Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Banana Wars

By Gregory McNamee

APRIL 26, 1999:  Over the last six years, the United States has indirectly or directly waged war in almost every corner of the planet--in, for instance, such far-flung places as Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia, Indonesia and Yugoslavia.

Unless you're a close reader of international journals such as The Economist or the Asian Wall Street Journal, it's likely that you haven't heard of an American war that has been raging unchecked for all those six years: a war to make Europe safe for American bananas.

At issue, as far as the United States is concerned, is the European Union's selfish view that Europeans should eat bananas grown in former European colonies and distributed by European firms. American banana firms such as Chiquita and Dole take a different view: they hold that the world should gobble bananas brought to them courtesy of the world's sole superpower--bananas produced by American client states in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

American muscle stands behind these bananas from the American empire, and this is no small matter. If you thumb through the pages of just about any standard history of Latin America, or the collected poems of Pablo Neruda, you'll see that powerful American concerns like the United Fruit Company once controlled the fates of whole nations--whence the term "banana republic." The brand names have changed, but the politics have not. A few weeks ago American soldiers landed on St. Vincent, a former British colony that lies southeast of Puerto Rico, to destroy the island's thriving marijuana crop. In the inevitable ensuing collateral damage, those troops torched a few banana groves as well, just to press the point. One small irony, a well-heeled St. Vincent grower told The New York Times, is that many islanders turned to growing pot only because they were tired of playing banana politics with trade representatives from Washington and Paris.

Europe's refusal to allow American bananas to slip into its lucrative markets, American trade representatives argue, is costing American firms upward of $520 million a year. Those representatives complained to the World Trade Organization, bankrolled largely with American dollars. Not surprisingly, the WTO ruled in the first week of April that Europe's disdain for American fruit is a violation of international law.

But American banana boats aren't steaming eastward just yet. The European Union plans to appeal the WTO ruling, and in the meanwhile European fruit stands remain resolutely closed to non-European fruit. And the war has begun to spill over into other sectors of the economy. The Economist, normally a friend to almost all things American, warns, "America's bully-boy tactics will stiffen European resolve in disputes over beef and much else." Those tactics include the United States government's slapping retaliatory import tariffs on a range of European goods ranging from Italian prosciutto to French handbags to Scottish wool sweaters. There has also been talk of extending the tariff to cultural imports such as films, objets d'art, books and magazines.

This means that it will cost just that much more to read about the banana wars in the first place, since for the most part the American media have studiously ignored the absurd and embarrassing story, one that is all too familiar: American agribusiness, already subsidized to the hilt, cries that the world isn't playing by its rules, and the American government jumps to see that its products are dumped on an unwilling international market. Today bananas, tomorrow other fruit: China has just acceded to American citrus growers' demands that its markets be opened to gringo oranges--and this in a country where citrus has been grown in abundance for thousands of years.

We will never know the whole story of the banana wars. We will probably never know how the corporate mind of the banana giants works, either, thanks to a strange court case that is now being played out in Cincinnati, Ohio, the home of Chiquita. A year ago the Cincinnati Enquirer published a series by veteran investigative reporter Michael Gallagher, who exposed some of the company's brutal business practices in Central America. Some of Gallagher's information came from the company's internal voice-mail archives, to which Gallagher had gained access through passwords and codes provided by an unnamed informant within the company.

Chiquita sued the Cincinnati Enquirer, which, in the manner of contemporary corporate journalism, fired Gallagher and shelled out $10 million to Chiquita to settle the case. Chiquita lawyers then hauled Gallagher before the bench, demanding that he name his source. In the manner of a contemporary save-your-ass-and-go-into-public-relations journalist, Gallagher complied, naming a "disgruntled former employee." That unfortunate helper is now requesting that he be protected by Ohio's shield law even though Gallagher refused its shelter. He has also promised to sue the newspaper and Gallagher for breach of contract in revealing his identity.

Ponder it all the next time you unsheath a banana, a noble fruit suddenly blackened by evil and corruption.


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