From banana republic to banana democracy

Chiquita’s claims to be a socially responsible company are belied by its past actions in Colombia.

Worker carries stalk of harvested bananas on Chiquita Brands plantation, Siquirres, Costa Rica - goes with Jim Lobe article
Chiquita is one of the largest banana producing and distributing companies in the world [AP]

Banana distributor Chiquita Brands International recently published a corporate social responsibility report that swears a “commitment to high ethical, social and environmental standards across the entire organisation”.

In the introduction to the report, CEO Ed Lonergan exalts the corporation’s “multitude of partnerships, collaborations and local initiatives that have empowered local communities and delivered meaningful improvements to our company”.

Of course, some of Chiquita’s contemporary partnerships appear to be somewhat lacking in the ethical standards department. In 2007, for example, the outfit was fined $25m in a US federal court for having made payments to Colombian groups designated by the US State Department as foreign terrorist organisations.

Between 1997 and 2004, Chiquita funnelled more than $1.7m via its Colombian subsidiary Banadex to the notorious United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in its Spanish acronym) – a right-wing paramilitary death squad coalition that has since been superficially demobilised, enabling its constituents to regroup under other labels.

Although Chiquita claims that it paid the AUC in order to protect its workers from paramilitary violence, a 2009 Al Jazeera documentary offered evidence to the contrary. For one thing, the AUC began killing banana workers.

The activist killing fields of Colombia

The documentary includes an interview with former paramilitary commander Ever Veloza Garcia, who specifies that the banana company’s culpability in murder stems from the fact that monetary donations were used to purchase arms. The arms were then used to carry out the directives of AUC leader Carlos Castano Gil, which happened to include targeting trade union members.

Veloza Garcia also recalls a “law” issued by Castano Gil, according to which “strikes that harmed the banana industry’s economy were totally forbidden”.

The war on freedom of information

Similar misinterpretations of “corporate social responsibility” surfaced in April of this year when, as Bloomberg News reported, Chiquita “sued the US Securities and Exchange Commission to block disclosure of documents from a probe of payments to [the AUC], saying their release would subject the company to unfair criticism”.

The documents in question were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive.

In a recent blog post for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Kevin Edmonds comments on the effort by Chiquita’s lawyer “to portray the multinational corporation as the real victim in this case” – first of paramilitary extortion and now of potential machinations by “the general public, including members of the press and individuals and organisations that seek to distort the facts surrounding the [AUC] payments”.

Noting that “the National Security Archive would not have found evidence of criminal wrongdoing if it had never happened in the first place”, Edmonds recalls unfortunate precedents in the field of disappearance of information:

“… [I]n 1998 Chiquita managed to overturn a brilliant investigation by the Cincinnati Enquireron the basis of the ‘illegitimate’ gathering of evidence [through the company’s voicemail system and internal communications]. The investigation uncovered that Chiquita was engaging in widespread murder, bribery, arms trafficking, and knowingly poisoning the environment throughout Latin America, but the charges were thrown out. The newspaper was sued [for $10m] and the journalists had their careers cut short”.

In another NACLA blog post on the subject, Edmonds draws a parallel between the Enquirer case and the cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, all of which feature the essential criminalisation of whistle-blowing as a smokescreen for state-corporate crime.

US pretensions to justice are further complicated by the fact that, during the investigation into Chiquita’s relations with the AUC, the company was represented by none other than current US Attorney General Eric Holder.

Chiquita and Guatemala

In a previous incarnation, Chiquita was known as the United Fruit Company, an entity dedicated for many years to the appropriation of Guatemalan territory.

As Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer document in their book Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz mildly challenged United Fruit’s hold on the country in the 1950s by offering the company $627,572 in compensation for unused acreage appropriated by the national government.

This was the exact value of the land as declared by United Fruit itself for tax evasion purposes, though the company quickly amended its calculations to $16m.

Having shown himself through such behaviour to be at the vanguard of the international communist menace, Arbenz was overthrown in a US-orchestrated coup d’etat that confirmed the lack of separation between corporation and state. The coup helped launch a period of extreme violence that killed up to 200,000 people.

Colombia, of course, remains a preferred US ally based on its official disdain for anything less than extreme-right policies and its refusal to let human rights get in the way of resource exploitation and other forms of capital accumulation such as the war on drugs. The recent deadly repression of agricultural strikers and protesters underscores a fundamentally antihuman orientation that is every good neoliberal’s wet dream.

And while the AUC may have earned a spot among the State Department’s designated foreign terrorist organisations, the Colombian military – often a close collaborator in paramilitary activity and a perpetrator of indiscriminate slaughter – has remained conspicuously absent from the same list. This oversight has enabled the largely uninterrupted flow of massive amounts of US military aid.

Not too long ago, New York Times columnist and neoliberal acolyte Thomas Friedman pronounced Colombia “one of the great democratic success stories”. If “democratic” is intended to mean “created in the image of the US”, there’s no reason a place catering to elite criminals shouldn’t qualify.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work , released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog , Salon , The Baffler , Al Akhbar English and many other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez