Did anyone see 60 Minutes last night? They re-aired their piece, The Price of Bananas, about how Chiquita Brands paid $12 million in “protection” money over a period of seven years to the paramilitary group, the AUC, in Colombia. The AUC were responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in the region where Chiquita was running its plantations and now family members of the victims are suing Chiquita.
I wrote about this before, but last night 60 Minutes added new information from their original interview with Fernando Aguirre, current CEO of Chiquita Brands, that I think deserves to be mentioned.
Why am I so disturbed by this case and this interview?
“This company has blood on its hands,” says attorney Terry Collingsworth, who has filed one of five lawsuits that have been brought against Chiquita, seeking money for the families of Colombians killed by the paramilitaries.
Collingsworth says the money Chiquita paid for seven years may have kept its employees safe, but it also helped buy weapons and ammunition that were killing other people.
“Are you saying that Chiquita was complicit in these massacres that took place down there?” [60 Minutes Steve] Kroft asks.
“Absolutely. If you provide knowing substantial assistance to someone who then goes out and kills someone, or terrorizes, or tortures someone, you’re also guilty.” Colllingsworth says.
Asked if he believes that Chiquita knew this money was being used to go into the villages and massacre people, Collingsworth says, “If they didn’t, they would be the only ones in the whole country of Colombia who didn’t think that.”
“You’re not saying that Chiquita wanted these people to be killed?” Kroft asks.
“No, they were indifferent to it,” Collingsworth says. “… they were willing to accept that those people would be dead, in order to keep their banana operation running profitably, and making all the money that they did in Colombia.”
Collingsworth says he thinks the company should have just picked up and left.
“It’s easy for a lawyer to give that type of advice, after the fact,” Aguirre argues. “When you have more than 3,500 workers, their lives depend on you. When you’ve been making payments to save their lives, you just can’t pick up and go.”
“What did the company think this money was gonna be used for?” Kroft asks.
“Well, clearly to save lives,” Aguirre says.
“The lives of your employees?” Kroft asks.
“It was also being used to kill other people,” Kroft says.
“Well, these groups were funded with hundreds of millions of dollars. They had the guns.” Aguirre says. “They had the bullets. So I don’t know who in their right mind would say, ‘Well, if Chiquita would have stopped, these killers would have stopped.’ I just don’t see that happening.”
“Do you feel that the company has any responsibility to compensate the victims of the paramilitaries in Colombia?” Kroft asks.
“The responsibility of any murders are the responsibility of the people that made the killings, of the people who pulled the trigger,” Aguirre says.
I find these last few exchanges particularly disturbing. Aguirre’s reasoning is that there was already so much money going to fund the paramilitaries, that even if Chiquita determined that paying paramilitary groups (“terrorists” according to the U.S. government) was unethical, immoral, or illegal and closed down shop, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Therefore, why not keep doing so? Why take a stand if it won’t change the “bigger picture”? Is this the kind of corporate philosophy that you feel good about? What about his next comment when asked if he felt that Chiquita has any responsibility to compensate the victims and Aguirre responds that, “the responsibility of any murders are the responsibility of the people that made the killings, of the people who pulled the trigger?” How’s that for corporate social responsibility?
I know that these situations are complex and as Aguirre points out, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but please tell me how this interview sits with you? How good can you feel about supporting this company? What kinds of statements would make you feel better? Better yet, what kind of actions would you want the companies you support – through your purchases – to be taking in the world?
I don’t think this is naïve. I think each one of us, individually, can draw our own lines and decide which companies, which retailers, perhaps even which farmers we would like to support through our purchases. Collectively, we can also demand that all parties in the supply chain be held accountable to produce our food in the most environmentally and socially sustainable manner possible, upholding values we believe in with integrity and transparency. It just means we need the information and we need to care enough to educate ourselves and each other. We then need to use our collective power to demand changes in corporate behavior, and in governmental policies which allow for and reward it. Finally, we need alternatives and we need to support those companies, stores, co-operatives, and local farmers who are walking the walk – actively working to create an alternative food system and an alternative economy.
I can’t say I’m surprised by Chiquita and Dole but I guess I am more disappointed that these actions haven’t received a bigger public outcry.
Thank you to 60 Minutes for continuing to make this story public.