Thursday, April 03, 2008
Chiquita's Unpredictable Headache
These are the things not tought in Business Schools. Chiquita Brands International Inc., the legendary company founded by Sam Zemurray (nicknamed "Sam the Banana Man") (pic), is being sued for a monstrous amount by Christian missionary families. By an unprevisible turn of events, it may be forced to pay (the operative word is may) more than $780 million for complicity in the murders of five American missionaries by Marxist rebels a decade ago in Colombia.
Chiquita is the United Fruit Company, El Pulpo that a century ago hacia y deshacia (did and undid) in Central America. The company has made tremendous efforts to change its bad image, becoming in my opinion the most ethical, ecological, socially concious company on Earth. I worked in Uraba, Colombia, indirectly for them, designing banana wastewater recycling systems, in fulfillment of the environmental demands of EUROGAP (the European supermarkets ethical certification). They were the first banana farms to earn the Social Accountability 8000(1) labor and human rights standard and the EUREPGAP(2) standard.
The missionaries' families sued Chiquita for paying the FARC guerilla group for protection. The Cincinnati-based company was fined $25 million after pleading guilty a year ago to engaging in transactions with a global terrorist, after paying Colombian paramilitary militias $1.7 million from 1997 to 2004. The banana producing areas were under the rule of the FARC communist guerrillas, and they blackmailed the company to pay "protection". No one had any choice but to be killed or pay, and Chiquita paid like everybody else. Later, recognizing that paying protection money to terrorists was against US laws, they sold all their operations in Colombia for peanuts, and decided to come out clean and paid a 25 million dollar fine. The company had invented the banana industry in Colombia but they felt they had to abandon it to the guerrilla. But their coming out clean was - in my cynical view - a mistake. Now everyone who once was victimized by the terrorists can sue Chiquita, because it had contributed to the rebels. Chiquita, the most ethical company on Earth, the one that abandoned its investments in Colombia rather than pay protection money, risks being fined one billion dollars for its part in the assessination of American missionaries. It is an absurd claim, no Chiquita executive or employee ever had anything to do with the missionaries, which had no connections at all with Chiquita and most possibly were preaching against it. The bottom line is that Chiquita is being held responsible for the bad things done by a savage Latin American bandit group, and it may be harmed by very bad American laws. My heart goes out for Chiquita and the great plantations they created in the difficult Central American jungle. (See also the comment below).