Thursday, March 29, 2012

Chiquita: Victim or Victimizer?

A judge in Antioquia has decided to drop an investigation against executives of the Chiquita banana company, concluding that the millions of dollars the company paid to Colombia's leftist guerrillas and later to paramilitary groups were extortion, not voluntary protection payments. 

The distinction is fundamental for the lawsuits and other cases the company faces: Did Chiquita pay off these violent groups voluntarily, to gain benefits, or because it feared attacks and felt it had no choice. 

Some beg to differ. A Bogotá court has ordered that Chiquita's Colombia properties be used to pay off the paramilitaries' victims (a mostly symbolic move, since the company sold its plantations in 2004). And Colombian high officials have expressed a desire to extradite Chiquita's executives, altho Colombia apparently never filed such a request. (Probably, Colombian officials realized that such a futile request would only show Colombia's toothlessness. Chiquita, an emblematic U.S. company, is well-connected in Washington: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was Chiquita's attorney.) The company also faces lawsuits in the U.S. by families of alleged victims of paramilitary groups which received money from Chiquita.

Chiquita can also point out that it came forward and voluntarily told U.S. officials about the payments, and paid a $25 million fine to the U.S. government for financing terrorists. Undoubtedly, Chiquita was only one of many companies which made such payments, and likely still pay off violent outlaw groups in Colombia. Chiquita can also point out that the Colombian military supposedly even encouraged Chiquita to make the payments. 

While Chiquita undoubtedly faced threats, and likely could not have done business in Colombia without paying off the outlaw organizations which controlled the area around their banana plantations. But it's also likely that Chiquita had more in mind than just protecting its workers, as the company claims. After all, Chiquita is also in the business of making money - lots of it. The company could have stopped making these payments at any time by selling its plantations and pulling out of Colombia. Instead, it stayed and continuing doing business until 2004. Imprisoned paramilitary leaders have also reportedly said that they imported weapons using Chiquita's port.

It's difficult to understand how any company could make payments to an organization which is at the same time terrorizing civilians and claim it was an ethical, moral decision. Just imagine if the case had instead happened in the U.S., and a company had for years paid off a terrorist group which was murdering civilians and driving them out of their homes. Would any justificiation have been conceivable?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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