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George W. Bush, others criticized for comparing Capitol unrest to 'banana republics'

"Banana republic" is an unhelpful "tired trope," said Latin American historian Lisa Munro.
Image: Trump Supporters Storm US Capitol
Trump supporters outside the U.S. Capitol after a "Save America" rally Wednesday.Joel Marklund / Bildbyran via ZUMA Press

As mobs stormed the building at the heart of American democracy Wednesday, stunned U.S. officials, among them a former president, reached for the same phrase to draw comparisons: "banana republic."

"This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic," former President George W. Bush said in a statement.

His sentiment more colorfully echoed on Twitter by Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis.: "We are witnessing absolute banana republic crap in the United States Capitol right now."

While Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a former presidential candidate, tweeted, "This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy."

But American comparisons of the violent and frenzied pro-Trump mobs who plunged the Capitol into chaos, leaving at least five dead,with events in countries in the so-called Third World, have been met with derision and offense by many who live and work in developing countries.

The phrase "banana republic," is widely believed to have been coined in the early 1900s by the American author O. Henry in his story collection "Cabbages and Kings." It is often used as shorthand for Latin American nations characterized by political instability and one-crop economies dominated by foreign capital.

The analogy, largely derived from the monopoly United Fruit Co. held over the banana industry in South America in the early 20th century, is an unhelpful and "tired trope," said Lisa Munro, a historian of Latin America.

Thinking about the U.S. as a "banana republic" doesn't help people understand that the events in Washington were "entirely of U.S. creation," she added.

As events unfolded in Washington, Andrei Gómez-Suárez, a former Colombian government official, said that "banana republic" was used repeatedly on social media and that comparisons were being drawn between President Donald Trump and populist leaders like Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

For "people who have always thought these things happen outside of America, not inside America, this was a turning point," said Gómez-Suárez, who co-founded the think tank Rodeemos el Diálogo, or Embrace Dialogue, and works as an academic specializing in peace building in Colombia.

The events set "a really bad precedent coming from the United States," he said.

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The social divisions that led to the Black Lives Matter protests, America's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the riots at the Capitol were together challenging the idea of American exceptionalism and the United States' standing on the world stage, he said, making it more likely that the U.S. would soon be "superseded" by other actors.

"Many now say the U.S. won't be 'the' world power," Gómez-Suárez said, adding that the events at the Capitol were "one part of America's decline."

Pro-Trump protesters storm into the U.S. Capitol during clashes with police Wednesday.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Comparisons to "Third World" nations were "insulting" and based "on the pretense that the so-called First World is superior," said Carlos Lopes, a professor at the Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

However, many Africans had grown used to "denigrating" language from the U.S. and Trump, in particular, he said, citing reports that Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as "shithole countries" in 2018. Trump denied having used the phrase.

Gautam Bhatia, an Indian author and constitutional lawyer, told NBC News that comparisons to the "Third World" were "not so much offensive as it is ironic."

From slavery to protracted wars and foreign interventions, Bhatia said, American violence was neither new nor surprising.

The United States has long suffered from a "democratic deficit," he said, "but because of American hegemony it's not defined in that way."