Paper

Asia’s Banana Republic: Rethinking Empire in the Transnational Philippines

Alyssa Paredes, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan

Panel

Southeast Asia and the Transboundary

Abstract

The term “banana republic,” a racializing pejorative most commonly used to describe Central American economies, does not usually conjure images of Southeast Asia. Yet it has become a common moniker for the state of the Philippines’ political and economic systems as well as its transnational relationship with Japan. Both journalistic and academic writing have used the label to characterize every administration from Ferdinand Marcos (1965–1986) to Rodrigo Duterte (2016–current), citing foreign intervention in politics, a state of bloodshed and rebellion, the persistence of kleptocracy in high office, the lack of government accountability, and the rampancy of inequality. These popular references offer opportunities to rethink the nature of empire. This paper thus turns to the export banana zones of southeastern Mindanao as both the metaphoric root and a material source of the power asymmetries that define the Philippine south’s transboundary ties to East Asian consumer markets. It offers historical comparisons between the Southeast Asian nation and Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Honduras to demonstrate how scholarly understandings of the “banana republics” shift in this regional context. Focusing on (1) new land control schemes devised by the same American fruit conglomerates; (2) foundational ties to import markets in Japan, rather than to the United States and Europe; and (3) a history of internal settler colonialism, this paper shows the role that the industry has played both in shaping local political and economic conditions, and in differentiating Philippine banana trade from networks in the same commodity elsewhere in the world.

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