Last week, in one of the largest and most unusual settlements by a news organization, The Cincinnati Enquirer published an apology across the top of its front page and said it had agreed to pay Chiquita Brands International Inc. more than $10 million to avoid being sued for a series of articles that exposed the fruit company’s criminal practices. [includes rush transcript]
The articles, which appeared in an 18-page special section on May 3rd, were partially based on 2,000 internal voice mails that were said to have been obtained from "a high ranking Chiquita executive."
The newspaper however, after initially defending its year-long investigation of Chiquita, said last week that it was convinced that the voice mails had been stolen from the company, and that it had renounced the articles. The Enquirer also fired Michael Gallagher, the reporter who led the investigation.
The ties between Chiquita banana C.E.O Carl Lindner and the Cincinnati political and business elite are strong; until 1979 Lindner was the controlling shareholder of the company that owned The Enquirer before its current publisher, the Gannett newspaper chain. The Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters, whose office is driving the investigation into Gallagher and who is responsible for appointing a special prosecutor, has received campaign donations from Chiquita.
While Chiquita hailed The Enquirer for acknowledging "that the conclusions in the article were untrue," Harry Whipple, the Enquirer’s publisher, has said he believed the voicemails, despite how they may have been obtained, were real. In an interview with the New York Times, he said "We are not aware of anything to suggest that this is an instance of a reporter fabricating something."
Nevertheless, the Enquirer has erased all the articles from its website; previously existing links on the internet to the stories now all lead to the Enquirer’s apology to Chiquita instead.
Chiquita, formerly known as the United Fruit Company, is the world s largest banana producer. Among the illegal Chiquita practices uncovered by the Enquirer s investigation:
- Chiquita secretly controls dozens of supposedly independent banana companies. It also suppresses union activity on the farms it controls.
- Despite its pact with environmental groups to abide by pesticide safety standards, Chiquita subsidiaries have used pesticides in Central America that are banned in the U.S., Canada, and the European Union. Chiquita also released harmful toxic chemicals into farms, killing at least one worker in Costa Rica according to a coroner’s report.
- Chiquita’s fruit transport ships have been used to smuggle cocaine into Europe. More than a ton of cocaine was seized from 7 Chiquita ships in 1997. (The Enquirer story says the illegal shipment was traced to lax Colombian security rather than to Chiquita)
- Chiquita executives bribed Colombian officials
- Chiquita called in the Honduran military to evict residents of a farm village; the soldiers forced the farmers out at gunpoint, and the village was bulldozed.
- An employee of a competitor filed a federal lawsuit charging that armed men hired by Chiquita tried to kidnap him in Honduras.
- Allistair Smith, is the director of Banana Link, an English non-profit organization concerned with practices of large banana corporations.
- Mike Gable, is a churchworker in Cincinnati, Ohio.
- Patrick Harmon, is a student at Mount St Joseph College. He has worked around labor and social justice issues in the Cincinnati area as well as Central America.
- Sister Alice Gerdeman is the coordinator of the Inter-community Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
- Scott Campbell, is a member of the Central American Task Force in Cincinnati.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, in one of the largest and most unusual settlements by a news organization, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an apology across the top of its front page and said it had agreed to pay Chiquita Brands International more than $10 million to avoid being sued for a series of articles that exposed the fruit company’s criminal practices.
The articles, which appeared in an eighteen-page special section on May 3rd, were partially based on 2,000 internal voicemails that were said to have been obtained from "a high ranking Chiquita executive." But the newspaper, after initially defending its yearlong investigation of Chiquita, said last week it’s convinced the voicemails had been stolen from the company and that it had renounced the articles. The Enquirer also fired one of the two reporters who worked on the investigation, Michael Gallagher.
The ties between Chiquita Banana CEO Carl Lindner and the Cincinnati political and business elite are strong. Until 1979, Lindner was the controlling shareholder of the company that owned the Enquirer before its current publisher, the Gannett newspaper chain. The Hamilton County Prosecutor, Joseph Deters, whose office is driving the investigation into the reporter Gallagher and who is responsible for appointing a special prosecutor, has received campaign donations from Chiquita.
While Chiquita hailed the Enquirer for acknowledging "that the conclusions in the article were untrue," Harry Whipple, the _Enquirer_’s publisher, has said he believed the voicemails, despite how they may have been obtained, were real. In an interview with the New York Times, he said, "We are not aware of anything to suggest that this is an instance of a reporter fabricating something."
Nevertheless, the Enquirer has erased all the articles from its website; previously existing links on the internet to the stories now all lead to the _Enquirer_’s apology to Chiquita instead.
Chiquita, formerly known as the United Fruit Company, is the world’s largest banana producer. Among the illegal Chiquita practices uncovered by the _Enquirer_’s investigation: Chiquita secretly controls dozens of supposedly independent banana companies. It also suppresses union activity on the farms it controls.
The newspaper supplement also charged that despite its pact with environmental groups to abide by pesticide safety standards, Chiquita subsidiaries have used pesticides in Central America that are banned in the US, Canada, and the European Union and released harmful toxic chemicals into farms, killing at least one worker in Costa Rica, according to a coroner’s report.
