lines and puppet governments.
In Ecuador the company was never very strong, but there are still traces from the golden era of the company. In Tenguel on the south coast, the company owned the plantation ”Hacienda Tenguel”. Today, part of the farmers in the area form the Asoguabo member association Tenguel.
A city has developed around the plantation core since United Fruit left Ecuador in 1962. That year the banana workers took over the plantation after 3000 of them were fired when the production fell as a result of the Panama disease in the banana plants. The land was distributed between the workers who became small farmers, and that’s the way it has remained.
Tenguel is one of the few towns in Ecuador with wooden buildings. It was ”los gringos”, the americans, who built them between the years 1932 and 1962 when United Fruit ran Tenguel. Today most of them have rotted and fallen apart in lack of care, but some still stand. One of them belongs to doña Alicia and don Heliodoro, who have restored the interior. Alicia’s father was a worker in Hacienda Tenguel, and led the plantation’s football team. She has collected loads of objects from that period. The gringos brought
everything from the States: tools, sewing machines, record players. In he yard, doña Alicia has a little train from the hacienda’s own railway. It transported the workers, tools and bananas around the plantation and to its own port a few kilometres away.
When ”la compania” decided to leave Ecuador, they left everything where it stood. At that time, United Fruit was divesting most of its property around Latin America, to focus on selling and marketing in stead of producing bananas. Owning all the infrastructure and controlling the entire process of production was cheaper, but the value of the stock fell. The buyers felt that the political instability and the storms ruining crops were too risky for the company. So the company switched to the system that still functions today: transferring all the risks to the local banana farmers that deliver fruit to the company.
Read more in these books:
”Banana – the fate of the fruit that changed the world” by Dan Koeppel
”Banana Wars” by Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg