As our plane approached San Pedro Sula, the second city of the Central American republic of Honduras, the orderly squares of banana plantations dominated the tropical countryside below. Between them you could just make out the cable tramways that carried the heavy, green stalks of this fruit to centrally located packing stations. From there workers would load the boxes filled with 22 kilograms of bananas into refrigerated containers for the short trip to waiting ships at Puerto Cortes.
After their arrival at ports like Galveston, Texas, or New Orleans, Louisiana trucks would carry them to ripening facilities in major centres across the continent, such as the one that services the Yukon in Calgary. We used to have our own small ripening facility on Burns Road in Whitehorse. Once ethylene gas has triggered the yellowing process, the bananas make their final road trip on up to our store shelves. The very profitable banana continues to have a prominent place in the produce sections of our grocery stores.
When I last made it to San Pedro Sula in 2005 this city had yet to achieve the dubious distinction it now holds of being a more dangerous place than Cuidad Juarez, the notorious Mexican border town wracked by drug cartel violence, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas. Somewhere in the last six and a half years things have gone terribly wrong in Honduras. According to a recent New York Times opinion piece, Dana Frank, a University of California at Santa Cruz history professor, noted that, “Much of the press in the United States has attributed this violence solely to drug trafficking and gangs. But the coup was what threw open the doors to a huge increase in drug trafficking and violence, and it unleashed a continuing wave of state-sponsored repression.”
The coup Frank refers to is the June 28, 2009 military overthrow of the reformist, democratically-elected president, Jose Manuel Zelaya. The country’s elites, with U.S. backing, engineered an extra-constitutional election of a more satisfactory government in November 2009. According to Frank, despite “brutal evidence” of the Porfirio Lobo administration’s corruption continued U.S. support has come because of legislators like Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
They “have been ferocious about Honduras as a first domino with which to push back against centre-left and leftist governments that have won elections in Latin America in the past 15 years. With its American air base, Honduras is also crucial to the United States’ military strategy in Latin America.”
Honduras is less than a third the size of the Yukon with a population nearing 8.5 million people. It historically has been regarded as the stereotypical “banana republic.” In fact the American author O.Henry coined the term after living there briefly in the late 1800s.
Cobbling together several attempts by others to define a “banana republic,” I have my own definition. A “banana republic” is firstly a politically unstable country that depends heavily on exports of a specific resource like bananas. As well, it typically has a large, impoverished lower class ruled by a much smalle, wealthy elite who operate the country as a commercial enterprise for their private profit. Their power is effected by the collusion between the state and favoured monopolies, which are often internationally controlled and backed up by the military power of a foreign dominant power, which usually, in Latin America, has been the United States. The profits derived from private exploitation of public lands or services is sanctioned, even encouraged, by its crony government. The government debts incurred to support these are the public sector’s responsibility.
Honduras currently fills the bill as a “banana republic.” This notion, though, like that of the “domino effect” has had its day. These ideas should belong to the past. Dilcia Diaz Cuellar, the Honduran teacher currently visiting the Yukon as the social justice committee’s global solidarity speaker for 2012 believes Hondurans have a right a future free from oppression and exploitation. Organizations like the teachers’ organization she belongs to are trying to make it so.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.