The Cincinnati Enquirer series also charged that Chiquita’s fruit transport ships have been used to smuggle cocaine into Europe. More than a ton of cocaine was seized from seven Chiquita ships in 1997. Chiquita executives bribed Colombian officials, the Cincinnati Enquirer report said. Also that Chiquita called in the Honduran military to evict residents of a farm village; the soldiers forced the farmers out at gunpoint out, and the village was bulldozed. And the series said that an employee of a competitor filed a federal lawsuit charging that armed men hired by Chiquita tried to kidnap him in Honduras. Just some of the charges in this amazing eighteen-page supplement in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Quite amazing also since Chiquita is based in Cincinnati and controls so much of what happens there.
We’re joined right now by Allistair Smith. He is the director of Banana Link, an English non-profit organization concerned with practices of large banana corporations. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Allistair. Why don’t we start by you giving us a lay of the land? Talk about the history of Chiquita.
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Yeah. Everybody must know that the United Fruit Company, as it was called until relatively recently, has had just over a hundred years of history of operating banana plantations in Central and South America. It’s known amongst banana workers as Mamita Yunay — that’s "Mama United" — with a Central American pronunciation. So it’s part of songs, it’s part of novels, it’s been in films. It is a mythical corporation, and it has a hundred years of very, very violent and oppressive history behind it in what now we know as the "banana republics." We know them as the banana republics for the simple reason that the likes of Chiquita and then later the Standard Fruit Company, which is now Dole, and so on, were so dominant, so powerful in those countries for so long. The fact is that remains the case today. And Chiquita may or may not just have lost its position as number one banana company in world trade, but it still has at least 25% of the world market, so it’s still a very big player.
And the accusations that were dealt with in great detail in eighty-eight pages of the website and in the eighteen-page hard copy supplement to the Sunday the 3rd of May Cincinnati Enquirer, I have to say that there’s nothing in there that I could disprove. Let’s put it that way. I mean, a lot of the stuff about pesticide practices, occasional deaths, about aerial spraying and communities regularly being exposed to toxic chemicals sprayed from the air, about the baby puree factory that was mentioned in Costa Rica being extremely polluting, all that stuff is true and more. I’m not commenting on what’s in the Enquirer itself, but I can confirm that the general thrust of, you know, bad practices, both environmentally and for the workers’ health, are a regular thing.
And I have to say that in very recent weeks, Chiquita has shown finally it’s starting at last to take those a bit seriously, having taken a very hostile attitude toward the likes of us for some years. Only in the last few weeks have they actually started to take these kind of things seriously.
The stuff about Lindner and his political contributions is subject of a — I think it’s a Senate inquiry at the moment, so I’m not going to comment on that, other than that it’s well-documented fact that he’s been funding both parties, because mainly why? The most important thing is why. And that’s because he wanted the US administration to take up Chiquita’s case in the World Trade Organization and fight the European banana regime and hopefully get rid of it. And as Friday’s decision in Brussels makes clear, Chiquita still hasn’t managed to get rid of it, even after five years of litigation in Germany against the European Commission.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what this decision was?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Well, in a nutshell, in 1993 the European Union for the first time announced the single import policy for all the fifteen countries of the union in bananas. And that involved harmonizing [inaudible] a whole load of different import regimes into Britain, into France, into Spain, into Germany. Germany, of course, had free access to all Latin American plantation bananas, and Chiquita amongst them. Chiquita [inaudible] monthly principally. On the other hand, Britain and France protected their markets with tariff barriers, because we had our own colonies, now ex-colonies, the French had their own colonies, some of them now ex-colonies, and we wanted to protect producers in those regions which were attached to the colonial countries.
So now, when they tried to harmonize it, the commission had a real headache, but it tried to square the circle, it tried to do it in a way that would go along with the international trade rules, but in a way which would continue to protect bananas coming into their single market from those protected producers in European and African, Caribbean producing countries. And the row is basically because Chiquita lost over half its market in Germany between 1992 and 1995 and [inaudible] and have to persuade a government — in this case, its own government — to take the case up in the World Trade Organization, because a corporation can’t fight a case in the World Trade Organization. It has to be a government.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did it lose its market in Germany?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Because all sorts of reasons, in our estimation. But mainly because the licensing system that was put into place for the rights to import into the single European market in July '93 was — essentially went against Chiquita's interest. And Chiquita hadn’t, unlike the other corporations, looked ahead and invested in West Africa, for example, and invested in distribution in Europe, outside Germany particularly. A lot of it was bad investment decisions. I think they didn’t see — they thought that they could muscle Brussels enough to drop all trade barriers and that Chiquita would, of course, benefit from a free trade into Europe. But that didn’t happen. It still hasn’t happened, despite the fact that we’re about to possibly have the fourth dispute in the World Trade Organization, to be announced very soon, we believe, by your government and five other Latin American allies.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Allistair Smith, who is the head of Banana Link, a non-profit based in Britain that looks at the large banana companies around the world. Boy, there’s so many directions I want to go right now. I want to go back and look at United Fruit Company. We know it from, for example, Guatemala and helping to overthrow a democratically elected government in 1954, the Arbenz government, that led to forty years of military rulers. But I also want to talk about today and all of the allegations that have been put forward in the Cincinnati Enquirer or that have been put forward by groups all over the world. You mentioned pesticides, and you mentioned a factory that was putting out a banana puree, baby food, that was toxic. Can you talk about the extent of the pesticide? And what is the problem for the workers and for the consumers?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: First, don’t let me be quoted as saying that the baby food was itself toxic. What I’m saying is that the emissions from the factory and the processes transforming the bananas into banana puree for babies in Europe, there were emissions which were dangerous to the local community. I can’t tell you exactly scientifically what those are, but I’ve heard that from many different people in that area, which I know quite well, in Costa Rica.
