The headlines were very straightforward. Chiquita Brands International was ordered to pay a $25 million fine for hiring a right-wing terrorist group to protect its growing operations in Colombia.
The settlement against the banana king was less straightforward.
Prosecutors filed the case as “an information” rather than an indictment.
As such, the specifics of the evidence are carefully massaged by both the prosecution and defence, very little detail makes its way into the public record, the international giant pleads guilty, pays the fine, writes it off as a legitimate business expense and passes on the cost to consumers.
At the end of the day, Madley’s General Store here in Haines Junction pays more for the fruit and so do you and I.
The barbarous paradox of all of this is that the higher cost of bananas is proportional to the rise in the number of innocent people butchered by Colombian right-wing death squads.
The story leading up to the settlement is convoluted and, I am afraid, all too predictable. It cuts its way directly from Chiquita’s corporate boardroom to Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez’s office — the man seen smiling and breaking bread earlier this week with US President George W. Bush.
In spring 1997, Chiquita’s upper echelon sat comfortably in their air-conditioned Cincinnati headquarters and devised an “accounting cover” to divert funds to the ACU, Colombia’s United Self-Defence Forces.
The ACU has been officially listed as a terrorist group since September 2002.
At that time the White House published its new US National Security Strategy and on page five of that document it defined terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents.”
Between 1997 and 2004 more than $1.7 million was paid to the ACU. The money bought at least 3,000 AK-47s and millions of rounds of ammo.
The shipment of illegal arms made its way into Colombia’s water ports and quickly out into the mountainous rainforest.
Guns in hand, the ACU began the bloody task of lowering Chiquita’s cost of doing business.
Between 1997 and 2004 thousands of Colombian farm workers — including union leaders who were pressing for workers’ rights and left-wing politicians and suspected communist sympathizers who were supporting “local ownership” of banana plantations — were murdered.
Chiquita’s corporate-sponsored violence got results.
Bananas began coming off trees and making their way into supermarkets throughout the world void of the pesky problems of workers’ insurance, regulatory interference and troublesome inspections.
The cost of production went down, profit shares went up: an accountant’s dream.
Intimidation and murder worked for Chiquita. It was noting more to them than a legitimate cost of doing business south of the Panama Canal.
Money and arms were initially funneled into Colombia through “legal” security organizations overseen by then-Governor Alvaro Uribe Velez.
It was Uribe Velez’s participation in this “politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents” that put ACU on the US terrorist list.
But while terrorism is high on the White House list of national priorities, free trade to fuel new opportunities for US producers is higher still. Bush clearly went to Colombia for more than his love of bananas.
The storyline of Chiquita Brands International is all too common in today’s rush to globalize and corporate world markets.
It is a story line that would have made the 1980s lyricist Warren Zevon proud:
“Now I’m hiding in Honduras
I’m a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan.”
After Chiquita coughs up its $25 million, after Colombian farm workers and their families bury their dead, comfort the wounded, what next?
The ball is right back in our court with those of us who buy bananas.
Yesterday, Gloria Cuartas, the former mayor of Apartado, Colombia, offered up the following challenge.
“ I have said before that Colombia’s banana crop is stained with blood. By all means possible we must boycott all Colombian bananas and we must sanction Chiquita.”
So boycott we must.
As corporations like Chiquita continue to rationalize sending lawyers, guns and money as their way of doing business, we retain the right — the obligation — to have the final say.
For a while, until common sense and justice prevail, don’t buy Chiquita’s bananas.
Next time you are in your local supermarket hum a little Warren Zevon and pass right on by the big yellow. Feel good about yourself.
It’s a great day to be a consumer, a great day for citizen dissent. Hummmmm … lawyers, guns and money…