Bloody Bananas

the blood value of the banana

Pablo Neruda’s poem, La United Fruit Co. is a profound and heartbreaking polemic against one of the most nastiest companies in the world food system. It’s a poem worth reading in full, but here’s an excerpt ahead of today’s story:

When the trumpet sounded,
the land was prepared
and Jehova divided the world
unto Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other beings:
for the United Fruit Company
was reserved the juiciest morsel,
the central coast of my land,
America’s sweet waist.
Baptized as new worlds,
‘Banana Republics’,
and over the sleeping dead
over the unquiet heroes
who conquered greatness,
freedom and flags,
they founded a comic opera.

So, today’s big story is this: Chiquita Brands Inc., one of the world’s largest banana traders, has settled a US Department of Justice investigation. It has agreed to pay a $25m fine and acknowledged that a subsidiary, Banadex, paid $1.7m to right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia. (Full story here.)

For the company, it’s an investment that paid off. While they were paying the paramilitaries, Banadex was Chiquita Brands most profitable subsidiary. And, for Chiquita Brands, this is just the latest in a long history of criminal behaviour that has stretched back over a century and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Because before Chiquita was called Chiquita, it was called The United Fruit Company.

Founded in 1899, the Company was the world’s largest banana merchant. At its peak, the company controlled the trade not only in bananas, but also in freight, mail and money across an archipelago of Central American countries.

It guarded its position jealously. Little stood in its way. When locally elected governments tried to curb the company’s power, or when residents of the country organized to alleviate their exploitation, it struck back.

Most famously, the United Fruit Company used its connections in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations – especially through the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, whose law firm had represented the company – to argue that Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, the president of Guatemala, was about to become a Communist. The reason? Arbenz Guzmán had in mind to buy unused land from the United Fruit Company to give to landless peasants, at the artificially low price at which the Company had declared the land’s value on its tax returns.

In response, the president authorized in 1954 a CIA-backed invasion of Guatemala, Operation PBSUCCESS. The resulting war claimed 200,000 lives, over forty years. The land, however, remained in the Company’s hands. Hence ‘success’.

Incidentally, the CIA operation in Guatemala had a follow-up mission, to scour historical archives for evidence to prove that Guzmán was a Communist puppet. The mission was entitled ‘PBHISTORY’. Despite trawling through over 150,000 pages, no such evidence was found. But the damage continued, for over forty bloody years.

It was through acts such as these that the company earned the name ‘el pulpo’ – the octopus.

Chiquita was rebranded in part to be able to distance itself from El Pulpo. One would imagine it would have a little more success if it didn’t do pretty much the same things as its predecessor. As part of its funding of death squads, the company facilitated, in the words of the Organization of American States, the transfer of 3000 AK47s and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition from Nicaraguan government stocks to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Many of the company’s senior executives knew about this, and their Colombian lawyer actively helped in the arms trading.

The question is whether this will affect the company at all.

Chiquita Brands itself is well prepared for a public relations disaster like this. It already has links with the Rainforest Alliance, through which it has achieved “100% compliance” for worker safety. Indeed, the company’s defence was, for a while, to assert that it was paying the paramilitaries to protect its workers. It’s also part of the UK’s Ethical Trading Initiative which, in the words of the company

is a unique alliance of companies, nongovernmental organizations and labor unions working together to advance good practice in business ethics, corporate responsibility and human rights.

With a stock of greenwash like this, it’s likely that the company will be able to paint over its slight ethical malfunction, portraying it as an aberration, rather than behaviour entirely in keeping with its past.

The US government, although responsible for the prosecution, didn’t seem to mind the company’s behaviour. After Chiquita Brands told the State Department what it was doing, the US government sat on the information for ten months.

Colombian opposition senator Jorge Robledo puts it like this: “My question is: How much more does the U.S. government know about payments to the paramilitaries?”.

Wall Street certainly doesn’t seem to mind. Now that the uncertainty around the case has been dealt with, and the $25 million has been paid, the company can carry on with business as usual. Shares closed up on Friday.

If it’s up to us to care then we might consider not eating any bananas at all (their production has, and continues largely to bring misery to those who grow them) or, if we must eat bananas, absolutely boycotting Chiquita and its products, a full list of which is available here.