From the earliest days of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule up until the late 19th century, banana cultivation in the Americas was carried out mostly by smallholders. That changed around 1880, when schooner captains based in Boston and New Orleans began to buy bananas in the Caribbean and sell them in the United States. In the geographically small countries of Central America, a couple of US-based banana companies have wielded enormous influence. The United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita) acquired so much power in Guatemala and Honduras that it came to function as a state within a state, giving rise to the notion of “banana republics.” The company consolidated its power through various means: it installed authoritarian civilian and military governments that gave concessions to land, railroads, and ports; it divided its labor force along ethnic and racial lines; it built hospitals, schools, workers’ barracks, and houses for its management; and it used massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides in a capital intensive effort to cultivate varieties of the fruit that North American consumers came to expect but which were susceptible to Panama disease and Black Sigatoka. Bananas and plantains are a dietary staple throughout the tropics, and the diseases that beset the Gros Michel and Cavendish varieties that are grown on monocrop plantations threaten a vital source of healthy and relatively cheap calories that much of the world has come to rely upon. In recent years, consumers and civil society groups have organized to demand more socially and environmentally responsible bananas, creating organic and “fair trade” alternatives to conventional “free trade” bananas.
During the 1930s, the worldwide economic crisis, local social unrest, the political legacy of the 19th century, and local elites’ fears of Indigenous and organized-workers mobilizations were the perfect combination for the rise of new dictatorships in Central America. Military caudillos appeared in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, substituting a short period of democratic experience in these countries during the 1920s. Only in Costa Rica did democratic development remain, despite a bitter dictatorship from 1917 to 1919. By the end of the 1930s, strongmen who admired European fascism ruled with an iron fist and counted on the US State Department’s approbation and collaboration. National guards in El Salvador and Nicaragua and the army in Guatemala became the foundations of fierce regimes. But World War II and the Allies’ victory gave opportunities for internal opposition to contest dictators. In Guatemala and El Salvador, coup d’états occurred in 1944, bringing about new democratic scenarios for progressive politicians. Central America saw the rise of social democracy between 1948 and 1949. In 1948, a brief civil war in Costa Rica worked to consolidate social reforms that took place from 1940 to 1943, and in 1949, the reformists took power in Honduras. Even in Anastasio Somoza’s Nicaragua, a political opening occurred when the dictator supported organized labor and began to work with his political opposition. But the years of change did not last. Guatemala’s democratic experiment was abruptly canceled by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1954; in Nicaragua, the killing of Somoza in 1956 carried the country into a new, bloody regime; and in El Salvador, military officers overthrew the president in 1960.