Review of The Banana: Empires, Trade Wars, and Globalization by James Wiley University of Nebraska Press

The Banana: Empires, Trade Wars, and Globalization. James Wiley. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780803215771

James Wiley provides a much-needed and thorough overview of the so-called “Banana War” of the 1990s. Before Wiley’s publication, scholars lacked any comprehensive work on the subject. In fact, most works on “banana wars” focused upon regional conflicts in the first half of the twentieth century, documented by Lester Langley, Thomas Schoonover, and other historians of US-Latin American relations. The only scholarly works on the global “banana-trade” war of the 1990s were a 2005 Harvard Business Review article from Marcelo Bucheli and the last pages of Laura Raynolds’s “The Global Banana Trade” in Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg’s Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2003). In her article, Raynolds warns against presenting the rise of the banana trade as an unstoppable aspect of globalization. Instead, she asserts that the banana trade derives from the actions of transnational corporations, nation-states, and supranational institutions. Wiley’s The Banana picks up on Raynolds’s argument and successfully demonstrates that the 1990s “Banana War” was not the product of an inevitable process of globalization or free trade. Rather, this almost decade-long contest over bananas shipped between various nations of Latin America, Europe, and the United States was the result of the decisions made and policies implemented by these nation-states, a handful of international trade entities, and the transnational corporations between them.

Wiley’s primary contributions to the history of the banana trade in the North Atlantic and the 1990s “Banana War” can be found in Chapters 6, 9, and 11. In Chapter 6, Wiley describes the European Union’s (EU) banana market. Whereas many students today might think that trade policies surrounding bananas would be unfettered and unimportant, the author outlines how various member states of the EU before 1992 utilized tariffs and licenses to protect markets for producers in the Canary Islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique, Somalia, and even European banana farmers. As the European Union considered constructing its Single European Market, the European Commission’s Management Committee had to grapple with twelve different policies on the importation of bananas as it sought to create a single banana market. Finalized in 1992 and implemented in 1993, Council Regulation 404/1993 did just that. However, this regulation was not the free trade policy envisioned by many nations, primarily Latin American, historically excluded from European markets. Council Regulation 404/1993 included differing tariffs based upon traditional and nontraditional banana producers and export licenses that benefitted traditional producers. Wiley then explains the EU’s reasoning behind the complicated policy of preserving trade preferences and creating higher tariffs as well as the generally hostile reactions from nontraditional banana-exporting Latin American states that hoped to increase their positions in the newly-created Single European Market.

In Chapter 9, Wiley walks the reader through the 1990s “Banana War.” At the World Trade Organization (WTO), both the EU and the Latin American nations utilized supranational trade agreements and mechanisms, the Lomé Convention and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade respectively, to defend their positions. As the EU ignored the original complaint, the transnational firm Chiquita Brands lobbied the United States to intervene on its behalf. Wiley repeatedly stresses that, throughout the various negotiations at the WTO, policies and compromises often received mixed reactions. Some traditional banana exports to the EU regretted the loss of market share due to new banana export quotas, the “first come, first served” policy proposed by the EU remained controversial, and Council Regulation 216/2001 received little support. It was only with Council Regulation 896/2001 that the United States and the EU reached an acceptable compromise. Once again, Wiley notes, the final accord, which was a victory for supporters of free trade and neoliberal economics, received mixed reactions.

Through a clear analysis of the “Banana War” based upon fieldwork, trade reports, and personal interviews, Wiley has provided a coherent and valuable contribution to our understanding of globalization, the neoliberal economic project, and the role of supranational trade mechanisms such as the Common Market of the South and the WTO. Most importantly, Wiley complicates the general narrative of free trade. Guiding the reader through the 1990s “Banana War,” he demystifies the process of globalization by showing how the banana was an exception to the free trade agreements generally pushed by the EU. Such handling of this highly complicated and controversial issue is a key strength of Wiley’s text and can serve instructors of World History.

Additionally, the book has the potential to be adapted to a World History course, especially one that has emphasized food or other global commodities. With new works in food history, such as Jeffrey Pilcher’s Food in World History (2006) from Peter Stearns’s Themes in World History Routledge series or Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food (2002), Wiley’s book fits in well by showing how the banana industry has played, and continues to play, an important role in globalization. Wiley’s chapters on the “Banana War” would be a great tool to conclude a World History course.

On the other hand, the majority of Wiley’s chapters are overviews of the various banana-producing Latin American regions and trade policies. These chapters essentially focus upon the economic and commercial dimensions of the banana trade. For those interested in incorporating the political, racial, gendered, environmental, and cultural aspects of the banana industry outside the North Atlantic, one should consult the works produced by Marcelo Bucheli, Jason Colby, Lara Putnam, John Soluri, Steve Striffler, and others that have expanded our understanding of the impact of the banana upon the world at all of its levels. In focusing upon global trade agreements and organizations, Wiley’s work tends to follow the actions of nation-states and supranational entities, so the instructor should consult those works that present the agency and activism of farmers, consumers, and other actors. While Chapters 6, 9, and 11 are masterful additions to lecture material, their benefits must be balanced against the other chapters’ general treatment of bananas and banana producers when considering adopting this book for students to read in a World History survey course.

Reviewed by Aaron Moulton, University of Arkansas Fayetteville
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]