Battling the Banana Baron: Rural Hondurans fight Chiquita


Corr

 

 

In June 1994, at the height of a
strike against Chiquita Brands International, the company closed
four banana farms in northern Honduras, fired 1,200 temporary
workers, and told 800 permanent workers to choose between
relocation or termination. The fired workers lived in company
towns and to keep their jobs, Chiquita said, they had to move to
faraway plantations. Chiquita told those remaining at one of the
plantations, called Tacamiche, to move out or face eviction. Some
braved the intimidation tactics and continued to live in their
homes and communities. But with no advance warning on February 1,
1996, Chiquita destroyed Tacamiche, including homes, a school,
three churches, and the health post. Now fired workers at the
three remaining towns are resisting the same fate.

The eviction of 123 Tacamiche
families had roots in the early 1990s, when Chiquita refused to
maintain wages for plantation workers on a par with the crushing
30 percent Honduran inflation rate. Between 1987 and 1994, wages
slid from eight dollars a day to less than three dollars. In
response, 6000 Chiquita workers from several of Chiquita’s 22
Honduran farms went on strike.

Honduran law specifically forbids
the closure of a plantation in order to defeat a strike or
unionization. Nevertheless, Chiquita closed four farms midway
through the strike in June, 1994, totaling 2,964 acres, including
the one at Tacamiche. Chiquita told 800 permanent workers to
choose between relocation or $500 severance pay, and laid-off
about 1,200 temporary workers. Within one month, such tactics
coerced the union into settling the strike for a 9 percent pay
increase, which, considering the country’s inflation rate, meant
a lower real wage than the previous year.

As for the possibility of future
labor disputes, Chiquita has a plan. Most of the land in the
decommissioned farms, according to Miguel Rodriguez, a vice
president of Chiquita, will be sold at market rates as soon as
the government grants permission. For decades, United
Fruit/United Brands, now known as Chiquita, has been selling off
its banana land, concentrating instead on the less controversial
and more lucrative shipping and marketing end of the business.
Smaller local producers can often grow the bananas more cheaply,
Rodriguez notes, because their labor expenses are lower than
Chiquita’s, whose workforce has unionized. Rodriguez says these
producers may find banana production on the abandoned lands more
profitable, because they pay lower wages, provide fewer benefits,
and work on a smaller scale.

 

The Land Revolt

Standing in the way of this master
plan were the Tacamiches, who refused to vacate the company town
and illegally planted corn and beans on the defunct plantation.
"For the company, Tacamiche is just a former banana
plantation that, after having the juice sucked from it, has been
abandoned without a thought for the fate of those who lived
here," an evicted Chiquita worker told the New York Times
in a July 22 story. "But for those of us from Tacamiche,
this is our life, these are the cabins that watched as we were
born and grew up." Many of the fired workers who refused
relocation had lived in Tacamiche their entire lives. For some,
family roots extended back to the 1920s, a decade before the
Honduran government sold the 3,000 acres to United Fruit in 1936
for one dollar as part of a railroad concession.

Chiquita first attempted to evict
the Tacamiches on July 26, 1995. Four hundred police and soldiers
arrested 26 plantation residents, injured about 75 more with tear
gas, rubber bullets and clubs, and destroyed 200 acres of corn
and beans planted two months before. Rocks thrown by the
Tacamiches injured "some" of the troops, according to La
Nacion
, and police retreated. Subsequently, the government
agreed to give the Tacamiches until September 26, 1995 to move
out.

But the public outcry in Honduras
delayed the second eviction attempt until February 1996, when
Chiquita finally gained the approval of President Carlos Roberto
Reina and the Honduran judiciary. This time, the police and
military gave no advance notice. Caught by surprise, most
Tacamiches lost everything except the clothes on their backs. An
onslaught of 500 troops and over 400 Chiquita employees pounced
on the village and made 100 arrests. They bulldozed everything:
subsistence crops, homes, the school, three churches, the health
post, kitchen utensils, books, bedding, tools, and radios.
Wilfredo Cabrera, a 34-year-old banana worker, told a New York
Times
reporter,

"It was very painful to
see all of our corn, peppers, tomatoes, carrots and melons
being plowed over by bulldozers, not to mention what they did
to the churches. We have been peasants all of our lives,
making the land produce, so we can never forgive that kind of
destruction."

Asked why no advance notice was
given, Rodriguez offers some insights into the tactics of the
Honduran police and military: "Whenever they announce that
an operation is going to be undertaken, it is like going to war.
You don’t announce the moment you are going to strike, because at
that moment the police were convinced that these outsiders would
bring in five or six thousand people. It would probably have led
to rock throwing, which is what happened on July 26, maybe even
people killed."

After the eviction, Chiquita
promised in a letter sent to thousands of concerned persons
around the globe that the evictees would be rehoused. Yet
Chiquita has built only 46 ramshackle huts, mostly from lumber
torn from the old Tacamiche houses. The huts have no electricity
or water. The Honduran government also made a promise, entering
into an agreement to provide a school, health and sports centers,
drinking water and sewage systems. But to date the government has
built only the school and health center. The 123 Tacamiche
families have yet to receive any compensation for their personal
effects or crops.

Because the Tacamiches distrust
Chiquita and the government, they have refused to move to the
construction site until enough houses are built for all 123
families. But even if the houses are built, the construction site
has no land for agriculture, and with their Chiquita positions
terminated they will have few employment alternatives except as
shoe-shiners, maids, and similar low-paid jobs in the informal
sector.

As they await their uncertain
future, the Tacamiches now live in a one-room "social
club" in La Lima, many of them infected with Bronchitis.
They subsist entirely with the help of friends, charity, and the
local Catholic parish.

Of the four Honduran plantations
"terminated," as Rodriguez describes it, Chiquita has
evicted only Tacamiche. Communities at the plantations of San
Juan, Copén, and La Curva still remain and, in the case of these
three, Rodriguez has promised that Chiquita will not evict.
"We know there are hundreds of people there who are no
longer related to the company," Rodriguez says, "and
yet we have decided to let them stay there. Because these are
just people who are out of a job, and they have no place to go.
We don’t want to exacerbate the social problem that Honduras
right now has."

Rodriguez denies that the human
rights and media outcry over Tacamiche helped persuade Chiquita
to grant clemency to the other three plantations. He says
Chiquita insisted on the application of law in the case of
Tacamiche because, led and joined by "opportunistic"
outsiders, the former workers illegally occupied company land.
Many Tacamiches did occupy part of the vacant plantation to sow
corn and beans in June of 1994. They also occupied 50 hectares on
the Copén plantation three weeks before the February eviction.
But after Chiquita fired them, the former workers had few other
sources of food.

Fired workers at Chiquita’s other
three terminated plantations, Copén, La Curva, and San Juan,
have watched the events at Tacamiche closely. To improve their
chances against eviction, they chose not to illegally plant crops
on the defunct plantations. But despite promises by Rodriguez
that Chiquita will not evict, they fear Chiquita will break yet
another promise. Their offers to buy the land, like the offers by
the Tacamiches, are being ignored. And according to Joe Owens, a
Jesuit priest and the Executive Director of Radio Progreso, the
independent producers who lease the defunct plantations from
Chiquita are putting pressure on the former banana workers to
move out so they can install their own workers into the company
housing.

Community members organized
militant protests in November against that possibility, and are
now threatening to occupy Latin American and European embassies
in the capitol. "They say they are being made refugees in
their own country, and their only escape is to declare themselves
political refugees and to escape into an embassy," says
Owens.

Meanwhile, Chiquita has acted as
though the eviction of Tacamiche taught them nothing. Chiquita
security guards have harassed 16 squatter communities in the San
Alejo region, in hopes of clearing about 650 hectares of land to
produce palm oil. "These are very very poor people, much
poorer in fact, then the banana workers," said Owens. Many
of the squatters had lived on their tiny pieces of land since the
1980s, when the agrarian reform law allowed peasants to occupy
vacant lands. But the government refused to legalize their
occupations. In 1992 the agrarian reform law was repealed and
according to Owens, Chiquita’s delay in carrying out the
evictions may have ended because they are "feeling
emboldened by their victory at Tacamiche, and the prostate
posture of the present government, who is not doing anything to
defend campesinos against the company."

