Ph.D. in Law Candidate and Gates Cambridge Scholar
University of Cambridge
Keywords: Trump, political violence, Latin America, intervention, international law, transitional justice
Synopsis: Third World analogies have long become a favoured resource of U.S. critics of Donald Trump. This essay explores the references to “banana republics” and Latin America in the analysis of the storming of the U.S. capitol and argues that these analogies are normatively, historically, and analytically deficient.
Two months ago, a mob of pro-Trump militants stormed the United States (U.S.) Capitol. A succinct recount of the incidents seems unnecessary: the grotesque vignettes remain etched in our minds. As they suspended their activities to tune in to the news, my lawyer friends —from back home in Argentina, but also Brazil, Mexico, and a few other places— reached out; our shared educational experiences made evident by our chatting on U.S. constitutionalism and democracy. From early on in our legal education we learned about the U.S. constitution as a model of democratic stability, one which ought to be studied in detail, not the less because our constitution(s) bore its influence. What was more surprising was to learn that they were also thinking about us. A viral tweet from a Latin Americanist read: “As a Latin America follower, I’ve seen this movie before. But it has always been in Spanish”. Then came George W. Bush reasoning that “this is how election results are disputed in a banana republic”. This catchline was seized by several other prominent Republicans.
Third World analogies had long become a favoured resource of U.S. critics of Donald Trump across party lines — remember Samantha Power’s description of Trump as having gone “full Robert Mugabe”. Comparisons to Latin America have been abundant. In the beginning, the flawed Trump-Perón comparison gained centrality; most recently, words in Spanish seem to have become part of a mandatory flowery style for by-lines, as if autogolpe could not be articulated in the English language. In thinking about the rampage, this final snapshot of Trump’s violent legacy, Third World analogies present at least three distinct sets of problems. Normatively, the portrayal of violence, incivility, chaos, self-destruction, and whatever you see in the striking as somehow endemic to Central (and Latin) America shades into racism. I will not expand on this dimension, but on two others, which I propose to think of as the historical and analytical ones. Historically, as many have countered, the very notion of banana republic is tied to U.S. imperialism, and, equally significantly, central troubles of these so-called banana republics remain inseparable from international economic structures. Bad history, in turn, carries over to analytical shortfalls: if one tends to think of Latin America as inherently unstable and of Trump’s rise as mostly accidental, one’s proposed responses to violence —whether in North, South, or Central America— will be deficient.
“Banana Republics”: What’s in a Name?
The significance of legal analysis to understand the storming of the Capitol was powerfully illustrated by Rose Parfitt’s essay, a few days after the events. Parfitt stressed the continuities of white supremacism and dispossession in the United States before and after Trump, criticised mainstream commentary labelling the mob “lawless” for concealing these continuities, and, most significantly, presented them as rooted in a legal system structured around individual liberty as an ultimate value. Importantly, in a central reminder that American exceptionalism is a myth both for the good and the bad, Parfitt emphasised that most contemporary legal systems share this feature. I want to turn to a slightly different legal perspective: a thumbnail history of “banana republics” from the perspective of regional law and organisation.
U.S. writer O. Henry coined the term in his 1904 novel Cabbages and Kings to refer to the fictional “banana republic” of Anchuria, inspired in Honduras, where he wrote it having fled to escape embezzlement charges. The term has come to stand for corrupt, unstable, and authoritarian countries. While the word “banana” has contributed to resist absolutely ahistorical interpretations and maintain a certain evocation of a Caribbean archetype, the central feature of its original meaning is often neglected: the ills of the “banana republics” were inextricably linked to the massive influence of U.S. (fruit) companies in their political, social, and economic organisation, attained and exercised by their monopolies over the few commodities on which these countries’ economies were dependant. The influence of these companies was further enabled by direct military and political intervention by the United States: only in the Caribbean, the United States engaged in no less than 20 military interventions between 1898 and 1920 — for several reasons, including the protection of U.S. economic interests. U.S. interventionism in Latin America during these years was far from limited to the so-called “banana wars”: this period witnessed the formulation of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, Dollar Diplomacy, and the United States involvement in the Mexican Revolution.
