BANANAS AND THE CRYSTAL BALL

Bananas are part of our traditional Bermuda Sunday morning breakfast. I fry mine. Lightly frying a just-ripe banana brings out an even sweeter taste that blends nicely with the blander tastes of codfish and potato. Bananas also figure in the Independence debate.

            It’s not about whether or not we’ll still get sweet bananas. Rather, it’s observing how the sweet banana figures in global economics and national politics.

            Europeans got to know about, and acquired a taste for bananas as a result of acquiring tropical “possessions” such as the islands of the Pacific and Caribbean, and from dividing up Africa. European palates created a huge industry devoted to growing, harvesting, shipping, and selling bananas. The industry even spawned the terms ‘banana boat’ and ‘banana republic’.

            In the 1960’s, the ‘winds of change’ blew apart the old banana producing colonial empires. The same ‘winds of change’ blew together the new European Union. This new EU, recognizing some obligations to its old colonial empires, agreed that bananas imported from the ‘old empires’ would be given preferential treatment. Bananas from the ex-colonies would have a zero tariff and an annual quota. Bananas from other banana producing countries – not ex-colonies – would face tariff and quota barriers.

            That was considered fair and proper. That was also a long time ago.     

            Times changed. New economic relationships created by the World Trade Organization [WTO] replaced old economic relationships created by ex-colonialists. A sometimes sympathetic human approach was replaced by a hard-headed ‘business’ approach.

            All nations that matter – from the mighty USA and EU on down – are in the WTO. The WTO’s core philosophy seeks to eliminate all preferential tariffs and subsidies, and make all competition open and even. The WTO has little regard for past relationships.

            Today, Jamaica and the CARICOM countries, Ivory Coast and West African nations, the banana-exporting Pacific Islands; are all embroiled in a major effort to get the EU to continue granting some kind of  preferential tariff for their banana exports; and to continue using an annual quota for bananas grown in these ‘old colonies’.          

            Opposing the less efficient banana producers of CARICOM, West Africa, and the Pacific nations is the WTO and the four most efficient banana producing countries – Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama. These efficient producers seek the elimination of all tariffs, preferences, and quotas.

            It’s actually in the immediate economic interests of the EU to do away with preferential tariffs, import cheaper bananas, and save money and administrative hassle. The WTO believes that less efficient banana producers need to become more efficient, or diversify and produce something else that they can produce more efficiently.

            In the global market, that makes sense. However, a banana grower in CARICOM, or in West Africa, or a Pacific island nation, can only see the reality of his livelihood disappearing.

              Jamaica used to be the UK’s primary source for bananas. That changed. Ecuador is the world’s most efficient banana producer. That’s where those big uniformly curved ‘Dole’ brand bananas come from.     

            The global marketplace is devoid of sentiment and without past colonial attachments.  All that matters is ‘efficiency of production’ and best prices to the market. The WTO seeks open trading across open borders. The WTO is against preferential treatment and quotas of any kind. The WTO says that it wants – and is seeking – completely open trading.

            Going forward, WTO values and business philosophies are of far greater importance – to us in Bermuda – than are any special economic arrangements with any other country.

            The old European colonial powers, now settled in the EU, will eventually end all preferential treatment for their banana imports. This decision will create hardship for banana growers in their old colonies. That’s unfortunate. Eventually, those old colonial banana growers will have to become more efficient – or receive less income – or grow and sell something else.

            It’s 2005 and sentiment is out! Hard-nosed  business is in!

            As we in Bermuda begin to discuss Independence, we should understand that for us, too:  “Sentiment is out! Hard-nosed business is in!”

            On Sunday, or whenever you bite a banana – whether breakfast, lunch, dinner, fried, or un-fried – think about the lessons in past social history, present economic reality, and future national prospects that are encased in that soft sweet banana flesh.

            As you chew, think. Think: “Who has to look out for us in Bermuda? Who is looking out for us in Bermuda? Who will look out for our Bermudian lifeblood?”

             Who?

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