One teenager was found dead at a
squatter camp, and according to Jose Garcia, one of the
residents, Chiquita security guards have assaulted and wounded
various community members, and killed domestic animals. In
October, Chiquita destroyed the homes and crops of three squatter
communities near Urraco in the Sula Valley, uprooting 150
families, or about 1000 people.

 

The Slippery Politics of
Chiquita Republic

The current struggle between fired
workers and Honduras’ biggest landowner continues a steady United
Fruit/United Brands tradition of sordid dealings in Honduras that
began with the overthrow of President Miguel Davila in 1911. The
replacement president paid his political debts with massive
quantities of free land for banana plantations, and ever since
observers have called Honduras the quintessential banana
republic.

In an attempt to escape United
Fruit’s shameful record, executives changed its name to United
Brands in 1970. But then in 1975 the Chairman of the Board, Eli
Black, got caught bribing President Arellano and other Honduran
officials $1.25 million to lower banana export taxes. With the
lower tax, United Brands saved 7.5 million in the first year
alone. When the bribes became public, the Honduran legislature
deposed Arellano. Eli Black flung his briefcase through his
sealed office window. He followed it 44 floors to his death on
the pavement of New York City.

The Cincinnati-based Lindner
family took control of United Brands in 1987 and in 1990 changed
the name to Chiquita Brands International. The Lindners, worth
over $500 million, now hold 46% of Chiquita’s stock. But the
company will have to change its name again shortly if it wants to
polish its image, which seems to be of the lackluster variety
that quickly tarnishes. Twenty-five-thousand plantation workers
from 12 developing countries are currently suing Chiquita and
other companies for using DBCP, a pesticide that causes cancer,
birth defects, and sterility, years after the U.S. banned it from
the United States. According to a lawyer representing the
workers, Chiquita’s use of the pesticide sterilized 3,500 male
banana workers in Costa Rica, Panama, and the Philippines. Last
year, Multinational Monitor rated Chiquita fourth on its
top-ten list of worst corporations.

Though Chiquita no longer uses
DBCP, they have substituted other harmful pesticides, one reason
not to buy bananas with the distinctive blue label. Another
reason not to buy Chiquita is that a fraction of the proceeds of
each banana you buy may go to purchase corrupt politicians.
According to a Council on Hemispheric Affairs occasional paper
released on November 21, the head of the Lindner family and
Chiquita’s Chairman of the Board, Carl Lindner, has used steady
donations to both Democrats and Republicans as a way to pedal
political influence. In addition to hedging his bets with
$525,000 donated to Democrats in 1994, including congressman
Richard Gephardt (D-MO), and Senator John Glenn (D-OH), Lindner
donated $430,000 to his favored Republican Party. He was the
biggest 1994 contributor to the GOP Action Committee, headed
until recently by Newt Gingrich, and gave generously to Senator
Dole’s 1994 reelection campaign for the Senate. Lindner has
reportedly given at least as much since, including the
unrestricted use of his private jet for Dole’s presidential
campaigning in 1996.

In exchange, leading lights of
Washington from Dole to Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor have
taken up the cudgels in trade wars over the European banana
market. The Clinton administration brought suit in the World
Trade Organization against the European Economic Community, which
has granted small banana producers in former colonies like St.
Lucia and Dominica a modest 10% entrance quota into the EU
market. Even with the quota, Chiquita and the other big companies
have access to 70.5% of the European banana market. Chiquita
Brands International controls close to 70% of the world banana
market, and is worth an estimated $3 billion.

The Caribbean producers, who pay
high wages to strongly unionized workers and have high-cost
cultivation methods, cannot compete with banana giants like
Chiquita, who recently broke the back of unionized banana labor
on its plantations. Without the quota, according to John Sheehan,
Commander of U.S. forces in the Atlantic and Caribbean,
independent and family-centered banana growers could face
economic disaster. With no quota, Sheehan predicts the
cultivation of cocaine on former banana plantations and increased
illegal immigration into the United States. The World Trade
Organization will probably rule on Chiquita’s complaint in
January.

