“After his shout something happened that did not bring on fright but a kind of hallucination. The captain gave the order to fire and fourteen machine guns answered at once... When Jose Arcadio came to he was lying face up in the darkness… Several hours must have passed since the massacre because the corpses had the same temperature as plaster in autumn…and those who had put them in the car had had time to pile them like bananas…man corpses, woman corpses, child corpses who would be thrown into the sea like rejected bananas.”
This passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude could be read as another example of the Nobel Prize-winner’s genius ability to use fantasy as a metaphor for everyday life. It could be an imagined story that references the violent history of Colombia and the country’s seeming inability to learn from its experiences. Yet as those who visit Colombia will realize, Marquez describes Colombian reality much more often than one would think, and this case is no exception: in Colombia, banana companies help pile people like bananas.
In 1928, roughly ten thousand workers of the United Fruit Company went on strike in a small town called Cienaga, on the northern coast of Colombia. Their demands were considerably modest: they did not want to be paid in coupons that could be used only at company stores, they did not want to live in extremely poor conditions at company shelters, and they wanted to unionize. Still, the company refused to negotiate, and the army was called in to solve the problem. An estimated 300 people were killed, but precise figures remain elusive. Soon after, the United Fruit Company (UFC) decided that Colombia was too messy for it to operate there, and with no acknowledgement of the tragedy they had caused, the corporation left.
Sadly, the massacre did not strike any sense into the UFC, which continued to meddle in Latin American politics. In 1954, the company pressured President Dwight D. Eisenhower to overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz when he proposed to carry out a land reform program that threatened to redistribute uncultivated land to landless peasants. The UFC, which owned approximately half of all the productive land in Guatemala—85 percent of which was uncultivated— was not very fond of Arbenz’s idea. The company eventually managed to depose him and Guatemala was ruled by military dictatorship for the next 40 years.
Somewhat embarrassed by the reputation it had earned, the United Fruit Company changed its name to the United Brands Company in 1975 only to be forced to change it again in 1980s after information emerged that the company had bribed Honduran Dictator Oswaldo Lopez Arellano. The new name they chose was Chiquita Banana.
But as poor, old and blind Ursula desperately claims in One Hundred Years of Solitude, “It’s as if the world is repeating itself,” and Chiquita has proven no better than its predecessors. In fact, much like Marquez’s novel, everything seems to be coming full circle, back to Colombia. In a plea agreement with the US Justice Department on March 14, Chiquita agreed to pay a $25 million fine after the company confessed to making over one hundred payments amounting to $1.7 million to Colombian paramilitaries for “security services” between 1997 and 2004. The company also admitted to paying Colombian guerrillas between 1989 and 1997.
The Colombian paramilitaries, or AUC, have long been known for controlling the largest share of the country’s cocaine export business, using gruesome methods to kill those who stand in their way. Nonetheless, Chiquita was quite comfortable sponsoring them even after September 11, when the company failed to realize that the US State Department had included the Colombian paramilitaries and guerrillas in its list of terrorist organizations. At that point, the payments became a crime not only Colombia, but in the US as well. In fact, the relationship between Chiquita and the paramilitaries had grown to be so close and productive that according to the Colombian Attorney General, on November 7, 2001, Chiquita allowed the paramilitaries to smuggle 3,400 rifles and 4 million rounds of ammunition through its private port in the region of Uraba. The company even held on to the goods for four days until the paramilitaries could schedule a pick up.
Although no one knows exactly where Chiquita’s rifles and money went, Carlos Castaño, the founder and leader of the paramilitaries, acknowledged that receiving those weapons was a turning point in his war. The number of combatants grew from 8,000 in 1998 to 32,000 in 2006, and the paramilitaries’ resulting territorial expansion was built on massacres like that of El Salado. In that incident, the paramilitaries mutilated 38 people while drinking and dancing for three days in a row. Highlighting the brutality that has made them famous, the paramilitaries in El Salado were not satisfied with mere mutilation—they proceeded to undress the town’s women and dance with them to Vallenato tunes while their relatives were executed with chainsaws at a nearby table.
Questioned on the payments to the paramilitaries, Chiquita spokesman Michael Mitchell explained in an email that Chiquita’s actions “were always motivated by our good faith concern for the safety of our employees and their families…The company could stop making the payments, complying with the law, but putting the lives of our workers in immediate jeopardy; or we could keep our workers out of harm’s way while violating American law. Each alternative was unpalatable and unacceptable.”
Yet Chiquita’s apparently reasonable argument does not hold water. Paramilitaries have never been very fond of workers, and even less so of unionized workers; many of Chiquita’s own employees died at the hands of those who were supposed to be defending them. But more importantly, Chiquita’s defense conveniently elides the fact that between 2001 and 2004, a time of great financial difficulties for the company, the company’s Colombian affiliate earned over $49 million, making it the corporation’s most profitable unit. Great profitability in a time of crisis might go a long way in explaining why the orders to continue paying the paramilitaries came from the top of Chiquita’s corporate structure. In fact, according to Justice Department documents, the decision to continue making the payments was approved by at least one member of the board of directors and five senior executives in Cincinnati, where the company is headquartered.
