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.
“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.
Quoting Luis Perez Jimenez, a leaf cutter on a Chiquita plantation in Costa Rica, the report said: “they never tell us about the aerial spraying. We just see it coming and boom, it’s here.” Workers in Chiquita’s packing plants, complain of rashes on their arms from the pesticides used on the bananas as they’re denied protective gloves.
But like a classic Hollywood movie, the banana barons remained untouched. Instead, the Cincinnati newspaper retracted the story, published a front page apology and paid Chiquita at least $10 million in an out of court settlement. The journalists who investigated Chiquita’s practices were fired and prosecuted. They were not given a chance to defend themselves.
“Chiquita became the first company in US history to be fined for having financial dealings with terrorist organisations. They paid a $25 million fine in 2007 for aiding Colombian terrorist groups like AUC, FARC and ELN.
“Their lame excuse was that they were simply paying protection money,” Christina lambasted. She warned that things from the banana farms in Honduras to Chiquita board rooms in Cincinnati to corridors in Washington always smell foul.
Next day Christina brought Myrna to have a video chat with me. She is an intelligent girl who always passes her exams with flying colours. The 14 year-old Honduran school girl waved excitedly with a broad smile when I appeared on their screen. “She thinks you’re a Latino as well, Moign,” Myrna’s host exclaimed with a laughter. I lobbed a few Spanish phrases to live up to my new found identity…
The funny and frolicking chat did not last long as Myrna began telling about her family back in Honduras. “Her parents work day and night to support their three kids. Life is not easy in Honduras due to spiralling inflation and high unemployment rate,” Christina said as she interpreted Myrna’s words. “They can’t work on their own as there are no chances of survival for private entrepreneurs. They face crippling challenge from multi-national fruit companies,” she added.
Earlier this year, Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya increased the minimum labour wage by 60% to help the country’s poor working class. According to Zelaya, the hike in the minimum wage “will force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair.” He added, however, that “I am aware it must be raised even further.”
“This is a government of great social transformations, committed to the poor,” the Honduran president claimed. Little he knew that punishment for his populist stance was soon to be meted out.
According to international economic and financial institutions, Honduras is one of the most poorest country in Latin America with a poverty rate of 70 per cent according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The country’s GDP stands at 149th position in the world according to the CIA Factbook.
On the night of 28 June 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was arrested by the military and forced into exile. He was sent to neighbouring Costa Rica and has since then not been allowed to return. The country is run by the speaker of the Congress (the country’s parliament) Roberto Micheletti. Mr. Micheletti is a member of Zelaya’s ruling party and receives strong backing from the country’s military.
A unanimous condemnation by the international community followed the coup and urged the instigators to restore Zelaya’s government by letting him return to Honduras and handing back the power. The military-led government in Tegucigalpa has rejected such calls. The response from the US government, however, remains confused from the beginning. While US President Barack Obama denounced the move and said: “We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, refrained from calling the overthrow as a ‘coup’ and asked Zelaya to negotiate his way back rather than demand an immediate return.
A whole month has lapsed since the overthrow of democratically elected government of Honduras but things have not changed even a bit on the ground. The new government operates with impunity and has imposed an emergency in the Central American republic. Protests held by the supporters of Zelaya are suppressed by curfews and arrests. Media is not allowed to report unrest in the country and a blanket censorship has been imposed.
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has tried to cross into Honduras a couple of times in the past few weeks but the military has sealed the borders and aborted his attempts to reach capital Tegucigalpa. He has camped on the Nicaraguan border in a bid to mobilise his supporters.
“This is the latest coup in the turbulent history of Latin America. Earlier this year, there was an aborted coup in Bolivia when plotters trying to overthrow President Evo Morales were arrested. Before that we saw a coup in Haiti in 2004 and in Venezuela in 2002,” Christina remarked. “The traces of all these coups indicate Washington’s overt or covert involvement,” the American activist lamented.
The 31-year old lady, who has a Masters degree in political science, showing me some of her books that were about American intervention in Latin America. I could see dozens of books lined up on her bookshelf with the ones written by William Blum and Noam Chomsky capturing my attention. Christina said books like ‘Killing Hope’ and ‘Rogue State’ show how American tax payers money ends up claiming lives of thousands of innocent people and aiding brutal regimes that overthrow democratic governments and beget tyranny.
“I’m a proud American. I’m proud of what my nation stands for. But on the other hand, I feel very guilty if my tax money is abused by our government and is used to fund repressive regimes that suppress their own people and make their country a burning hell,” she said with disgust on her face. Christina added that she understands why many governments and people in this world have a grudge against the administrations in Washington D.C. and how they feel when marginalised by the US government.
