Bananas in Literature and Memory
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By Camilo Ucrós
Bananas occupy an important space in Latin America’s collective imaginary. The history of the banana industry is associated both with the dependency of primary products and the looming imperial presence of the United States that wielded its influence and altered the political and economic landscape of Latin America throughout the 20th century. Over time, the banana economy became ingrained in Latin American literature and remained so well into the 21st century.
Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, and Eduardo Galeano all referred to banana plantations and the United Fruit Company (UFC), in an often-critical way, arguing that they oppressed the local population, degraded the environment, and served as an imperialist tool.
The term “Banana Republic” first appeared in Cabbages and Kings by O. Henry (1904), a series of stories that take place in the town of Coralio in the fictional country of Anchuria. Most of the main characters are North Americans who have some kind of business interest, not only in bananas but also in other primary products like rubber and cacao. The land is described as a quasi Eden-like garden that is ripe for exploitation, filled with colorful birds and inhabited by lazy, naïve Indians, mere stumbling blocks for the American businessmen who want to take over their land. These businessmen are as powerful as the local authorities. The title of the book disparages Latin America, taking a line from CS Lewis’s poem, to paint the picture of an absurd and picturesque land. Back then, literature was probably the most immediate way to project an image of a distant land, and likely this depiction of Coralio was described so that these countries could be imagined as places where the brazen and the wicked could aspire to make fortunes.
In Latin America, the approach has often been a reaction to this image: to criticize any foreign intervention as a sort of contamination, deformation and alteration of Latin American history. As early as 1950 a reference can be seen in Pablo Neruda’s book of poems, Canto General. In a poem entitled A la United Fruit Company, he describes how the UFC brought greed and false pretensions of authority to the countries. He compares servile dictators giving in to the UFC and American interests as flies that feed off rotten bananas, who are willing to give away indigenous treasures to North American boats. All that is left behind are the bodies of Indian labor, lying beside discarded bunches of rotten fruit. The poem was published during a time of US-backed dictatorships in Central America and the beginning of its long freeze in relations with Cuba following the revolution.
Perhaps the best-known account is Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude when he reimagines the Banana Massacre of 1928 in the Colombian Caribbean: Aureliano Segundo wakes up following the massacre in a train packed with some 3000 bodies. When he tells the story to the first woman he sees, she replies, “There haven’t been any dead here.” García Márquez later recognized that the number of dead could have been between three, seven or seventeen people, but such a number would have been incoherent with the hyperbolic scales of the novel. Furthermore, he argued, the massacre had been erased from the “official history” of the country, and this was the way he decided to call attention to the events. The significance lay not in the numbers, but with the important form it took for the development of the country. Memory proved to be important here: populist liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán then used the event to criticize the military for shooting its countrymen, and even managed to turn public opinion around in order to demand the end of the conservative hegemony in Colombia that had been in place during the last half century.
In Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America he argues that the history of Latin America has been conditioned by the colonial exploitation inherent to the Spanish, British, and Americans, and that was finally consumed by neoliberal policies. According to Galeano, Latin Americans had no say in shaping their own history, which does undermine whatever choices they did make. He later claimed to regret writing the book, but it had already been absorbed into the Latin American consciousness. When it was published it became a bible of sorts, for the Latin American left, both moderate and extremist, as an excuse and a motivation to contest imperialism and campaign for self-rule. In 2009, when the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez met President Obama in Trinidad and Tobago, he gave him Galeano’s book.
Literature is a vehicle for memory, and in the collective consciousness it has rewritten official national histories in a similar way that TV series reinterpret the histories of slavery or of Pablo Escobar. In a continent that does not read much, the written word still maintains a certain authority. When history is based on such feeble accounts, it becomes vulnerable to instrumentalization. Left-leaning writers see the banana economy as a paradigm of the plundering and dispossession of Latin America throughout history, while authors from the right considered it necessary for the inclusion of the continent in the global economy. This chapter of history has become inherently politicized. Meanwhile, history and memory get confused, and while memory builds identity, history is a safer vessel from which to draw lessons.