[News] Honduras - Chiquita in Latin America

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jul 17 11:51:39 EDT 2009


July 17-19, 2009

 From Arbenz to Zelaya

Chiquita (United Fruit) in Latin America


When the Honduran military overthrew the 
democratically elected government of Manuel 
Zelaya two weeks ago there might have been a sigh 
of relief in the corporate board rooms of 
Chiquita banana.  Earlier this year the 
Cincinnati-based fruit company joined Dole in 
criticizing the government in Tegucigalpa which 
had raised the minimum wage by 60%.  Chiquita 
complained that the new regulations would cut 
into company profits, requiring the firm to spend 
more on costs than in Costa Rica: 20 cents more 
to produce a crate of pineapple and ten cents 
more to produce a crate of bananas to be 
exact.  In all, Chiquita fretted that it would 
lose millions under Zelaya’s labor reforms since 
the company produced around 8 million crates of 
pineapple and 22 million crates of bananas per year.

When the minimum wage decree came down Chiquita 
sought help and appealed to the Honduran National 
Business Council, known by its Spanish acronym 
COHEP.  Like Chiquita, COHEP was unhappy about 
Zelaya’s minimum wage measure.  Amílcar Bulnes, 
the group’s president, argued that if the 
government went forward with the minimum wage 
increase employers would be forced to let workers 
go, thus increasing unemployment in the 
country.  The most important business 
organization in Honduras, COHEP groups 60 trade 
associations and chambers of commerce 
representing every sector of the Honduran 
economy.  According to its own Web site, COHEP is 
the political and technical arm of the Honduran 
private sector, supports trade agreements and 
provides “critical support for the democratic system.”

The international community should not impose 
economic sanctions against the coup regime in 
Tegucigalpa, COHEP argues, because this would 
worsen Honduras’ social problems.  In its new 
role as the mouthpiece for Honduras’ poor, COHEP 
declares that Honduras has already suffered from 
earthquakes, torrential rains and the global 
financial crisis.  Before punishing the coup 
regime with punitive measures, COHEP argues, the 
United Nations and the Organization of American 
States should send observer teams to Honduras to 
investigate how sanctions might affect 70% of 
Hondurans who live in poverty.  Bulnes meanwhile 
has voiced his support for the coup regime of 
Roberto Micheletti and argues that the political 
conditions in Honduras are not propitious for Zelaya’s return from exile.

Chiquita: From Arbenz to Bananagate

It’s not surprising that Chiquita would seek out 
and ally itself to socially and politically 
backward forces in Honduras.  Colsiba, the 
coordinating body of banana plantation workers in 
Latin America, says the fruit company has failed 
to supply its workers with necessary protective 
gear and has dragged its feet when it comes to 
signing collective labor agreements in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.

Colsiba compares the infernal labor conditions on 
Chiquita plantations to concentration 
camps.  It’s an inflammatory comparison yet may 
contain a degree of truth.  Women working on 
Chiquita’s plantations in Central America work 
from 6:30 a.m. until 7 at night, their hands 
burning up inside rubber gloves.  Some workers 
are as young as 14.  Central American banana 
workers have sought damages against Chiquita for 
exposing them in the field to DBCP, a dangerous 
pesticide which causes sterility, cancer and birth defects in children.

Chiquita, formerly known as United Fruit Company 
and United Brands, has had a long and sordid 
political history in Central America.  Led by Sam 
“The Banana Man” Zemurray, United Fruit got into 
the banana business at the turn of the twentieth 
century.  Zemurray once remarked famously, “In 
Honduras, a mule costs more than a member of 
parliament.”  By the 1920s United Fruit 
controlled 650,000 acres of the best land in 
Honduras, almost one quarter of all the arable 
land in the country.  What’s more, the company 
controlled important roads and railways.

In Honduras the fruit companies spread their 
influence into every area of life including 
politics and the military.  For such tactics they 
acquired the name los pulpos (the octopuses, from 
the way they spread their tentacles).  Those who 
did not play ball with the corporations were 
frequently found face down on the 
plantations.  In 1904 humorist O. Henry coined 
the term “Banana Republic” to refer to the 
notorious United Fruit Company and its actions in Honduras.

In Guatemala, United Fruit supported the 
CIA-backed 1954 military coup against President 
Jacobo Arbenz, a reformer who had carried out a 
land reform package.  Arbenz’ overthrow led to 
more than thirty years of unrest and civil war in 
Guatemala.  Later in 1961, United Fruit lent its 
ships to CIA-backed Cuban exiles who sought to 
overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs.

In 1972, United Fruit (now renamed United Brands) 
propelled Honduran General Oswaldo López Arellano 
to power.  The dictator was forced to step down 
later however after the infamous “Bananagate” 
scandal which involved United Brands bribes to 
Arellano.  A federal grand jury accused United 
Brands of bribing Arellano with $1.25 million, 
with the carrot of another $1.25 million later if 
the military man agreed to reduce fruit export 
taxes.  During Bananagate, United Brands’ 
President fell from a New York City skyscraper in an apparent suicide.

