It’s hard not to smile while eating a Chiquita banana.
But we’re not kids anymore.
It’s time to put away any nostalgia associated with the world’s biggest banana producer and face the ugly facts about our favourite fruit and the company synonymous with it.
Recently, Chiquita Brands of Cincinnati, Ohio, was charged in a US federal court and fined $25 million for the felony crime of paying paramilitaries in Colombia.
Chiquita confessed to paying $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces.
The paramilitary group has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia’s civil conflict.
Accounts of the group’s brutality include the beheading of children.
It is also responsible for a good chunk of the country’s cocaine exports.
The US government designated the right-wing group a terrorist organization in September 2001 and made it a felony to financially support the paramilitaries.
Chiquita Brands International CEO Fernando Aguirre turned the company in to the US Justice department in 2003.
Chiquita would like the world to believe it had no choice in the matter; it had to pay off the paramilitaries to protect its 3,500 workers in the area.
But the lawyer heading four separate lawsuits against Chiquita on behalf of the families killed by paramilitaries in Colombia, Terry Collingsworth, told CBS’s 60 Minutes in a documentary that aired May 11, that Chiquita “has blood on its hands.”
“Are you saying that Chiquita was complicit in these massacres that took place down there?” asked correspondent Steve Kroft.
“Absolutely,” said Collingsworth. “If you provide knowing substantial assistance to someone who then goes out and kills someone, or terrorizes, or tortures someone, you’re also guilty.”
The payments were approved by senior executives at Chiquita, prosecutors wrote in court documents.
Chiquita began paying the right-wing AUC after a meeting in 1997 and disguised the payments in company books, the documents say.
60 Minutes interviewed Salvatore Mancuso from a maximum security prison in Medellin, Colombia, for his side of the story.
Mancuso, who was once the leader of the paramilitaries, said Chiquita paid up “because we were providing them with protection which enabled them to continue making investments and a financial profit.”
Mancuso also pointed the finger at banana giants Dole and Del Monte.
“All the companies in the banana region paid,” he said.
In public statements, those two companies have denied paying the paramilitaries, even though, from Mancuso’s and Chiquita’s point of view, there was no way around it.
“Yes, they had a choice,” said Mancuso. “They could go to the local police or army for protection from the guerillas, but the army and police at that time were barely able to protect themselves.”
Chiquita said it cooked its books all those years to hide payments of nearly $2 million. It’s possible Dole and Del Monte did the same.
It’s interesting that the Big Three of the banana business, which supply 80 per cent of the world’s bananas, are playing this controversy so differently.
While two have chosen complete denial, Chiquita’s confession and victim stance is intended to absolve it from guilt.
Critics note Chiquita could have turned itself in years earlier, and suggest the company was not concerned with its employees at all, but merely the bottom line.
Luckily, consumers have other things to consider when deciding on Chiquita’s guilt or innocence.
On March 2, Guatemalan banana union leader, Miguel Angel Ramirez of the group SITRABANSUR, was shot dead.
SITRABANSUR is affiliated to Banana Links Guatemala partner union UNSITRAGUA, which was helping its workers organize, and was founded by Miguel Ramirez and his fellow workers at the Olga Maria plantation in the Pacific South of Guatemala in July, 2007.
According to The New Internationalist magazine, since its inception, SITRABANSUR members have been harassed and threatened by private security thugs hired by the company Frutera Internacional Sociedad Anónima, supplier to Chiquita Brands, and 24 union members have been sacked.
Ramirez’s murder is just one of the many recent cases of violence against banana union leaders in Guatemala.
In September, 2007, SITRABI union leader Marco Tulio Ramirez Portelo was shot dead.
More recently, the daughter of the general secretary of SITRABANSUR was raped by armed men.
Going a little further back in Chiquita history…
In May, 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an exposé of how Chiquita operates and the company sued.
The newspaper issued an abject apology, paid Chiquita $10 million, sacked and prosecuted the journalist responsible and had the reports removed from the Enquirer’s website.
The journalist, Mike Gallagher, investigated Chiquita for more than a year.
His newspaper turned on him when it discovered some of his information was obtained through illegally obtained voicemail messages.
Among other things, Gallagher’s 18-page exposé reported that Chiquita was bribing Colombian government officials.
First Chiquita paid government officials… then, when the paramilitaries became more powerful, it paid them.
Besides paying the right-wing AUC, Chiquita admitted in court to paying the leftist FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army) between 1989 and 1997.
The Big Three have tried to clean up their images in recent years, mostly by climbing on the environmental bandwagon.
Chiquita, for its part, started the Better Banana Project, an environmental and social certification program monitored by the Rainforest Alliance.
Perhaps a Better People Project with more sincerity might be a better marketing approach; environmental protection seems to have done little protect Colombian citizens and Guatemalan unionists from the murderous paramilitaries that Chiquita pays well.