In April, the Washington, DC-based National Security Archive posted a 5500-page document tranche detailing the extent of Cincinnati-based food giant Chiquita’s dealings with Colombian death squad United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
The documents shed further light on the relationship between multinationals and Colombia’s murderous right-wing paramilitaries.
Throughout Chiquita's long history, which can be traced back to the 1870s, the company has been known by various names: United Fruit, United Brands, Chiquita Brands International and, unofficially if perhaps most accurately, “El Pulpo” (The Octopus).
By the turn of the 20th century, United Fruit dominated not only the banana business but also the politics of Central America and Colombia.
In 1904, the term “banana republic” was coined by the US writer O. Henry in connection with United Fruit’s control over virtually all aspects of host nations’ internal affairs.
United Fruit maintained its vast private fiefdoms by punishing outbreaks of dissent with ruthless severity.
In the 1928 “Banana Massacre”, up to 2000 striking United Fruit workers near Santa Marta on Colombia’s banana-producing Caribbean coast were murdered by the military.
Their offence was to demand improved pay and conditions.
Behind the killings was United Fruit, which gave the orders, and the US government, which threatened to invade Colombia if United Fruit’s interests were jeopardised.
In 1954, it was even clearer that the octopus’s tentacles had extended to the innermost circle of Washington power.
One of the chief beneficiaries of the CIA-orchestrated coup against Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was United Fruit, which opposed the reformist government’s redistributive land policy.
Senior United Fruit figures were represented in the US state security apparatus, including CIA director — and United Fruit board member — Allan Dulles.
By the 1970s, United Fruit’s image had become so tainted in the public eye that the company changed names, re-branding itself first as United Brands and then “Chiquita” in 1985.
Despite the new image, the corporation retained the same predatory ruthlessnesss. For instance, it evicted an entire Honduran village at gunpoint and contaminated the environment with pesticides so injurious to human health that they are prohibited in North America.
When US investigative journalists Michael Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter published a detailed expose in 1998 of these and many other Chiquita crimes in the Cincinnati Enquirer, then-Chiquita CEO Carl Linder pulled strings to force a front-page retraction.
The journalists were sacked and the paper paid Chiquita millions of dollars in an out-of-court damages settlement.
Chiquita never disputed the substance of the claims — just the supposedly “illegal” manner in which the information was obtained.
Chiquita’s obsessive secretiveness resembles that of a criminal organisation, with good reason.
As a big land owner and employer in Colombia, Chiquita worked closely with the AUC, paying the infamous Carlos Castano and his brutal henchmen to force workers and their families into compliance — a practice euphemistically described as providing “security services”.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, it became politically expedient for the US establishment to distance itself from some of the foreign terrorist organisations with which it had previously collaborated.
In this new political climate, Chiquita found itself facing charges of aiding and abetting the AUC, which the Bush administration listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
In a 2007 plea deal with US prosecutors, Chiquita admitted that its most profitable wholly-owned subsidiary, Banadex, had remitted funds to the AUC over 15 years during the 1980s and '90s in the Uraba and Santa Marta regions.
During this period, thousands of Colombian citizens suspected of harbouring “leftist” sympathies were abducted, tortured, or murdered by the AUC.
Among the dead were many trade unionists, selectively assassinated by paramilitaries on behalf of their multinational backers.
Chiquita’s admission, however, came with qualifying statements that portrayed the company as a hapless victim of AUC extortion.
Chiquita denied it had received any services in return for the money it paid to paramilitaries. It also made a great show of pointing out that it paid off leftist guerillas at certain times.
The court imposed a token fine on the company and the case was closed, allowing Chiquita to evade full scrutiny for its actions.
Under the US Freedom of Information Act, the National Security Archive (NSA) recently obtained copies of subpoenaed internal company records.
These documents (posted on the NSA’s website as the “Chiquita Papers”) revealed Chiquita was far more actively involved with the paramilitaries than its plea deal would imply.
In one memo, Chiquita lawyers record that a manager said pay-offs to paramilitaries were advantageous because the company “can’t get the same level of support from the military”.
In fact, the NSA’s Michael Evans said: “The military had been reduced to the role of intermediary between the company and the paramilitary death squads … Hundreds of pages of financial records detail payments to Colombian security forces for things as trivial as ‘sports trophies’ to ‘facilitating payments for security services’.”
Although the AUC has now been disbanded, other shadowy right-wing groups have taken their place in Colombia, where dissidents still face extrajudicial execution on behalf of the oligarchy and multinationals such as Chiquita.
United Fruit/Chiquita has always been much more than a mere fruit exporter — and it remains one of the key players in a US-led imperialist drive into Latin America.