As explored in different ways by extraordinary recent work in the history and theory of international law (by scholars such as Juan Pablo Scarfi, Fabia Veçoso, and Arnulf Becker Lorca), this context drove Latin American diplomats and jurists to push for the codification of the prohibition of intervention in international law, succeeding with the adoption of the Montevideo Convention in 1933, ratified by the United States — now a “good neighbor” under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Throughout the years, the principle of non-intervention was given different meanings, but, among other purposes, not all worthy of celebration, served Latin American leaders to resist particularly blatant foreign determinants of violence and instability. It was therefore no surprise that when the inter-American political system was institutionalised with the establishment of the Organization of American States in 1948, the Latin American republics, many of them led by democratically-elected leaders, pushed for the recognition of non-intervention as the legal backbone of regional organisation.
The outlawing of intervention “directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever” was far from enough to put an end to domestic (and imported) political violence. Regionally, Latin American states called for economic justice, often defending it as a precondition for political stability: as part of this quest, “banana republics” struggled for commodity price stabilisation, without much success. Domestically, land reform and workers’ rights were seen as two central tools to disrupt deeply entrenched social and economic inequalities and exclusions. These remained, however, daunting tasks even for the few leaders who actually wanted to pursue them, like Jacobo Árbenz, elected President of Guatemala in 1951. In a country where two percent of the population owned over 70 per cent of the land, Árbenz passed an agrarian reform law to transfer unused land to peasants, compensating landowners with bonds. As extensively researched by historians of the Americas, this reform went directly against the interests of the United Fruit Company, which owned around 40 per cent of Guatemala’s productive land and lobbied the U.S. government to protect it. These tensions were an essential part of the lead-up to the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état—now not explicitly encouraged by the United States, but covertly supported by the CIA. Nearly forty years of civil war followed. This is not to say that every regional problem has been externally imposed, but simply that any comprehensive film about Árbenz’s ousting would have to be bilingual. The same is true for other coups, crises, and revolutions throughout the second half of the 20th century in Latin America.
Taking Distant Experiences Seriously
Essentialist Third World analogies are not only normatively and historically problematic, but also analytically defective. They help portray Trump as an accident — almost as a speck of evil that brought to “America” what belongs elsewhere. They invite the celebration of a return to “normal” — fortunately resisted by a few necessary pleas of caution that “normal led to Trump”, via economic inequality, white nationalism, institutional racism, and deregulation. They pair well with calls for individual accountability in the form of criminal investigations and impeachment(s) as solutions for deeply-rooted injustices. There might be, however, something to salvage from recalling Latin America in this context.
A valuable lesson that regional history has to offer is, precisely, that political violence is neither accidental nor endemic. Therefore, it is not enough to repudiate it and think how to move forward when it becomes manifest. This might be worth considering against the background of the calls for transitional justice in the United States, led by well-meaning progressives. These calls are a salutary development in themselves, as they involve an acknowledgement of distant experiences and reflect a deexceptionalisation of U.S. analysis. Indeed, since the 1980s, Latin America has had a fair dose of transitional justice. This framework has opened up space for assessing systematic human rights violations beyond the limited framework of dominant approaches to legal analysis. Too often, however, transitional justice processes, conditioned by both domestic and external constraints, have stopped short of addressing structural questions of economic inequality, redistribution, and institutional alternatives. In the last few years, political crises all across Latin America have illustrated that these remain as urgent as persistently deferred. In this, with this benefit of hindsight and fewer constraints, U.S. progressives would do well to aim at exceptionalism.
Francisco-José Quintana is a Research Associate at the Global Governance Centre. He is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and Ph.D. in Law Candidate at the University of Cambridge, working at the intersection of the theory and history of international law, human rights, and regional organisation, focusing on the Americas.