Go-Go Clinton Years and Colombia

In Colombia United Fruit also set up shop and 
during its operations in the South American 
country developed a no less checkered 
profile.  In 1928, 3,000 workers went on strike 
against the company to demand better pay and 
working conditions.  At first the company refused 
to negotiate but later gave in on some minor 
points, declaring the other demands “illegal” or 
“impossible.” When the strikers refused to 
disperse the military fired on the banana workers, killing scores.

You might think that Chiquita would have 
reconsidered its labor policies after that but in 
the late 1990s the company began to ally itself 
with insidious forces, specifically right wing 
paramilitaries.  Chiquita paid off the men to the 
tune of more than a million dollars.  In its own 
defense, the company declared that it was merely 
paying protection money to the paramilitaries.

In 2007, Chiquita paid $25 million to settle a 
Justice Department investigation into the 
payments.  Chiquita was the first company in U.S. 
history to be convicted of financial dealings 
with a designated terrorist organization.

In a lawsuit launched against Chiquita victims of 
the paramilitary violence claimed the firm 
abetted atrocities including terrorism, war 
crimes and crimes against humanity. A lawyer for 
the plaintiffs said that Chiquita’s relationship 
with the paramilitaries “was about acquiring 
every aspect of banana distribution and sale 
through a reign of terror.”

Back in Washington, D.C. Charles Lindner, 
Chiquita’s CEO, was busy courting the White 
House.  Lindner had been a big donor to the GOP 
but switched sides and began to lavish cash on 
the Democrats and Bill Clinton. Clinton repaid 
Linder by becoming a key military backer of the 
government of Andrés Pastrana which presided over 
the proliferation of right wing death squads.  At 
the time the U.S. was pursuing its 
corporately-friendly free trade agenda in Latin 
America, a strategy carried out by Clinton’s old 
boyhood friend Thomas “Mack” McLarty.  At the 
White House, McLarty served as Chief of Staff and 
Special Envoy to Latin America.  He’s an 
intriguing figure who I’ll come back to in a moment.

The Holder-Chiquita Connection

Given Chiquita’s underhanded record in Central 
America and Colombia it’s not a surprise that the 
company later sought to ally itself with COHEP in 
Honduras.  In addition to lobbying business 
associations in Honduras however Chiquita also 
cultivated relationships with high powered law 
firms in Washington.  According to the Center for 
Responsive Politics, Chiquita has paid out 
$70,000 in lobbying fees to Covington and Burling over the past three years.

Covington is a powerful law firm which advises 
multinational corporations.  Eric Holder, the 
current Attorney General, a co-chair of the Obama 
campaign and former Deputy Attorney General under 
Bill Clinton was up until recently a partner at 
the firm.  At Covington, Holder defended Chiquita 
as lead counsel in its case with the Justice 
Department.  From his perch at the elegant new 
Covington headquarters located near the New York 
Times building in Manhattan, Holder prepped 
Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita’s CEO, for an 
interview with 60 Minutes dealing with Colombian death squads.

Holder had the fruit company plead guilty to one 
count of “engaging in transactions with a 
specially designated global terrorist 
organization.”  But the lawyer, who was taking in 
a hefty salary at Covington to the tune of more 
than $2 million, brokered a sweetheart deal in 
which Chiquita only paid a $25 million fine over 
five years.  Outrageously however, not one of the 
six company officials who approved the payments received any jail time.

The Curious Case of Covington

Look a little deeper and you’ll find that not 
only does Covington represent Chiquita but also 
serves as a kind of nexus for the political right 
intent on pushing a hawkish foreign policy in 
Latin America.  Covington has pursued an 
important strategic alliance with Kissinger (of 
Chile, 1973 fame) and McLarty Associates (yes, 
the same Mack McLarty from Clinton-time), a well 
known international consulting and strategic advisory firm.

 From 1974 to 1981 John Bolton served as an 
associate at Covington.  As U.S. Ambassador to 
the United Nations under George Bush, Bolton was 
a fierce critic of leftists in Latin America such 
as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.  Furthermore, just 
recently John Negroponte became Covington’s Vice 
Chairman.  Negroponte is a former Deputy 
Secretary of State, Director of National 
Intelligence and U.S. Representative to the United Nations.

As U.S. Ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985, 
Negroponte played a significant role in assisting 
the U.S.-backed Contra rebels intent on 
overthrowing the Sandinista regime in 
Nicaragua.  Human rights groups have criticized 
Negroponte for ignoring human rights abuses 
committed by Honduran death squads which were 
funded and partially trained by the Central 
Intelligence Agency.  Indeed, when Negroponte 
served as ambassador his building in Tegucigalpa 
became one of the largest nerve centers of the 
CIA in Latin America with a tenfold increase in personnel.

While there’s no evidence linking Chiquita to the 
recent coup in Honduras, there’s enough of a 
confluence of suspicious characters and political 
heavyweights here to warrant further 
investigation.  From COHEP to Covington to Holder 
to Negroponte to McLarty, Chiquita has sought out 
friends in high places, friends who had no love 
for the progressive labor policies of the Zelaya regime in Tegucigalpa.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of 
South America and the Rise of the New Left 
(Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) Follow his blog at 

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