The term banana republic denotes a small state that is politically unstable as a result of the domination of its economy by a single export controlled by foreign capital.
The earliest instance that I have found is from What the insurgents in Colombia are fighting for, by ‘S. M. B.’, published in The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois) of Sunday 1st December 1901—the term must have been in relatively common usage at that time, since the author wrote “these “banana republics,” as they are sometimes called” and did not explain it:
The simple fact that the Colombian war was a terribly earnest struggle gave it an interest which is generally lacking in the “revolutions” which are almost constantly breaking out in one or another of the Latin American states. There seems to be something in the climate down there which is fatal to stability of government. The presence of active volcanoes and the frequent earthquakes are continually producing changes in the geography of some one of these countries, just as the sentiment, or whims, of the populace are constantly necessitating alterations in the political map.
It is not unusual for the citizens of one of these “banana republics,” as they are sometimes called, to change their rulers a half-dozen times in as many years, though the state constitution almost invariably prescribes a tenure of four years for each President elected to office. The trouble is that very few of the Presidents in South America are elected by the people. As a rule they ride into office on a wave of popular revolt. The transfer of power is often accompanied with bloodshed, but it occasionally happens that the men in authority have become so unpopular that a mere show of force is sufficient to cause them to abdicate.
The text in which is the second-earliest instance of banana republic that I have found clarifies the original sense of the term, that is: a Latin-American country that is politically unstable because its economy, controlled by U.S. interest, wholly depends on the export of bananas.
This text, Rouge et Noir: A Little Business Romance of the Banana Trade, is a short story by ‘Olivier Henry’ [see note], published in Ainslee’s Magazine (New York) of December 1901; this story is set in “the banana republic of Costaragua”, a fictional Central-American state whose ruler, President Zarilla, has taken the following decision:
The most impolitic of the administration’s moves had been when it antagonized the Vesuvius Fruit Company of New Orleans, an organization plying twelve steamships, and with a cash capital something larger than Costaragua’s surplus and debt combined. Naturally, an established concern like the Vesuvius would become irritated at having a small, retail republic with no rating at all attempt to squeeze it. So, when the government proxies applied for subsidy they encountered a polite refusal. The President retaliated by clapping an export duty of one real per bunch on bananas—a thing unprecedented in fruit growing countries. But the Vesuvius Company had built costly iron piers and wharves at three points along the Costaraguan coast. The company’s agents had erected ﬁne homes in the towns where they had their headquarters, and the company had invested large sums in banana plantations and timber lands of the republic. It would cost an immense sum if it should be compelled to move out. The selling price of bananas from Vera Cruz to Trinidad was three reals per bunch. This duty of one real would have fallen as a loss upon the growers, but the Vesuvius seemed to prefer Costaraguan fruit, and they continued to buy it, paying four reals without a murmur.
As a consequence, the Vesuvius Company organises the overthrow of Zarilla and his replacement by Ramon Olivarra, the son of the previous Costaraguan leader assassinated by Zarilla.
The story ends with this dialogue between Vincenti, member of the Vesuvius Company, and Cronin, captain of the S. J. Pizzoni, Jr., the steamship of the Vesuvius line that brought Vincenti to Costaragua:
“There’ll be another Presidente proclamada in the morning,” said Vincenti, musingly. “As a rule, they are not as reliable as the elected ones. But this youngster seems to have good stuff in him. He planned and maneuvered the whole campaign. Olivarra’s widow, you know, was wealthy. She gave the boy eight years of the best education in the States. The company hunted him up and backed him in the little game.”
“It’s a glorious thing.” said Cronin, half jestingly, “to be able to discharge a government and insert one of your own choosing, these days.”
“It’s business,” stated Vincenti, stopping to offer his cigar to a monkey swinging from a lime tree; “and that is what moves the world of to-day. That extra real on the price of bananas had to go. We took the quickest way of removing it.”
Note: Olivier Henry and O. Henry were the pen names of the American short-story writer William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), who lived in Honduras for about six months in 1896-97. He again used the term banana republic to denote the fictional country in which is set The Flag Paramount, published in Ainslee’s Magazine (New York) of January 1902. He adapted both Rouge et Noir and The Flag Paramount and republished them in Cabbages and Kings (New York, 1904), a novel consisting of eighteen interlinked short stories, set in the Republic of Anchuria, a fictional Central-American country.