July 7, 2000: The military force of the Asian country of Taiwan was put on a very important job last week. They were ordered by the government to eat as many bananas as possible.
The members of government did the same thing. They stood outside their parliament and munched bananas for a long time. Journalists from newspapers, radio and television were there to see their cheeks puff as they bit into one banana after another.
Some of the politicians even made up a song on the banana there and then. The Speaker of the Taiwanese parliament bought 60,000 kg of the fruit. Almost every person in the small country of Taiwan has been eating bananas for the last one week. In fact, the country went bananas or slightly crazy on that most common of fruits last week.
There is a simple reason behind the actions of the people of Taiwan. They were trying to help the banana farmers of their country. Most of the bananas are exported to countries like Japan. So bananas bring in a lot of money for the farmers. And for the country.
But this time, Japan did not take as many bananas as they usually do. Taiwan got flooded with bananas. Since there were more bananas than people wanting to buy them, the desperate farmers kept reducing the price of their fruit. It was clearly a tragedy for them.
And, at such times, the people look to the government to help them. That’s why the government got into action by asking each citizen to do her or his duty by buying and eating as many bananas as possible.
It is quite clear that bananas are not for monkeys alone. The economies and politics of many countries depend on this humble fruit. Nobody knows it better than the United States of America, which has been monkeying around with bananas for a long time.
How the banana came to the US
Though the banana fruit was known to the people of Asia and Africa for a long time, the first bunch of bananas reached New York a little less than 200 years ago, in 1804. It was the red banana, which is the most common variety. The yellow or golden banana variety was developed and served in upper class homes in Boston in 1875 and the Americans went crazy over the fruit.
A survey done some years ago found that Americans are the biggest consumers of bananas. It became top of the fruits for them. And business minded people decided to make money out of bananas.
One of the biggest growers and marketers of the fruit appeared – the United Fruit Company. They developed huge banana plantations in the countries of Central America and controlled the trade of bananas.
The company became the biggest distributor of bananas in the world. It started the trend of putting stickers on the bananas. It showed the buyer where the banana came from.
In 1944, the company’s advertising officials created a cartoon character to promote the company name or brand. It was half banana and half woman and it was named Chiquita Banana. It was the first time in the history of advertising that a jingle was sung.
Chiquita Banana became a big hit. An actress called Carmen Miranda travelled all over the country playing the role of Chiquita Banana.
The banana republics
United Fruit Company was determined to see that nothing came in the way of its business. For that, it needed the support of the ruling powers in those countries.
Many of those Central American countries like Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador and Panama were ruled by corrupt dictators. And United Fruit Company supported them totally.
The company, in turn, was supported by the solid presence of US marines whenever needed. That is how the phrase “banana republics” came into being – countries whose land and policies were controlled by a foreign company which was helped by their own governments.
The banana republics remained poor and enslaved. The United Fruit Company prospered. Slowly, the people of those countries started building up opposition to the dictators and the company. Today, many of those Central American countries have democratic governments.
But America is still trying to dominate the world banana trade and get new markets for its banana multinationals. In fact, last year, it complained to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
WTO is an international organisation which sets rules for trade among 135 countries. It also plays the role of a judge in any trade dispute. It is supposed to see that no country tries to monopolise or totally control trade in any goods or commodity.
US: Big banana brother
America’s target were the Caribbean countries in the West Indies. Many of the small and poor Caribbean countries are heavily dependent on the export of their bananas. They find a market in European countries which had ruled over them for a long time before they became independent.
These European countries have decided to support the poor banana farmers in preference to large multinationals like the US Chiquita Brand. America said that was an unfair practice.
The WTO supported the superpower by saying that the European countries should not discriminate against any country. For the poor Caribbean countries, it was yet another defeat at the hands of a superpower that will use any means for its business ends.
Meanwhile, the banana politics continues.