Pesticide practice, as well. I mean, the banana industry is one of the biggest consumers of agrichemicals worldwide. It’s probably second only to the cotton industry. Places like Costa Rica, particularly, where you’ve got huge single crops stretching across thousands and thousands of acres, you’ve got more and more disease problems. As soon as you get a disease problem in one acre, you’ve got it in a hundred thousand acres. And therefore, there’s a huge amount of chemicals being used to prevent some of the main diseases that attack the export banana. And so, needless to say, when the working conditions are bad and unions are not flavor of the month with Chiquita management — let’s put it that way — the workers don’t have much of a say, even when they know full well that their health, long-term and short-term, is being directly affected by these chemicals that they’re having to apply, or which are applied over their heads without consultation from airplanes.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that there’s some kind of suit of tens of thousands of Central American workers against Chiquita?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Yeah, not just — well, Chiquita is one of the corporations who was said to have used this chemical BDCP. It’s a chemical used to kill nematodes in the roots, which are like little worms — let’s call them — in the roots of the banana. It’s a nematicide that was used that was banned in the US in ’77. What was then stockpiled was shipped to Central America, because it was very useful in banana production. And in a period of five to ten years, not just in Central America, but also the Philippines and West Africa and the Caribbean Islands, that chemical, banned in the US, was used in plantations across the eleven, twelve countries and have been shown to have directly affected the health of 40,000 workers, who have now been made sterile, male workers. And evidence is now coming out that women are also extremely badly affected by the same chemical.
The chemical is not used any longer, I hasten to add, but for six or seven years the banana companies essentially allowed it to be used, knowing that it had been banned in the US. And there’s been a pitiful lack of corporate settlement with the agrichemical companies, but there’s been nothing so far, no sort of settlement, in court or out — it’s still going on in courts in Texas, I believe — there’s been no settlement by the banana companies. So, yes, and Chiquita is one of them.
AMY GOODMAN: This issue of sterility, I’ve heard about, with banana workers, because there have been some tours where banana workers come through and they talk about this. And you’re saying that the corporations, including Chiquita, knew that they were sterilizing the workers by using this toxic substance, but continued to do it? I mean, who knows what else that it did?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: If memory serves me right, the written evidence, the i.e. letters between agrichemical companies and the banana companies — other companies, not Chiquita — but there certainly is strong evidence that it would be very hard for the banana company management not to know that they were using a chemical that had been banned by the equivalent, the predecessor of the EPA in ’77 in the States.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we have to break, Allistair Smith, but we will be back with you. Allistair Smith is the director of Banana Link, an English non-profit organization concerned with practices of large banana corporations. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Allistair Smith, who is the director of Banana Link. It’s a British non-profit organization concerned with the practices of large banana corporations. Allistair, let’s talk about the issue of consumer safety. I think a lot of people have the idea banana is particularly safe, because it has this thick skin. You peel it off, and you eat the inside. You don’t have to wash it. Is this true? How safe is a banana?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Pretty — all the sort of quality control information that we have in Europe here seems to suggest that, provided you peel it and you don’t put it near your lips before you peel it, and you don’t let your kids suck it before you peel it, then the banana is — carries below the international maximum residue levels of pesticide.
AMY GOODMAN: And if you do somehow happen to get what is on the skin?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: And in international rules, it’s safe to eat. So the residues are on the outside of the banana on the skin, not inside.
AMY GOODMAN: And if you do happen to get the residue that’s on the skin, is that very toxic?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Yep. Thiabenzadole, imazalil — very nasty, imazalil. Very nasty, indeed. Ask the women who work in the plantation pack houses what imazalil does to their hands after a few months of continual use, fourteen hours a day, six days a week.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it do to their hands?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: I assume they initially go white, and then it starts to appear as peeling off. It’s associated with headaches initially. It’s associated in the medium- to long-term with all sorts of diseases that [inaudible] affect the women, arguably cancer — "arguably" I say, because I’m not a chemical scientist and can’t prove scientifically that it does. But it’s clear that imazalil just is one of the many, many, many chemicals in the banana production chain, is damaging tens of thousands, has damaged, is damaging and presumably will continue to damage for some time yet tens of thousands of women workers across the export banana industry.
