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2009-07-21

"From Arbenz to Zelaya: Chiquita in Latin America"

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"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," writes journalist Nikolas Kozloff. "Earlier this year the Cincinnati-based fruit company joined Dole in criticizing the government in Tegucigalpa which had raised the minimum wage by 60%." Kozloff goes on to trace Chiquita’s "long and sordid" political history in Central America. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikolas Kozloff, you’ve been following the coup very closely right now. Talk about the latest developments and who you feel is behind it. And what exactly is the US role here? If the US cut off aid, economic and military aid, do you feel that would end the coup?

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: I don’t think so. I think there’s this revolving door of Washington insiders that are supporting companies like Chiquita banana. I just wrote an article about Chiquita, formerly known as the United Fruit Company. And, you know, throughout history, Chiquita banana has had enormous sway and power over Central American nations.

And we know that prior to the coup d’état in Honduras, Chiquita was very unhappy about President Zelaya’s minimum wage decrees, because they said that this would cut into their profits and make it more expensive for them to export bananas and pineapple. And we know that they appealed to the Honduran Business Association, which was also opposed to Zelaya’s minimum wage provisions.

And we also — and what I find really interesting is that Chiquita is allied to a Washington law firm called Covington, which advises multinational corporations. And who is the vice chairman of Covington? None other than John Negroponte, who your previous guest mentioned in regards to the rampant human rights abuses that went on in Honduras throughout the 1980s. So I think that’s a really interesting connection.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the money and the support, Chiquita, then and now. It’s interesting, this is so reminiscent of the coup against the Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He wasn’t in office but a year, 1990, 1991, when he was ousted, and one of his first acts when he became president was to increase the minimum wage, as Zelaya has done.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Well, right, and this is nothing new, as I point out in a recent article. Throughout the twentieth century, Chiquita, formerly known as United Fruit, was associated with some of the most backward, retrograde political and economic forces in Central America and indeed outside of Central America in such countries as Colombia. And we know that United Fruit Company played a very prominent role in the coup d’état against democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. And, you know, after that, that ushered in a very turbulent period in Guatemalan history, rampant human rights abuses, genocide against the indigenous people of Guatemala. And so, Guatemala is only now recovering from that.

But, you know, Chiquita has played a role in such countries as Guatemala and also Colombia, and now it maintains these ties to Covington, this law firm in Washington, to this day. And there is this revolving door, as I say before, of these Washington insiders. Covington, in turn, is tied to McLarty and Kissinger Associates, McLarty being President Clinton’s former Chief of Staff and envoy to Latin America, who was pushing the free trade agenda in Latin America, and Kissinger, who doesn’t even need an introduction. His ties to the coup in Chile in 1973 are well known. And so, it’s disturbing that there is this history of abuses in Central America throughout the twentieth century with Chiquita and the fruit companies, which continues to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have — well, we played Lanny Davis’s testimony before Congress, Lanny Davis, who we were speaking to Ken Silverstein about last week, the superb investigative reporter, about his representing the Chamber of Commerce, which is very much on the side of the coup regime right now. Lanny Davis is the former White House counsel for President Clinton.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Right, and there’s these — there’s the circle of Clintonites that are still around. And as I mentioned before, you have Mack McLarty, who’s now associated with a law firm which is defending Chiquita. Also, as I point out in my recent article, you have the current Attorney General, Eric Holder, who was also Deputy Attorney General under Clinton, who defended Chiquita and its actions in Colombia, when Chiquita was allied to right-wing paramilitary death squads in the 1990s, was found guilty of paying off paramilitaries. And Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, who was also in the Clinton administration, was the lead counsel for Chiquita.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the significance of what he was representing Chiquita around. I mean, we know the story of the Cincinnati Enquirer that did this remarkable exposé of Chiquita, which they were forced to apologize for, not because they were wrong, but because the reporter had gotten access to voicemail system within Chiquita, and they said that it was illegal how he had gained access to that voicemail system. But what he exposed was quite astounding.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Right. Well, Chiquita claimed that it was merely paying protection money to the paramilitaries in Colombia. But the victims of the paramilitary violence in Colombia claim otherwise. They say that Chiquita was engaged in this systematic campaign to control banana production in Colombia and terrorize the population. And Chiquita was the only company in US history to be found guilty of paying bribes to a terrorist organization, as defined by the United States.

Eric Holder was the lead counsel defending Chiquita. He’s the top justice official in the United States with ties to this fruit company that was complicit in right-wing paramilitary violence.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the latest right now — the developments of the EU dropping support for Honduras, the talks with Oscar Arias breaking down. Though the elected president, Zelaya, has fully accepted what he proposed, the coup regime has said no. What’s going to happen? Oscar Arias said there could be a civil war, the President of Costa Rica and the Nobel Prize winner.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF: Well, I don’t really — I don’t see how this is going to be resolved, because he’s already tried to come back militarily — I mean, not militarily, but force his way back into the country.

And I think that the problem is that, you know, up until recently, Honduras was a very — had very traditional right-wing politics, was one of the most reliable countries, most compliant regimes in Central America towards the United States. And now you see the resurgence of these right-wing forces. And so, there is this vibrant — these vibrant social movements in Honduras — for example, the Garifuna people, the Afro-Honduran, the indigenous people, and labor. But I think perhaps this could be the resurgence of these right-wing forces that really haven’t gone away, that it seemed for a while that we had the pink tide from South America, the rise of the left spreading into Central America. This could be, perhaps, a disturbing sign that those old retrograde forces are now trying to prove that they can stage a comeback. And I think that’s disturbing for other countries that are, say, allied to Venezuela, you know, such as small nations in the Caribbean, and this could be a very disturbing message to other countries that are following and trying to cultivate ties to Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikolas Kozloff, I want to thank you for being with us, author of the book Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left. His latest piece, “From Arbenz to Zelaya: Chiquita in Latin America.”

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