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Mar 22 2008

A short history of banana-mongering in the late 20th century

As the spinster aunt knows too well, a committed blamer can turn up almost any rock, take a step back, and watch in flabby-jawed horror as the slimy offenses against truth and beauty — in some of which we are ourselves complicit — come scuttling out, blinking in the dimming sun.

Take bananas.

While sauntering through the Democracy Now website this morning I stubbed the Twisty toe on this (here is the Wall Street Journal version). Chiquita Brands International, the undisputed dark overlord in the cutthroat world of international banana trafficking, is being sued by the families of 5 murdered Americans doing missionary work in Colombia. Chiquita, they say, secretly funneled cash to the left-wing terrorist group who killed the missionaries, and ought to be held accountable.

Because I had just eaten a banana for breakfast, I became curious about the vast corporate fruit machine. Naturally, because the world is a rotten log full of oozy vermin, I found that this isn’t the first time a dark cloud of suspicion has dimmed Chiquita’s horizons. I allude to a 1998 18-page Cincinnati Enquirer expos√© outlining the company’s ritual criminal behavior, which behavior was purported to include secretly controlling dozens of “independent” banana farms, toxic pesticide infractions resulting in human death, drug smuggling, bribery, and kidnaping.

Then the story was retracted, the lead reporter was fired, the Internet links were redirected, and Chiquita was paid off to the tune of $10 million to stop a lawsuit. It is widely speculated that the Cincinnati-based banana empire’s heavy-hitter political connections were instrumental in forcing the retraction. I read on one website that head Chiquita bananateer Carl Lindner’s jumbo political donations scored him a Lincoln Bedroom two-nighter in the Clinton White House.

Anyway. It is wise to cast a jaundiced eye on American characterizations of rebel groups as “terrorists,” then again, maybe paying protection money to, and supplying with weaponry, various warring factions is part of the cost of doing banana business in Colombia, and maybe Chiquita (although, honestly, how likely is it?) really was acting in the interests of their employees when they paid the rebels not to kill them; I’m not there and I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this. It would appear that no one is innocent who eats a banana.

17 comments

  1. invisible

    This post reminds me of one of my heroines, Vandana Shiva—physicist, ecofeminist, environmental activist, and author.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vandana_Shiva

    Thank you , Twisty. Sometimes one doesn’t know where to go or what to eat. It’s crazy.

  2. Pinko Punko

    TF and Blamers,

    You’ll certainly enjoy this blast through fruit hell. Seems like fruit companies and total evil have a history of courtship.

  3. R.E. Silvera

    Upon reading this, I remembered about the old United Fruit Company, and all the lovely dealings they had had in Cuba, how they helped out with the toppling of Guatemala’s democratically elected government, back in ’54.

    Sure enough, United Fruit later became Chiquita. Le sigh.

  4. C. Atrox

    Why do bananas have to be so damned inexpensive and tidy? I guess I’ll go back to putting apples in the oatmeal.

  5. Ann Bartow

    You might find this of interest:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19097412
    (If the link doesn’t work, it’s an interview Terry Gross did with Dan Koeppel, author of “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World,” on Fresh Air).

  6. First Lieutenant B. Dagger Lee

    Regarding banana politics, I once heard food goddess Marian Nestle say that she’d never met a banana she liked.

  7. Magdalena

    After spending lots of time in Guatemala, I realized that the ’54 CIA/US orchestrated coup surfaced regularly in news items and conversations. Guatemalans haven’t actually forgotten about it.

    Imagine my shock and horror upon returning to the US and realizing that most people don’t even have any idea that anything has ever happened in Guatemala, much less anything really bad.

    Blame.

  8. invisible

    I just thought of something. Think about this alongside the Genetically Modified seed industry that is attempting to rear its ghastly head.

    I think this will be my food for thought for a day, or two. Then, I’ll come back here and read all the links to the comments. Wow.

    Complete overthrow, huh? Yes, I guess you’re right.

  9. Sarah

    So it seems to me from the article that Chiquita paid off/armed the AUC in order to remove the FARC from that area. If this is so, they were making a deal with the right-wing group, not the left-wing. When I first read this, it seemed as though the FARC-EP was colluding with Chiquita, and that makes no sense at all. That group is more socialist-leaning from what I understand. They would never support foreign corporations in Colombia. The AUC is a paramilitary group, so I am still really surprized that the Chiquita-AUC deal is being criticized by the Colombian government.

  10. ashley

    Twisty,
    Good point.
    Also, anyone who’s interested in more information about American global oppression by peelable fruit, there’s a book called Bananeras by Dana Frank that delves into the abuses of Dole and Chiquita in South and Central America and also what women in those countries have done to organize within the unions and how they’ve found a lot of strength and solidarity while struggling with their men for worker’s rights and against men within the unions in those regions.
    It’s a rad book.

  11. Kay

    We spent an entire class talking about the fruit, and specifically banana industry in my women and gender studies class, including the horrific corruption and crime surrounding it, the plantations that employ women on the condition that their mandatory monthly pregnancy tests come back negative, and of course Chiquita’s brilliant marketing scheme of turning a piece of fruit into another way of sexualizing women (complete with rendition of the song by my prof!).

  12. caffeinatedqueer

    Just wanted to throw out there that I’m able to buy fair trade, organic bananas in my local co-op. Perhaps you have them available at yours? Or, perhaps you could ask your local grocer to carry them, so that you too can breakfast with a banana of lesser evil…

  13. Hattie

    My Hawaiian bananas now–you’d love them. Not like those dry mushy Chiquita things. They are a little bit tart and very tasty. Seems to me it should be possible to grow bananas anywhere that’s frost free. Why don’t the agriculturalists get to work developing a hardy and good tasting banana?

  14. brainiac9

    In my Modern Latin American History class, you would not believe the amount of time we spend on the evils of banana companies (notably, the United Fruit Company). Apparently the UFC was also partly responsible for the civil war in Nicaragua, among all sorts of other nasty business. And when they were originally trying to promote bananas to the white middle classes, they marketed them as, basically, Viagra for the 19th century set. Puts a whole new spin on that banana used in sex ed for the condom demo, eh?

  15. Gayle

    Some good news related to bananas:

    I went on vacation on St. Lucia where I learned their number 1 export used to be bananas. They’ve now changed their economic model as they realized they were dedicating too much farmland to a crop that was barely making a profit– and that profit wasn’t helping very many people on the island.

    They’re now growing bananas and a large variety of other fruits and veggies, not for export, but for sale on the island itself. This reduces the cost of needed foods for the people (importing to an island is expensive), it’s healthier for their farmland and it gets St. Lucia out from under the oppressive Big Banana companies!

  16. Carol

    I’m sure that this comes up in one of the articles, but my eye-opening experience with BIG FRUIT Co. came after working in an indirect fashion on the lawsuits being brought against Dole and Chiquita in South America. The FDA banned an effective nematicide (dibromochloropropane, or DBCP) from use in the good old US of A because it had the nasty side effect of causing male sterility.

    So…in concert with a couple of chemical producers who needed to unload their supplies, BIG FRUIT decided that hey! South America is a good place to grow bananas, exploit the workers, and use DBCP with relative impunity!

    The story is long, complicated, and full of corruption on the side of both the multinational corporate defendants, and unfortunately also on the side of the alleged “representatives” of the banana workers. It’s almost too depressing to even think about.

  17. Janna

    Does it bother anyone else that a large banana company is operated out of a climate where bananas are not even grown?

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