AMY GOODMAN: How organized are workers across Central America?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Less than they were fifteen years ago, for the — I suppose, to put it rather in a nutshell, because the corporations in the early '80s were dealing with strong unions in many of the countries they operated, if not in all of the countries that they operated, especially Costa Rica, which is a key country for the banana corporations. And they said, "Well, you know, these workers are starting to get a bit too much. They're getting a bit uppity. They’re striking every third week, and da-da-da-da, and we’re going to have to do something about it."
So they got together, and they got together their allies, and they mustered some money, and they set up movements in Costa Rica, which were designed really to take the independent trade union out of business. And in some cases, they did. There were seven unions in Costa Rica in the early '80s. We're now down to three, and they’re all very small. One of them is growing, but the other two are very small. And they have virtually no membership in the Chiquita plantations in Costa Rica. So if you want an overall view, between 5% and 10% — maybe let’s say 8% — of banana plantation workers around the world are organized.
AMY GOODMAN: Talking about connecting this to the findings in the Cincinnati Enquirer piece — for example, Chiquita secretly controlling dozens of supposedly independent banana companies, doing so through elaborate business structures designed to avoid restrictions on land ownership and national security laws in Central American countries. The structures also are aimed at limiting unions on its farms. How does this work?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Well, I mean, that’s an area which obviously only lawyers are in a position to comment on at the moment, and only very well-informed lawyers who’ve read a lot of stuff and understand really why this is going on. I mean, I’m sure that — I’m sure, for example, in Costa Rica, the case of COBAL, it’s a Chiquita subsidiary. Nobody denies it, and everybody says that COBIGUA in Guatemala is — it’s huge subsidiary. I mean, it’s not, I think, in a way, there seems nothing really was telling us what we already knew in Europe, at least, which is that, you know, these companies aren’t on paper apparently linked to Chiquita Brands International, but they are known to be wholly owned subsidiaries of the company, and everybody refers to them as Chiquita plantations. So that’s, in a sense — that was nothing new.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do they challenge the unions by saying that they’re different companies?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: How does it challenge the unions to say it’s different companies?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Well, this is the big problem, of course. And in the case of [inaudible] of Chiquita, they have been very careful to set up different companies for each plantation. Often with plantations, when we talk about plantation, we think of a very large expansive 10,000 acres. That’s true, but actually in legal terms and financial terms, these are broken up into maybe ten or eleven or twelve different 500-acre plots, let’s say, farms, which are managed separately, which in the case of Chiquita are set up financially and legally separately, and allow them to play the union game much more easily. And one of the things we would say to Chiquita: OK, you deal with eighty-five independent trade unions around the world, but the reason there are so many, and given that you only operate in ten or twelve countries, why are there eighty-five independent trade unions? Well, that’s because in Guatemala on each of the nine plantations which COBIGUA controls, there’s a different union. And the disputes in Guatemala center around that, because it’s very difficult for the unions there to be legal under the national labor law, for the unions to get together as one union and say, look, it’s more sensible if 10,000 workers are speaking with a voice, rather than 500 or whatever.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of security guards using brute force to enforce their authority on plantations operating or operated or controlled by Chiquita?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Yeah. I mean, that’s so true of all the banana companies, nationally owned and multi-nationally owned, let’s say. No, I mean, in just one figure, Costa Rica, there are at least 11,000, probably now 12,000 private security guards for 50,000 hectares of plantation. That’s how, you know, they keep people in and out of the plantations, and notably trade union leaders, trade union organizers, because they’re the ones they least want to get in. And, of course, you know, you, me and any passing tourist who might want to take a picture of, you know, women working fourteen hours a day in a banana plantation.
AMY GOODMAN: Allistair Smith, since we don’t have much time, and this is a vast issue to deal with, I understand the Cincinnati Enquirer series on Chiquita has caused quite a stir in Honduras. Has it caused the same kind of reaction around Europe?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Well, it certainly was in yesterday’s Independent newspaper here. I’ve had four or five things from around the rest of the continent to date that suggest it was in the Belgian, German and, I think, the Dutch press, either yesterday or today. So, yeah, there’s a kind of suspended disbelief, let’s say, that this could possibly be going on, and what the hell does it all mean?
And we hope — the news from the ground in Honduras is that the company has been much more easy to deal with since the banana conference, and that’s from the worker’s point of view, that’s in the union’s point of view. That’s good news. There’s a strong union there in Honduras. And so, I think finally we’re at the point where we can actually start to sit down and discuss the nitty-gritty of how improvements are made and whether, you know, we really need to go for another fourth dispute in the World Trade Organization just for Chiquita to get its way. I mean, let’s be reasonable about this. Nobody’s saying that we want Chiquita to disappear overnight. Everybody has their right to a market share if they’re producing efficiently and, we would say, sustainably. The question is, what do we mean by "sustainably"? That’s the dialogue that we hope we now are starting to engage in with Chiquita.
