Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Is The United States Becoming A Banana Republic?

Some pundits assert that the United States is becoming a “Banana Republic” under President Donald Trump.  Is this so?  Is this a fair metaphor?

First, some definitions.

A "republic" is a state in which supreme power is held by the people who are ruled by their elected representatives, and which has an elected or nominated president rather than a  monarch.

What is a "Banana Republic?"

The historical description was coined by the American writer O. Henry (author of the Cisco Kid) who described Honduras and neighboring countries dominated by American fruit companies, in which business, political, and military elites ruled those countries for their private benefit by exploiting a large, impoverished working class.

Here are two political science definitions of “banana republic.”

(1) A small, poor, politically unstable country, often reliant on a single product or limited resource, governed by an authoritarian regime, characterized by corruption, and exploited by foreign corporations in collusion with local government officials.

(2) More generally, any exploitative government that functions poorly for it citizenry (whether reliant on a single export product or not), while disproportionately benefiting a corrupt elite group or individual,

Because “banana republic” refers to an unstable, authoritarian system of government, we need a measure for its antithesis, “democracy.”

Since 2006, the Economist Intelligence Unit has published an annual Index of Democracy.  The Index assigns countries to four categories:  (1) full democracy, (2) flawed democracy, (3) hybrid system—a mixture of democracy and authoritarian, and (4) authoritarian.  Categories (1) and (2) are not “banana republics.”  Categories (3) and (4) are partially or fully authoritarian.

Let’s put to rest the contention that the United States is becoming a “banana republic.”  In the EIU index, 20 countries qualify for category (1) full democracy.  The U.S. ranks 25, near the top of category (2) flawed democracy.  Hybrid regimes begin with Albania, ranked 75.  The U.S. is nowhere near becoming a “banana republic.”

Here are the top 15 net exporters (imports minus reexports) of bananas by value in 2019, its ranking in the democracy index, and the value of net coffee exports for countries that are also major coffee exporters.

As to bananas, consider the following table.

Country          Net Banana     Democracy       Net Coffee
                         Exports             Index             Exports

Ecuador            $3.9 billion           2
Philippines         1.9 billion            2
Columbia           1.6 billion            2               2.6 billion
Costa Rica         993 million           1              254 million
Guatemala        942 million           3              663 million
Dominican         433 million           2
Panama            353 million            2
Ivory Coast       340 million            3
Honduras          301 million            3               1.1 billion
Mexico              270 million            2             182 million
Cameroon         256 million            4
Peru                 152 million            2              617 million 
Vietnam           138 million            4               2.4 billion
Ghana                98 million            2
India                  78 million            2

True “banana republics” include Guatemala, Honduras, Cameroon, and Vietnam, the first two ranked hybrid, the latter two ranked authoritarian.  However, since coffee exports dwarf  banana exports in Honduras, perhaps it should labeled a “coffee republic.”  Vietnam is a coffee authoritarian state.  Coffee exports also exceed banana exports in Columbia and Peru.  The latter two countries are classified as flawed democracies, not hybrid or authoritarian, so they are neither “banana” or “coffee republics.”

By the way, the U.S. is the world’s largest net importer of bananas at $2.3 billion, followed by China and Russia at $1.07 billion.  Americans eat, not produce, bananas.  Those who assert the U.S. is becoming a “banana republic” are wrong on every count of the charge.  However, because of their never-Trump, anti-Trump obsession, even some otherwise respectable scholars fall victim to this error.

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