Chiquita Banana

by Jan Bauman

Marin Interfaith Task Force, September 1998
(source - Cincinnati Enquirer, May 3,1998)


"I'm Chiquita Banana and I'm here to say, eat a banana every day ..."

For many years that jingle has been heard on radio and television commercials extolling the virtues of the tropical fruit and the corporation that brought it to U.S. markets and homes.

The true picture of the Chiquita Corporation is, however, far from virtuous. From the inception of the banana trade in Central America in 1870, successive owners of Chiquita (formerly known as the United Fruit Company) have fomented wars, overthrown governments and used bribery to buy rich tracts of banana land at a fraction of their true value.

In 1952, Guatemala's democratic government, headed by President Jacobo Arbenz, enacted a genuine agrarian reform bill, which included the expropriation and payment for uncultivated United Fruit land. The corporation saw red. Lobbyists were dispatched to Washington and soon caught the ear of the CIA and the Eisenhower administration, who were not pleased with the new democracy taking root in the "banana republic." In June 1954, a CIA-backed invasion of Guatemala toppled the Arbenz government and eliminated every vestige of democracy. United Fruit's supremacy was once again secure.

Throughout the decades, the United Fruit Company (the name was changed in 1990 to "Chiquita Brands International") reigned as the banana barons of Latin America, with little notice from the U.S. press.

Chiquita's public profile was to change on May 3, 1998, when the Cincinnati Enquirer published an 18-page expose of the banana corporation's questionable business practices. Reporters Mike Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter undertook a year-long, wide-ranging investigation, which included trips to Central America, Europe and Washington D.C. They spoke with farm workers and managers, government officials, environmentalists, scientists and Chiquita executives who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The reporters also had access to more than 2,000 taped voice mail messages from within the corporation that they said were provided by a high-level Chiquita executive. The tapes have been turned over to the Security and Exchange Commission for examination.

The Enquirer's investigation revealed that Chiquita secretly controls dozens of supposedly independent banana companies in Central America through elaborate business structures designed to avoid governmental restrictions on foreign ownership of land. This arrangement effectively limits labor unions on the banana plantations. Gallagher and McWhirter also discovered that Chiquita and its subsidiaries utilize pesticides that have been banned in the U.S., endangering nearby residents and workers, both in the fields and in packing plants. In Honduras, Chiquita called on the military, which brutally evicted former workers from the company town of Tacamiche. The town was subsequently destroyed and the land sold. That land had been acquired in 1936 from the Honduran government for one dollar. In Colombia, Chiquita employees bribed officials so that their Colombian subsidiary could use a government warehouse, thereby saving the corporation millions in foreign taxes.

Chiquita CEO Carl Lindner, a registered Republican, has donated heavily to both political parties and was rewarded with a two-night stay in the Lincoln bedroom of the Clinton White House. Although the White House denies any connection, it appears that Lindner's large donations were instrumental in having Chiquita's opposition to European tariffs on Chiquita bananas brought before the World Trade Organization.

Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs has asked the Federal Elections Commission to investigate Lindner's political donations, saying that the CEO "bought himself a U.S. foreign policy."

The Enquirer articles revealed that Chiquita, which has billed itself as an "environmental leader" and boasts of its partnership with the Rainforest Alliance, routinely utilizes aerial spraying of pesticides without warning workers who are in the field. Luis Perez Jimenez, a leaf cutter on a Chiquita plantation in Costa Rica, told the reporters that, "they never tell us about the aerial spraying. We just see it coming and boom, it's here."

Women who work in Chiquita's packing plants, often without gloves, complain of rashes on their arms from the pesticides used on the bananas before they are shipped to market.

On May 4, Chiquita denied the Enquirer's charges, and Steven G. Warshaw, Chiquita's President, said: "We at Chiquita are shocked by the Enquirer's admission that it obtained more than 2,000 messages containing confidential, privileged and proprietary information that was stolen from the private voice mail boxes of Chiquita employees."

In response, Enquirer President and Publisher Harry Whipple said that the investigation was supported by multiple sources inside and outside the company and by extensive documentation. "The Enquirer stands by its stories. We are proud of them."

But in an abrupt turnaround, the Enquirer apologized to Chiquita and offered the company a $10 million settlement. All articles on the Enquirer's Web site that relate to Chiquita have been covered up with a copy of the apology, stating that the newspaper has renounced the series of articles. This was done because much of the information was taken from voice mail messages which the publishers believed had been obtained in an "ethical and lawful manner." Nowhere in the apology is there a denial of the information the reporters gathered in the field.


Marin Interfaith Task Force on Central America

Mill Valley, CA 94941



Transnational Corporations & the Third World