So the news in Cincinnati slightly disturbs that feeling of — or at last Chiquita wanting to talk, but I hope that the last couple of days’ events will not prevent any of those positive developments from coming to fruition, because, well, there’s many of us who have been working on this, and we hope it’s not been wasted time. We don’t believe it has, and we believe that, you know, as fellow human beings, we can sit across the table and share information and share a joke, even.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the things we deal with is corporate control of knowledge, and what some see this as, since it’s hard to figure out what exactly happened, is Chiquita coming down very hard, obviously, on a hometown paper around the issue of an investigation of it. What seems to be most concerning is that the articles I’ve read over the last few days are simply about the issue of the legality, the issue of was the voicemail stolen, on which some of the articles were based. But instead of calling into the legality, what they’re calling in is the whole veracity of these articles and might lump together all in one basket how the information was gotten with what the information is, and also frighten other journalists away from taking on a corporation like Chiquita.
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Yeah, I mean, I think we — you know, let’s not — I mean, in terms of "taking on," I don’t feel we’re taking on Chiquita. I feel that we’re trying to bring Chiquita into a dialogue, which involves all their competitors already, and to try and avert the waste-of-time paper and energy in Geneva, yet another yearlong series of a hundred meetings to resolve a trade dispute, which frankly should be resolved out of court, in the way that, you know, that this whole thing has been done in Cincinnati. I mean, it’s crazy, of course. It’s obvious that, you know, the attempt to lump the whole thing together and hope people will not take seriously the 90-odd% of the information which is totally solid — I can’t comment on the voicemail tapes, but obviously they are kind of — they’re offered as proof of what is the other 90%, but I know that the other 90% is very, very, very largely true, very well researched.
It went past the Cincinnati Enquirer's lawyers for months and months and months. We were waiting for literally months for that to appear in Europe, and they appeared six hours before the International Banana Conference, which wasn't staged, but it kind of focused the issue very, very quickly, because we were all gathered in Europe, and six hours before, this thing came out. But, you know, let’s not forget that it went past the newspaper’s lawyers for nine months, so, you know, presumably, a lot of eyes have looked at this.
AMY GOODMAN: Cameron McWhirter hasn’t been fired, and I know that he has looked at the issue quite extensively and was at that International Banana Conference. One last question around — two last questions, one around the issue of Africa: can you explain what failed the politics of bananas in Africa?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: It’s a big question, but in a nutshell, since just before the single European market was introduced on July the 1st, '93, in the run-up to that, and the Doles and Del Montes of this world were busy expanding or buying for the first time plantations in mainly Cameroon and the Ivory Coast — Dole in Somalia, as well, on the other side of Africa — and in that expansion new lands, no diseases, cheap labor, cheap land, they did very nicely, thank you, and expanded very rapidly and benefited from the no-tariff entry into Europe, which the African and Caribbean countries enjoy because of the history of being ex-colonies, that I mentioned earlier, through the so-called Lome Convention, which is a treaty, a trade treaty between the fifteen members of the European Union and seventy-one African, Caribbean and Pacific nations. There's a special banana protocol, and they get free entry into the European market, any bananas exported up to quota limits out of those countries. And so, the Doles and Del Montes of this world have done very nicely out of that. Chiquita has some investment in the Ivory Coast, but it never really put a lot of eggs in that basket, and so has lost a lot of ground and has not diversified itself as well in the European market to face the new policy as the other multinationals have. So that’s a major factor in its loss of, you know, half its German market share.
AMY GOODMAN: The other question is about the history of Chiquita, in particular, and how it comes out of United Fruit Company. Could you give us a little background United Fruit, how it got started and how it ultimately ended up dividing up into these different companies?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Well, if I’m not mistaken, there was a — it involved an Englishman in the early days called Minor Keith in Costa Rica. Minor Keith turned up in the Caribbean coastal region of Costa Rica seeing these strange fruit growing, and he was — I think he was actually not the first person to see these strange fruit growing and think they might be exportable. Back in his ship to the States was a sea captain, but Minor Keith, the English guy who actually was in many ways the founder of United Fruit Company, he and the sea captain before him had seen the potential of this strange-looking tropical fruit that tasted very, very unusual, very surprisingly tasty, that he saw the potential for a market there. And he slung some on his ship, and Minor Keith invested in them, because they looked like good business.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, the history of United Fruit and its role in the politics to Central America?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: As early as 1909, when the very first antitrust action against the United Fruit Company, which basically said, look, you’re a monopoly, your fruit [inaudible] in the market. You’ve got to break yourself up, out of which came the Standard Food Company of Boston. And that’s, many decades later, is what we now know as Dole Food, and has just arguably taken over as number one banana trader in the world. So that came out of an antitrust action to break up the United Fruit Company. Another similar action in the '30s created what became Del Monte and what is now Del Monte Fresh Produce, still Coral Gables-based, but very much a transnational — if Chiquita's a multinational, then Del Monte is a transnational, because the capital is part United Arab Emirates, part Mexico. It’s based in Santiago operationally, etc. It’s very transnational.
