There is an old saying that “bad habits are hard to break”. This saying has been ringing in my ears since I was a kid. My mom, some neighbours, many teachers, a lot of my friends and many other people complained about some individual/group’s bad habits and were sure that “‘bad habits die hard”. Being an eternal optimist, I always think I’ll find an exception. Maybe.

Christina is a 31 year old activist who works at a local charity that helps homeless people in Tampa, Florida. She comes from a wealthy family that has stakes in several coffee chains across the US. She is one of the many Americans I came into contact with during the November 2008 presidential elections. I found her passionate about two things: work and politics.

Change We Can Believe In

Much of my interest in Obama, his charisma and political philosophy was generated by Christina. It is not an overstatement. She really convinced me that this time the Americans will definitely see a change in Washington and most of the ills the country is facing will finally be cured. “It is the young team he’s leading. It is the talk of having fresh faces in the Oval office that will breathe a new life into the state of affairs of the USA. I believe things will change finally,” she said in a reassuring tone every time we discussed Obama’s election campaign.

And I cannot forget the phone call I received from her when Obama clinched the election in the wee hours of 9 November. “We did it, we did it!” she screamed for a minute or two until her voice got buried by the applause crowds generated when Obama marched on to the podium to make his victory speech. “I gotta go now,” she said and hung up. I continued to watch the highly charged public in Chicago listening to their new leader with hope glimmering in their eyes.

Back to Business

Things returned to normalcy again. Christina described on a daily basis the tales of some homeless people that she worked with. Her charity provides food and shelter to such people. Many of them come from Central and Latin America and are either political or economic refugees. “We have a huge number of people who escaped from Honduras in 1999 when the country was devastated by Hurricane Mitch. Many of them literally came here in just the clothes they were wearing,” she recalled adding that she has never seen people in such a desperate condition. “It’s 10 years since then but things haven’t changed a lot for them,” Christina admitted with despair on her face when she told me about the Honduran refugees.

“I work with a lot of families who have a Latin American background. One family has particularly grabbed my attention,” she said and instantly started to search for their photograph on her notebook. After a couple of minutes of searching, she showed me a photograph in which a young Christina stood with the family of five people. “This girl you see next to me did not know a single English word. Now she writes for a local magazine,” she said proudly. The photograph she showed of the family revealed they arrived in a very destitute shape to the US.

United, Inc.

“It’s not only about this family but it’s about my family history as well. They are not our relatives but somehow relate to us. Myrna’s family lives in central Honduras. They work on a farm that is owned by the US company Chiquita. Our family owned this farm during the early 1900s until it was bought by the American fruit tycoon,” Christina said while sipping her coffee. “Thousands of people work on these farms to earn a living as banana production is the backbone of Honduran economy,” she added.

Christina started to tell me about the conditions in Honduras in general and on farms owned by American companies, particularly the ones owned by Chiquita. She said that exploitation is rife and the workers are underpaid. “Myrna’s parents work on one of the farms run by Chiquita. She cannot explain the amount of abuse they go through and how badly they’re treated. They don’t get their wages in time and whatever wage they get is not enough to make their ends meet,” the thirty-one-year old care worker told in a bitter tone. “To me, it’s like an endless cycle of poverty and exploitation,” she added.

Chiquita is the successor to the United Fruit Company and is the leading distributor of bananas in the United States. Founded in 1899, United Fruit Company flourished in the 20th century and soon controlled vast territories and transportation networks in Central America. Thanks to the amassed power and wealth, it soon became associated with some of the most regressive political and economic forces in Central and Latin America.

In 1952, democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, enacted a genuine agrarian reform bill, which included the expropriation and payment for uncultivated United Fruit land. The United corporation saw red. It employed the services of lobbyists in Washington and soon cajoled the CIA and Eisenhower administration to deal with the new democracy taking root in the ‘banana republic’. In June 1954, Guatemala was invaded by CIA-backed forces and Arbenz government was toppled. Democracy was trampled under the military boots. Use of force was instigated to secure the supremacy of United Fruit Corporation. That violent intervention ushered in an era of rampant human rights abuses, political assassinations, extra-judicial killings and genocide against the indigenous people of Guatemala. The country is still reeling from the scars of the military coup d’état.

United Brands Company made bold political inroads in Honduras in 1970s. Then military ruler Gen. López accepted a $1.25-million bribe from United Brands in exchange for a 50% reduction in the banana tax. The company’s owner Eli M. Black committed suicide by jumping from his 40th floor office in New York after the scandal became known as ‘Bananagate’. The fate of Gen. López was sealed in April 1974 when he was overthrown by a group of lieutenant colonels.

If It’s Not Chiquita…

I remember a childhood advertisement on TV. “If it’s not Chiquita, it’s not a banana” was the slogan of this advertisement while the iconic Banana lady danced to the jingle. My younger brother, who loved bananas, always brandished the banana in his hands while watching the ad on TV. I, on the other hand, lamented the advertisement for some reason…

Though United Fruit Company changed its name to Chiquita Brands International, the practices somehow stayed more or less the same. The company’s corporate face was blackened when American journalists Mike Gallagher and Cameron McWhirter of Cincinnati Enquirer published an 18-page expose of the banana barons. They conducted a year long extensive investigation that included trips to farms in Central Americas. They recorded the plight of farm workers and abuses carried out by Chiquita’s higher ups. The Enquirer report concluded that ‘Chiquita’, which champions itself as an ‘environmental leader’ and prides its partnership with the Rainforest Alliance, routinely administers aerial spraying of pesticides without any regard for workers in the field. The other host of charges included drug trafficking, bribing foreign officials, violating foreign land ownership laws, anti-labour laws and several other serious misconducts.