In a much more deadly sort of
influence pedaling, some have speculated that Lindner used his
financial might to support the Nicaraguan Contras. Notebooks of
Oliver North show Lindner making "grants" to known
Contra fund-raisers, and Lindner held a key Contra-support
meeting at his Ocean Reef Club in Florida in March 1984, one
month after the Lindner family increased their holdings in United
Brands from 29.3 percent to 45.4 percent. Some speculate that
convicted drug trafficker Jack DeVoe, who had connections to
right-wing politicians, used the hangars at the Ocean Reef Club
for drug smuggling.

Perhaps taking a cue from the
Contras or its own past as United Fruit/United Brands, Chiquita
has blatantly bribed Honduran officials, and according to the
Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), has extended its tactics
to the use of assault of competitor executives, and the theft and
destruction of competitor banana stocks. Several years after
Chiquita sold its former subsidiary, Fyffes Group Ltd., the
smaller company began offering $4.40 per box to independent
Honduran banana producers who previously sold to Chiquita for
$3.16. Within five years, Fyffes was shipping 7 million boxes of
bananas annually to Europe, compared to Chiquita’s 11 million
boxes. To retain its low-paid banana sources, Chiquita began a
campaign of harassment against defected growers and Fyffes. COHA
says Chiquita bribed judges to doctor court documents, later used
to embargo bananas bound for Fyffes boats and warehouses. Armed
with automatic weapons, employees boarded ships owned by Fyffes,
confiscated or destroyed bananas, derailed Fyffes banana trains,
and attempted the kidnapping and possible murder of Otto
Stalinski, Fyffes’ head agent in Honduras.

In litigation over these banana
battles, COHA says that Chiquita continued its policy of bribing
judges, police, and witnesses. One judge indicted for bribery in
the case in 1994, Mario Matias Galindo, got a large sum of cash,
a new car, and an expedited visa to the United States. He now
lives in Miami. After Fyffes suffered an estimated $10 million in
operational damages, and because executives lacked confidence in
the skewed judicial and political system, they sold their
operation to Dole for $26 million. Fyffes will withdraw from
Honduras on January 1, 1997.

 

IMF Increases Rural Poverty

Chiquita’s recent evictions have
highlighted a trend in the past few years in which large
landowners and multinational corporations have steadily eroded
the land base of poor Hondurans. A 1974 study found that 4
percent of the agricultural holdings in Honduras encompassed 56
percent of the land, while the other 64 percent of landholders
accounted for only 9 percent. Another 150,000 households were
landless. To survive, almost 80 percent of all Hondurans must
sell their labor to large landowners. Honduran land reform
legislation during the 1970s and 1980s failed to make a
significant dent in this maldistribution because it left most of
the largest landowners untouched.

Yet even these extremely modest
gains are being attacked. In 1992, at the height of Chiquita’s
influence in national politics under the corrupt Administration
of Rafael Callejas, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed
Honduras to pass its Law for the Modernization of the
Agricultural Sector. This law withdrew technical aid, loans, and
marketing assistance to small farmers and has severely weakened
the country’s agrarian reform. The measure confiscates land
distributed through the agrarian reform process (the reform
sector) by designating it as national forest. Government experts
in Germany concerned with international development estimate that
100,000 Honduran families will lose their land because of the
law.

Implementation of the 1992 law
also allowed big landowners like Chiquita to buy reform sector
land never meant for ownership by large foreign corporations.
"In all of 1992," says Owens, "there was frenetic
movement on the part of the big investors and fruit companies to
get the best of this land." A similar withdrawal of
protection from communal ejido lands in Mexico was an important
grievance voiced by the Zapatistas in their 1994 rebellion.

Chiquita now possesses 800,000
acres in Honduras. The 1992 "modernization" law may
have benefited the buyer of reform sector land, yielded more
profit to local elites and foreign agribusiness like Chiquita,
and also garnered more foreign exchange for Honduras to pay its
debt to the IMF and the World Bank. But it will almost certainly
lead to an even more concentrated land ownership pattern and, in
the long run, it may erode the relatively dependable and roughly
egalitarian food-supply provided by small farmers.