AMY GOODMAN: And Chiquita?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: And Chiquita Brands International became part of the American Financial Corporation, which is the holding company — I can’t tell you in which year. I’m sure it’s in the Enquirer. And that, in relatively recent decades, and has until — as I say, until, we would calculate, the last six or twelve months, been the number one banana trader in the world. But largely because of its position in Europe slumping in the last five years, it’s probably just been pegged to the post by Dole.
AMY GOODMAN: I assume that there’s some websites that were posting the Cincinnati Enquirer series, because it is so much the heart of what you do. Have you all been forced to take these articles off your websites?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: No, no. Nobody’s forcing to do anything, but obviously given the dubious legal situation in Cincinnati, then various organizations are taking various precautions, because we don’t want to be implicated in any of this, so it’s a fight that’s got nothing to do with us, in that sense. But, obviously, we’ll be very careful, but it’s not going to — hopefully it’s not going to stop us having a chance to meet with Chiquita next week and hopefully embark on a series of insensitive meetings, which actually generate improvements to everybody. I think that’s possible, and nice and idealistic, but we’ve got — we talk sensibly to Dole, we talk sensibly with Del Monte, we talk sensibly with Fyffes; why can’t we also be talking sensibly with Chiquita Brands International?
AMY GOODMAN: What has stopped you from talking sensibly with Chiquita?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Until now, until the last recent weeks, the attitude of non-engagement by the company. It doesn’t want to bite on — essentially, it’s replied to a few letters, but it’s only a standard form letter. It doesn’t say very much, and it clearly has been very hesitant to bite. We’ve nearly had meetings in the last few months, but they haven’t quite materialized for all sorts of reasons around the world. But I think — I mean, there are more positive stories to recount in recent months in Costa Rica and Colombia, but here in Europe and the attitude of the company being non-engagement, not that they could seriously [inaudible], supposing whether we’re in Germany or Ireland or Italy or wherever.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you very much for being with us, Allistair Smith, and let me end with this question, and that is, what do you think would be the most important thing for people to do if they’re concerned about bananas, where they come from, how they’re grown, how workers are treated who grow them?
ALLISTAIR SMITH: Well, the simplest thing is to, next time they buy bananas, to (a) to look at the label, where they’re from, what does it tell you — probably doesn’t tell you very much, probably just gives you a brand name — and (b) to talk to the person who sold it to you, the supermarket manager, the grocery store, whatever it is, and say, "Do you know where these come from? Can you find out?" And the third thing I would say is if people are feeling energetic, also contact the companies via their websites or in a letter, saying, can you send me information about this, that and the other? And everybody will know some bit of what’s going on and let the company respond.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Allistair Smith, I want to thank you. Coming up, we’ll hear from some activists in this country in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Chiquita is based. Oh, and let me give the website for Banana Link. It is blink(at)gn.apc.org. That’s blink(at)gn.apc.org.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, the latest we have on the Cincinnati Enquirer controversy — I don’t know if you’ve been following it all in the papers — but in the wake of an apology by the Cincinnati Enquirer for illegally obtaining voicemail messages used in a scathing expose of Chiquita Brands International, a special prosecutor has issued subpoenas to some of the newspaper’s employees. The _Enquirer_’s publisher has acknowledged the subpoenas, but he declined to identify who had received them or how many were issued. Some people on the newspaper staff, meanwhile, expressed confusion and some consternation over what seemed to be such a swift capitulation to Chiquita, a big Cincinnati company controlled by Carl Lindner, who is a top shareholder in the company that owned the Enquirer before the newspaper was sold to the Gannett Company. The Enquirer, which has also agreed to pay at least $10 million to Chiquita, had accused the company of a bribery scheme in Colombia and imperiling public health in Central America with pesticides on its banana crops.
We’re joined right now by four activists from Cincinnati who have formed a kind of ad hoc coalition with others around this large corporation that is in their midst, whose headquarters is in Cincinnati. We’re joined by Scott Campbell, who is a member of the Central American Task Force in Cincinnati; Mike Gable, a church worker in Cincinnati, who also works at Xavier University; we’re joined by Sister Alice Gerdeman, who is a coordinator of the Inter-Community Justice and Peace Center; and Patrick Harmon, a student at Mount St. Joseph College, he’s worked around labor and social justice issues in the Cincinnati area and Central America and is getting a degree in sociology. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!
SISTER ALICE GERDEMAN: It’s good to be here, Amy.
MIKE GABLE: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we start off with Alice Gerdeman of the center where you all meet, the Inter-Community Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati. Can you tell us what’s happened in Cincinnati since this series of articles came out at the beginning of May, and now the retraction, or at least the apology?
SISTER ALICE GERDEMAN: Well, the general feeling in Cincinnati has been one of support of Chiquita. It’s a major corporation here in town with lots of employees. We are also basically a conservative-type area of the country. And so, I would say, generally speaking, the reaction has been favorable to Chiquita and not favorable to anything that would criticize the actions of that company.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about some of the accusations in the article, some of the charges that are documented by the reporters, one of whom, Mike Gallagher, has been fired. You know, that’s an interesting story in itself, and we really don’t quite understand what has happened there, the allegation that he stole voicemail from the company, on which some of his articles are based. But the allegations are quite stunning. For example, the imperiling public health in Central America with pesticides on banana crops, the taking of land, the bribery scheme in Colombia.