Chiquita is not the only US corporation in trouble for working with the paramilitaries. Both Coca-Cola and Drummond, an Alabama based coal corporation, have come under fire for hiring paramilitaries to kill union leaders. And with current developments in Colombia, similar scandals are likely to multiply.
But what exactly was Chiquita supposed to do? Cornered in one of the most dangerous places in the world, abandoned by the Colombian government, blackmailed and harassed by guerrillas; the option of paying the paramilitaries seemed the only alternative to halting all operations.
Granted, Uraba has long been an epicenter of violence in Colombia, and it is hardly a great place to do business. If Chiquita had not paid the paramilitaries, they might have turned hostile and disrupted the company’s operations. But many companies that operate in the region have survived without paying the paramilitaries. Chiquita could have offered to pay the government to bring its own troops to provide security. Indeed, it even could have hired a private security agency that was large enough, instead of paying a terrorist organization known throughout the world for human rights violations. Chiquita did not follow that path—the company found it easier and cheaper to hire the paramilitaries, and it did so without any concern for the consequences to the company’s host country and its people. The bottom line often takes precedence over the higher moral ground.
The Chiquita case also poses some interesting questions for the future of US foreign policy and the US government’s war on terror. Should the US government bother to bring American corporations that support terrorists to justice when those terrorists do not harm American interests? Since September 11, Americans have realized that terrorism can have grave consequences and that to stop it both the people who perpetrate it and those who sponsor it must be held responsible. While Chiquita was paying the paramilitaries, they murdered around 3,700 people—roughly the same amount of people who died on September 11. Why should the Al-Qaeda cells that sponsored the September 11 hijackers be treated on different terms than those who made it possible for the paramilitaries to cause just as much harm? The notion that terrorism is a problem only when it affects American interests is dangerous: it suggests to the world that terrorism is only an American problem and it makes countries more reluctant to cooperate with the US.
History has led many non-Americans living abroad to view the US government and US corporations as two sides of the same coin. Events such as the Chiquita-Eisenhower cooperation in Guatemala or the Nixon-ATT relationship in Chile have only reinforced this belief. Thus, when a corporation like Chiquita is able to get away with a mere fine—paid to the US government no less—after having sponsored a terrorist group that caused thousands of deaths and widespread destruction, people tend to perceive the US government’s complicity in the crime. Nonetheless, Columbia professor Stuart Gottlieb says, “As important of an issue as this is, it just doesn’t have any traction; it’s not on anyone’s radar and the US government is not going to take the initiative on it.”
But if an American corporation were unable to operate in Lebanon without paying Hezbollah, would paying that notorious terrorist group be appropriate? Many critics argue that being too stringent on the behavior of American corporations abroad might severely impair their ability to bring important foreign investment to developing countries and to do business in many places in the world. Still, none of those critics would forgive any corporation that paid Islamic terrorists for security under any circumstances. Why should anyone be any more understanding with Chiquita?
Often against its own interests, Colombia has collaborated extensively with the US. The country follows the US’s inept drug policy to the letter and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is the only South American head of state who claims to be George W. Bush’s friend. Also, the nation is about to sign a bilateral trade agreement that will destroy vital sectors of its economy, and it has extradited just about anybody the US has requested. Yet shortly after the Chiquita scandal, in a display of false bravado, Uribe demanded that Chiquita officials responsible for approving the payments to the guerrillas and paramilitaries be extradited to Colombia: they had violated Colombian law and, he claimed, extradition had to be a reciprocal process. From Washington there was only silence.
During part of Chiquita’s illicit payment period, the company’s CEO was none other than Cyrus Freidheim, currently the CEO of Sun-Times Media, a corporation that owns dozens of newspapers in the Chicago area. Although Freidheim has not been officially linked to the Justice Department’s investigation, Uribe should know full well that people like this do not get extradited. But if the US were truly ethical and coherent in combating global terrorism, Chiquita’s executives would be extradited to Colombia, just as Colombian narco-traffickers are extradited to the US. But that will not happen. And Uribe probably will not push the matter further—after all, “too much” is at stake.
The US government should nonetheless show a certain degree of consideration for the victims of the paramilitaries that Chiquita helped sponsor; the government should hand over the $25 million fine received by the US Justice Department to an organization that helps rehabilitate victims of Colombian paramilitaries. Those who have survived to this day live in slums of Colombia’s large cities in utter misery, burdened with the psychological trauma of having seen their relatives and friends murdered in front of their eyes. Unprecedented as such a transfer of money might be, these victims should receive compensation. Such a redistributive gesture might make sense for US policymakers as a display of sympathy for other people’s suffering in a world increasingly tainted by anti-Americanism. While compensation would not fully exculpate Chiquita for its crimes, it might make America more respected in the eyes of its neighbors and the rest of the world. In the meantime, Colombians and Americans alike will have to put up with a not so magical realism that allows a company that caused so much violence to advertise its products with a strikingly innocuous motto: “perfect for life.”