Because Honduras devotes so much
of its land to export agriculture, it also depends on food
imports and is vulnerable to the wild market swings of
agricultural produce. The drought in the United States this year,
for example, will probably decrease the caloric intake of the
average poor Honduran. Since the middle of 1996, a tremendous
food crisis has already begun to evolve. The basic foods in
Honduras, beans and corn, have tripled or quadrupled in price,
making it difficult for many small farmers to even buy seed for
the next season’s crop.

The government’s turn towards
neoliberal policy in the 1990s has also affected a shift in its
attitude towards squatters. In the 1970s and 1980s, landless
peasants squatted vacant land to encourage the government to
enforce the agrarian reform law. Government officials at the
National Agrarian Reform Institute did help the peasants with
creative financing, or outright expropriation from large
landowners who left the land vacant. But since the modernization
law of 1992, which repealed the land reform, the government
almost always uses the might of the Honduran military to help
landowners like Chiquita in evictions.

This made many in the campesino
movement more cautious. According to Owens, "I think a
general sense of demoralization has affected the popular
movements over the past two years. Not just campesino
organizations, but the trade unions and everybody have fallen
into a state of low morale. There is no sense of combativeness,
of resistance, of feeling that somehow organizing from the
grassroots will get anyplace. It is really quite discouraging. I
believe very much in movement building, but it is very hard to
get anybody to do anything in terms of grassroots
organization."

When asked what needs to happen
for people to escape low morale, Owens said that the growing
poverty may increase the likelihood of more militant tactics.
"I am afraid it will be some extreme crisis. There has been
terrific inflation. If the inflation continues and if the
shortage of food continues, then there could be some sort of real
civil unrest." Already for over a week in November, local
community groups seized and refused passage to anyone on the
major highway between the capital and one of the richest
agricultural areas of the nation. "That type of thing could
happen on a general level if things don’t get better
somehow," Owens said. "It would tend to be chaotic, and
I am not sure that anything great would come from that. There is
no easy way."

 

Tacamiche Resistance Pays Off

The good news is that the
resistance to eviction and subsequent refusal of the Tacamiches
to move into a scant 46 homes rebuilt by Chiquita garnered them
widespread sympathy and the possibility of a better settlement.
Sympathetic media coverage within Honduras has been extensive, as
well as support from Honduran human rights and campesino
organizations. FIAN-International, a human rights group based in
Heidelberg, Germany, organized a letter-writing campaign that
garnered over 10,000 letters to Carl Lindner and President Reina.
In November, FIAN presented the Tacamiche case to the United
Nations Committee of Economic, Social, and Cultural Human Rights
in Geneva. An article in the New York Times and one in a local
Cincinnati weekly, where Chiquita has its headquarters, seems to
have increase the pressure as well.

Locals in Cincinnati have
organized two demonstrations in front of the Chiquita building
since the Tacamiche conflict started, one with about 40
participants, the other with about 70. A frigid winter day caused
the low turn-out for the smaller one, at which a waiter emerged
from the Chiquita building with hot chocolate and mugs on a cart.
Asked why the hospitality, the waiter replied that the chocolate
was "courtesy of Carl Lindner." The demonstrators
refused such sweet nothings.

Possibly as a result of widespread
support for the Tacamiches, Chiquita has promised to build an
additional 47 homes and provide $60,000 towards the rebuilding of
the destroyed churches. Also, FIAN heard rumors that the
government of Honduras has recently considered granting $300,000
for improvements to the construction site for the new village.
But to date these promises and rumors remain just promises and
rumors. Meanwhile, Chiquita continues to threaten residents of
the remaining three terminated plantations and thirteen squatter
camps. Given the attention focused on the evicted Tacamiches,
Chiquita might actually profit by adding line items to its
corporate balance sheets labeled "broken promises" and
"human rights."

 

Anders Corr is the author of
"Squats, Occupations, and Rent Strikes," forthcoming
from South End Press in Fall 1997. He lives in San Francisco.