Let’s start with Mike Gable on some of these. Mike, talk about your connection to Central America, as well as to the Chiquita story in Cincinnati.
MIKE GABLE: Well, I started working in Honduras in Central America in 1972 and worked there until 1974. I have been back at least a dozen times since in the last five years with groups of professors and students wanting to learn the situation. And so, my history goes back a ways, and I guess, for me, when we discuss these broader, more technical issues, I think it’s always important to understand what is the context of the situation here.
I interviewed Archbishop Rodriguez a few years ago in the midst of all — as these issues were developing. I asked him, "What should we be telling people back in Cincinnati, Chiquita Corporation, about the whole situation of all these different issues and allegations?" And he says, "Listen, understand the context. Realize that most people in Honduras make $2 to $3 a day, OK? Keep that in mind, that this is the second poorest country in Central America, and few people have control over their situation. Most people are landless peasants, and it’s important," he kept reiterating, "to keep that context in mind." We’re not talking about people making $30 or $40 an hour here — or looking for maybe $40 an hour. We’re talking about a very poor country. And so, that really sets the tone, I think, of the debate in the whole issue, so that we’re dealing with people that are just struggling to get by.
In my situation in Honduras in the village where I worked, 50% of the children die before the age of five, because of worms from the water. And more than half the country cannot read or write. And so, I think it’s important to keep that in context when we discuss these issues. We’re not talking about, you know, people that are already well-to-do asking for a few dollars more an hour. We’re talking people in the banana fields that are making, you know, $3 a day — not an hour, a day — and are having pesticides sprayed on them and who are being forced off the land, even though they have been living on there for years. So I think it’s important to keep that original context in mind. We’re talking about a moral issue, not just some legal issues of lawyers here.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Campbell, you’re with the Central American Task Force in Cincinnati. Can you summarize for us some of the charges in the article?
SCOTT CAMPBELL: Sure. We mentioned the pesticide use. The Enquirer reporters actually went and visited some of the farms and observed the pesticides that were being used and the ways they were being used — in particular, pointed out how containers of pesticides were left open in areas where children could be exposed to them. And then they took the names of those pesticides and checked them against lists of chemicals that had been banned for use here in the US and found that they were part of the banned chemicals.
They also did a report on the harassment of one of Chiquita’s competitors, a man who was working for Fyffes, an Irish company that also exports bananas from Honduras. And they went into some detail on his lawsuit against Chiquita. And that, by the way, was a story that has been well-documented by others in the past.
They talked about the political influence that Carl Lindner, the CEO of Chiquita, has, his campaign contributions to both the Republicans and the Democrats, his donating his private jet to Bob Dole during the last presidential campaign, and the kind of results he has gotten from some of those political contributions.
And they also describe the story of Tacamiche, which again has been well-documented from other sources. That was the community that Chiquita decided they were no longer going to grow bananas on that particular farm, and they evicted the residents who had been living there for a number of generations. And they did this at a time when the ownership of the land was in dispute. So that was some of the eighteen-page report that the Enquirer did.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, so here we have a story coming out of Cincinnati about one of the largest banana companies in the world — in fact, a lot larger than people even thought, because according to this incredible series that came out in May in the Cincinnati Enquirer — I think it’s about an eighteen-page supplement — a lot of independent banana companies, it now turns out, are actually part of Chiquita, just by name only separate, and they’ve tried to keep it that way. As a result of this, we’re getting a lot of information. What I fear is that, because there’s a controversy swirling around how some of the information was confirmed, the possibility of stolen voicemail, though we don’t know if this is true, that this whole very comprehensive look at Chiquita Banana Corporation will be put into one basket, which is, this is untrue. But it seems that, as one person described it, there’s a difference between the issue of legality here and veracity, and that a lot of these stories cannot be thrown out.
So let me ask Sister Alice Gerdeman, coordinator of the Inter-Community Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, what you’re going to do with this information.
SISTER ALICE GERDEMAN: First of all, the efforts we had here in Cincinnati around Chiquita — and, indeed, it’s even broader than Chiquita; it’s our concern about what’s happening in the whole banana industry, and even beyond the banana industry, just with worker relationships between first world and third world countries — that effort is not at all dependent upon what comes out in the Enquirer or doesn’t come out in the Enquirer.
However, what we did do, as soon as the Enquirer article came out, is we did send copies of it to people that we do know in Latin America. And we said to them, "Look it over. Is there anything here that surprises you, anything here that we should be cautious about?" And unanimously what people said was, "No, we’re not surprised by this." And, in fact, we, who have been in solidarity work around Latin America since late '70s, early ’80s, we weren't surprised, either, because as we went back through our files, we found indications of many of these stories had already been covered by other Enquirer articles or by other parts of the press.
So what’s going to happen for us, I think, is that we will continue in our concern for the people of Latin America, of all workers who are working in situations that are being taken advantage of, we believe, by first world companies that tend to be using them for major profit, rather than for the generation of the income that the people need in order to live humane lives.
