Thursday, November 15, 2007

Colombian Families Sue Chiquita for Funding Terrorism

Banana companies in Latin America have never behaved, to put it mildly. However, the Chiquita company seemed to reach a new low in its relations with Latin America, as earlier this year a court ordered the company to pay a $25 million fine for paying the Colombian terrorist paramilitary organization AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia). AUC, one of the largest paramilitary groups in Colombia, is also one its grosser human-rights violators, having killed thousands of peasants and "leftists" in Colombia's civil war. In the case this year, the courts ruled against Chiquita when it became clear that the fruit company had paid $1.7 million to AUC between 1997 and 2004 for what Chiquita claimed was coerced "protection." The word "protection" itself seems to have taken on a new meaning in this case, though, for Chiquita used the AUC to try to gain even more land for banana production in Colombia, using the AUC to force out poor farmers via eviction or, where there was justified resistance, murder. Colombia was shocked, SHOCKED! to find multinational big business in bed with the paramilitaries (President Álvaro Uribe didn't seem so bothered, though, given the steps he took at the time of the ruling).

Now, almost 400 family members of victims of the AUC have filed a civil suit against Chiquita, seeking $7.86 billion in damages (a fee that seems much fairer for sponsoring terrorism, widespread human rights violations, and murder than the $25 million court ruling). I don't know enough about civil cases (especially those involving multinationals) to predict how a case like this would work out. It strikes me that the $7.86 billion wouldn't actually be the final figure if the Colombian civilians won, but any major (hundreds-of-millions to billion) decision would be meaningful, I think. Chiquita really has to be punished severely for this, and given its enormous profits from its domination in the fruit sector, $25 million, while real money to you and me, is probably no more than a slap on the wrist for the company. One especially wants to see Chiquita bled dry in the face of their attitude towards this whole episode. Chiquita spokesman Michael Mitchell defended the company, claiming in the Times piece "that Chiquita and its employees were victims and that the actions taken by the company were always motivated to protect the lives of our employees and their families.”

Memo to Mitchell: when hundreds of people end up dead or dislocated thanks to your funding of a true terrorist group, you aren't the victim. Here's hoping Chiquita pays very VERY dearly for this.