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Chiquita, Its Workers and Colombia’s Death Squads

by AL KREBS

Chiquita International is no stranger to us as through the years we have tracked the various nefarious activities of the infamous banana company. To anyone familiar with the history of 20th century Central American political intrigues, economics and land ownership the name should be no stranger. Utilizing the CIA and the U.S. Marines the company was able to establish a host of “banana republics” in the region throughout the 20th century.

Indeed the history of the company, recently known as United Brands and before that the infamous United Fruit Company, which at one time was under the control of Cincinnati businessman Carl H. Lindner Jr., who served as Chiquita’s chairman and chief executive officer, is notorious.

Not only has the company maintained its historically cruel tradition in its treatment of its foreign workers, but efforts by ex-president Bill Clinton to express his gratitude for a generous Lindner campaign contribution has in recent years precipitated in all-out trade war between the European Union (EU) and the U.S., acting on behalf of Chiquita, over banana imports abroad.

According to a March 31, 1997 report by Michael Weisskoff in Time Magazine two years prior “Lindner wanted U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to help him pry open European markets, which rely on various tariffs and trade barriers effectively to shut out Lindner’s bananas. Though hundreds of companies ask Washington to investigate unfair trade practices, the U.S. Trade Representative accepts only about 14 cases each year. Even fewer are taken to Geneva for resolution by the World Trade Organization. And only rarely do such cases make the cut when hardly any U.S. jobs are at stake; Chiquita employs most of its 45,000 workers in Honduras and Guatemala. And yet Kantor took the case.”

But, as Weiskoff adds,”You wouldn’t know how grateful Lindner was by checking records at the Federal Election Commission; he gave the Democratic National Committee only $15,000 in the final 15 months of the campaign. Instead, D.N.C. officials instructed Lindner to give directly to state-party coffers, which are subject to far less public scrutiny than federal-election accounts. On April 12, 1996, the day after Kantor asked the WTO to examine Chiquita’s grievance, Lindner and his top executives began funneling more than $500,000 to about two dozen states from Florida to California, campaign officials told Time.”

“He has a lot of connections and a lot of reputation,” said Neal Fisher, administrator for North Dakota’s wheat commission. “We think he’s very well-placed and well-respected.”

In 1992 Lindner, 81, retired as a member of the fruit and vegetable company’s board. In a letter to Chiquita’s chairman and CEO, Cyrus Freidheim, Mr. Lindner said he wished to limit his commitments and devote his full time and energy to the affairs of American Financial Group Inc., an insurance company led by Lindner and his sons.

That same year Associated Press reported that about 2,000 workers employed by Chiquita Brands International Inc. went on strike . . . . at ten company plantations along Honduras’ Atlantic coast, calling on the Cincinnati-based banana exporter to offer higher salaries and provide more social services. Workers were demanding that the company provide housing, health care and schools for their families, increase salaries by ten percent, and rehire two workers who had been recently laid off.

Most of the striking employees worked at the banana exporter’s fruit-packing plant and plantations in the Cortes and Yoro provinces. About 70% of them were women. Chiquita workers had gone on strike more than 40 times during the 89 years the company operated in Honduras. The biggest strike was in 1954, when more than 30,000 employees stopped working.

Chiquita, which had emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March, was seeking to make a fresh start, changing its top management, issuing new stocks and securities and adopting a new accounting standard.

Given this background the recent news that it did business with Colombian terrorist organizations to “protect” its workers should have come as no surprise.

AL KREBS is the editor of The Agribusiness Examiner “Monitoring corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective“. He can be reached at avkrebs@comcast.net

 

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