AMY GOODMAN: I have a copy of a flyer distributed outside the Chiquita annual shareholders’ meeting on May 11, which came out after these series of articles on Chiquita appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It says, "Chiquita shareholders have the right to know, consumers want to know, and Cincinnati citizens care." And it goes on to say, "Why did Chiquita circumvent national laws designed to protect the security of countries from which it profits? Why did Chiquita deny its ownership of subsidiaries to Honduran labor unions and hide its structure from the host governments? Why does Chiquita use pesticides that are banned in the US because they’re unsafe? Why doesn’t Chiquita adhere to the guidelines agreed to under the Better Banana Program? Why does Chiquita rotate workers from farm to farm to avoid paying the benefits guaranteed to them under Honduran law? And will Chiquita support the International Banana Charter, a code of conduct being modeled after successful reforms in the textile and coffee industries?" And it ends by saying, "Corporate citizenship matters to the workers, the consumers, Cincinnati citizens and Chiquita shareholders. Being a good corporate citizen means running an ethical business, both here in Cincinnati and abroad."
Did this flyer make its way into the shareholders’ meeting? Was Carl Lindner or any of the executives challenged to answer some of these questions?
SISTER ALICE GERDEMAN: They did get into the organization. We passed out several hundred copies of it to people who were entering. These were shareholders going to the annual meeting. We do know that at least one of the shareholders did present those questions at the annual meeting. They were not well-received. Obviously, at least from reports that we got, the tenor of the annual meeting — and I’m not sure it’s different from other annual meetings, at least the ones I’ve been to — it’s more of a pep rally to say everything’s going fine in the corporation. And obviously everything wasn’t going fine, at least press-wise here in Cincinnati, so the pep rally attitude may have been just a little higher than usual. The questions were basically ignored and not answered. We do know that they were heard.
We — some of us, at least, here in Cincinnati are members of groups that are very concerned about corporate responsibility. It’s not just around Chiquita or about the banana industry. We have been active in corporate responsibility movements against a whole variety of corporations, and bringing up any kind of — any number of different kinds of abuses. So this was just another step in that whole process. We also had people — we had people at the Procter & Gamble shareholders’ meeting, and we had people at the General Electric shareholders’ meeting just this last year, asking questions and saying to people that — saying to these corporate leaders that we hold you to a higher standard than what you’re holding yourself to, when you say, "Well, maybe we didn’t disobey a letter of the law, or maybe we were able to hedge it, or maybe we can find some way to try to rationalize what we did." We’re saying that’s not good enough.
Basically, we’re saying if you’re going to be an international player and you’re going to — the profits from your corporations are going to be coming back here, we expect it to be done in a moral way, as well as maybe the very simple letter of the law way. We expect laws to be obeyed and not circumvented, national laws, local laws and international laws. And we think we have a moral obligation, in fact — those of us who live here in Cincinnati — to pose the questions to those corporations that are headquartered here.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have concrete plans for where you go from here? I mean, clearly this is now in a prosecutor’s office. They’re going to be going after the reporter for sure and the newspaper. I don’t see also another prosecutor being hired or a prosecutor being charged with investigating the allegations in this piece. What will you be calling for? When will you next be meeting?
SISTER ALICE GERDEMAN: We’re going to be meeting on Thursday evening. We don’t have any concrete plans at the present time. Obviously we’re looking at the whole situation, not only here locally, but we’re looking at the whole situation nationally and internationally. And after that we hope to have some plans, that we’ll take some kind of action.
SCOTT CAMPBELL: I think our major point is we want to keep focused on the issues that were in the article and not let people get sidetracked with the legality of the voicemail messages.
SISTER ALICE GERDEMAN: That’s true.
MIKE GABLE: And this is Mike Gable, just saying the bottom line in all of this, at least for me and I think all the people here sitting around this table at the moment, is to say, where is there justice for banana workers? When people are averaging $3 a day top money, something has to change there. Why is it that some people can be worth $13 billion in this country, and people are barely getting by and dying of simple diseases in Honduras? I think that’s our major concern here. It’s not to smash a company. That’s not our intention. I have friends who work at Chiquita, and I want them to be able to feed their families. And I know there’s a lot of banana workers in Honduras who don’t want to crush out Chiquita. I think our bottom line here is that we want to see people to be able to have a decent way of life, period.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, again, I want to thank you all very much for being with us: Mike Gable, church worker in Cincinnati, Ohio; Scott Campbell, member of the Central American Task Force in Cincinnati; Sister Alice Gerdeman, coordinator of the Inter-Community Justice and Peace Center in Cincinnati; and Patrick Harmon, sociology student at Mount St. Joseph College in Cincinnati. You’ve all been very helpful in giving us a feeling of what’s happening in your community. If people want to get a hold of you, is there a central number that they can call?
SISTER ALICE GERDEMAN: They can call the Inter-Community Justice and Peace Center. Our number is (513) 579-8547.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, that number?
SISTER ALICE GERDEMAN: (513) 579-8547.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all very much for joining us.