A Verdict Against Chiquita’s Impunity in Colombia

The recent ruling against the Chiquita fruit company for its ties to a terrorist death squad is a victory for workers and peasants in a country where violent repression has long been the norm.

Bananas from Chiquita lie on a supermarket shelf. (Sven Hoppe / picture alliance via Getty Images)

Chiquita, one of the United States’ and the world’s biggest fruit companies, has finally been charged in a Florida court for its links to a terrorist organization. In 2007, following a similar trial in New York, the company admitted to financing one of Colombia’s most notorious right-wing death squads, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), resulting in a $25 million fine. In the latest case brought against them by representatives of thousands of Colombian victims, Chiquita’s lawyers, like in the New York trial, argued that the company had been a victim of the AUC — that the company was extorted into making financial contributions.

This time around, witnesses included former AUC commanders who stated that Chiquita’s nearly $2 million funding to the terror group between 1997 and 2004, filed under “services for security,” was part of a partnership rather than extortion. One of the witnesses, Ever Veloza García, stated that they had “received orders to control the banana zones, prohibit worker strikes, and persecute trade union members to protect the multinationals,” adding that those involved should do time in prison.

Welcome as this victory is for the victims, Chiquita’s links to the most extreme forms of violence suffered by Colombians are symptomatic of a wider conflict shaped by social structures rooted in colonial hierarchies and a particular form of capitalist development.

That Chiquita would associate with a terrorist organization in recent decades should come as no surprise given their long history of violence in Colombia and the wider region. Their power to dictate the political and economic destiny of entire countries in Central and South America in their previous incarnation as the United Fruit Company inspired the now widely used expression “banana republic.”

A noteworthy illustration of their belligerency in the region is their role in the coup d’etat against Guatemala’s former president Jacobo Árbenz, a progressive pushing for relatively moderate land reforms in the early 1950s. The multinational forked out half a million dollars (worth approximately $6.5 million today) in a lobbying campaign to turn US lawmakers against Árbenz — not that they needed much convincing. Guatemala’s first progressive leader was ousted in a CIA-backed operation codenamed Operation PBSuccess in 1953, the first of many deployed to overthrow and defeat a plethora of progressive leaders, governments, and movements in the region.

In Colombia, the multinational provoked the killing of between a thousand and three thousand banana workers (the exact figure is still disputed) on the country’s northern coast. The “Banana Massacre” occurred in 1928 after a strike organized by United Fruit’s employees, peasants whose working conditions had become intolerable: contract insecurity, meager salaries, and dangerous working conditions. Pressured by the multinational and the US government, the Colombian government agreed to deploy the military to put down the strike. Thousands of striking workers were fired upon by three hundred soldiers under the command of General Carlos Cortés Vargas on December 5, 1928. Immortalized in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the massacre is an open wound that has not yet healed and that set the pace for the extreme violence suffered by Colombians and Latin Americans generally through the twentieth century and into the present.

Historically, the Magdalena Medio region, where Chiquita has been found guilty of financing right-wing terror groups, is one of Colombia’s principal sites for the country’s capitalist development, centered on primary commodities exports. It was the first region in the country to develop industrial coffee plantations and the first enclave for US multinationals that were awarded oil concessions in the early 1920s. Suspended in history and defying the laws of mainstream economists, the region’s market continues to be dominated by primary commodities exports, from agricultural and agro-industrial exports such as banana and palm oil to energy and mineral industries such as crude oil and gold.

The particularly acute exploitation that this form of development requires has produced social conditions that have breathed life into vehement resistance, from the oil and port workers that have struggled against the local elites and international capital since 1922 (notably the Oil Industry Workers Union) to becoming one of the cradles of the insurgent armed resistance since the 1950s. Magdalena Medio is one of the country’s and the wider region’s most important contested sites of capitalist development.

The social structures and conditions in regions like Magdalena Medio are born from the convergence of rigid social hierarchies going back to the colonial period. An economic system in which the region and country’s markets are subordinated to those of more powerful nations, allowing the local elites to reproduce themselves without having to revolutionize the economy, created suitable conditions for the harshest exploitation and the reproduction of extreme social and ecological violence.

Reminiscent of the violence meted out upon the resisting communities during the colonial period, the AUC, the terrorist group that Chiquita helped to finance between 1997 and 2004, was known to torture, maim, and murder their victims — except rather than swords, the signature instrument was the chainsaw, leaving behind severed heads and body parts in public spaces as a message to others. According to a recent report by Colombia’s Truth Commission, Magdalena Medio is the region that has produced the third-largest number of victims of the Colombia’s civil war between 1985 and 2018, with almost 200,000 assassinations and around 450,000 displaced people.

The victory against Chiquita is worth much more than the $38 million the company has been ordered to compensate the victims for. It will galvanize other victims with similar accusations against the company and other multinationals in Colombia and worldwide. And the case will impact the many other pending cases that have attempted to demonstrate the links between Colombia’s Western-backed ruling class and paramilitary groups, often going unresolved due to witness tampering — such as the notable case of former president Álvaro Uribe.

Finally, the ruling should be seen as part of a larger process of Colombians forcing a reckoning with the decades of brutality they have experienced, reflected nationally in the election of the country’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro. This fight on all fronts, from survivors and their families taking on multinationals to the new progressive government’s attempts to challenge the most destructive aspects of the capitalist system, are an example to emulate in trying times.