“I’ve travelled to Latin America several times and each time I go there I feel our government is unpopular than ever,” the care worker from Tampa, Florida said while adding that people treated her with respect whenever she came in contact with them. “Respect is mutual. You give respect to get respect. Why don’t the guys sitting in Capitol Hill understand this?” she asked in an irritating tone.
Christina was getting frustrated. She was annoyed by the way Obama administration has handled the whole situation in Honduras. Instead of taking stern measures against the plotters of the coup, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for negotiations and restraint. “Does Zelaya has no right to return to his country being the president of Honduras?” she asked. Quick came her answer: “Well, don’t tell me that he has committed constitutional violations and other things. We like to talk about Iran and loathe their leadership but what about things in our own backyard?” I couldn’t argue with her.
Christina’s offensive rumbled. “As an expert of International Affairs, you must know Iran-Contra Affairs scandal. How shameful it is for our government to actively participate in state terrorism and hide it from the public,” she said while referring to a 1980s political scandal in which then US President Ronald Reagan sold weapons to Iran and the proceeds were used to provide weapons to right-wing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua that went on to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“What is becoming apparent is the personal support of Hillary Clinton to the present Honduran regime. It is not a hidden secret that the Clintons enjoy close relationship with Chiquita executives,” the young Floridan confided. “What I don’t understand is that why Obama included her in the cabinet in the first place when he promised us to have fresh faces in his administration,” an upset Christina asked.
Things got very clear by now. By Christina’s and Myrna’s accounts I came to know that this was not just another coup in Central America. It was rather an orchestrated and carefully planned uprising. President Zelaya was not overthrown in a matter of days as he has been urging for constitutional reforms since November last year. What really surprised me is the timing of this whole saga. While the world media is closely observing the events in Iran, the coup in Honduras stays to be one of the most under-reported event of this year.
“I thought the chapter of coups and counter-coups in Latin America closed once Bush and his company left the White House. I was wrong. There is no full stop for interventions. Just commas,” Christina exclaimed. She added that no serving or former president deserves to be expelled from his/her country without a fair trial. “I cannot believe all this happening when President Obama came with a pledge to drive the country in a new direction,” she moaned.
I turned my attention towards the young Honduran girl, Myrna, who was sat there silently. “I’ve got nothing to say as I do not know a lot about politics,” the 14-year old girl said in a soft voice when I asked her to join our conversation. Shyly, she added that she would like to become an activist like Christina and fight for the rights of her people. “She is an inspiration to me,” the young Honduran claimed while hugging Christina whom she affectionately calls her auntie.
“Ten years ago, a natural calamity wiped out the country’s vital infrastructure and crippled the economy. We had to leave our country as we had no food to eat or place to live. My parents returned to the country a few later but still live a difficult life,” Myrna started to speak out in a very gentle but firm tone. She added that around 70% of the Honduran population lives below the poverty line while 40% of the population is unemployed. “It is scary in our country as gangs deal in drugs with impunity and crime rate is very high. The prison population of our country is very high if compared to other countries in Latin America,” she added woefully.
“Did you know that 10% of our country’s rich own 50% of our country’s resources?” she poked a question. Another fact came in no time: “We are a nation of just around 8 million souls but 0.14% of the world’s 6 billion or so poor people live in our country.” Her stream of statistics kept on flowing. “Our environment is suffering due to poverty and government’s apathy. We are losing our forests due to demand for biofuels and mining. Our largest source of fresh water, Lake Yojoa has been polluted by mining companies that regularly dump toxic waste in the rivers. Supply of fresh water and fish is getting scarce day by day,” the little girl added.
Myrna showed me a long list of problems which she compiled for her school assignment. Christina also had plenty of cuttings of newspaper reports that documented in detail the small Central American republic’s big problems. While we were discussing these issues, Myrna was busy biting her nails. “How delicious are they Myrna?” I asked sarcastically referring to her nails. Christina couldn’t help but shout at her. “Are you ever going to get rid of this bad habit or shall I get your fingers chopped?” she asked the teenager irritatingly. While Myrna smirked, I had a broad smile on my face. “What’s wrong with you mister? Why are you smiling?” she interrogated to which I replied: “Well, I know a few bad habits of your establishment. I was wondering what punishment you would give to the people there,” I joked. Christina couldn’t help but burst into a laughter.