Chiquita SECRETS Revealed
MIKE GALLAGHER & CAMERON McWHIRTER
Cincinnati Enquirer 3-May-1998
Nothing remains of Tacamiche but a few concrete foundations. No one lives here any more but lizards and crows.
The churches are gone. The homes of the banana workers are gone. Even the streets are overgrown with tall grass.
After six decades as a community among Chiquita’s banana fields in northeastern Honduras, the village was plowed under in February 1996 by about 500 Honduran soldiers. Former residents have not forgotten their village, nor have they forgiven Chiquita and its subsidiary for the fact that soldiers with bayonets and bulldozers forcibly evicted more than 600 people before wiping Tacamiche off the map.
Villagers had been told to leave. When they refused, Chiquita’s subsidiary Tela Railroad Co. obtained a court-order to evict them. When they still refused to leave, Tela brought in the army.
Tela announced in 1992 it planned to close the Tacamiche plantation because it was no longer suitable for banana production. A company-wide strike forestalled the closure.
In 1994 Tela once again announced it was closing the Tacamiche farm, claiming the plantation’s land was bad. The company stated it had to close the farm, plus three others – all located in Honduras’ Sula Valley – and sell off the land. The company said it would evict the villagers from those farms.
Tela officials’ claims that the Tacamiche land “was no longer conducive to the cultivation of bananas in the quantity and quality required by Tela and Chiquita for the world market” were based on internal Tela soil tests, according to Chiquita officials in a written response to the Enquirer.
But the Enquirer has obtained a 1989 Chiquita legal document outlining a plan to close company-owned farms in Honduras to eliminate costly unions.
While the document does not name the farms to be closed, it does refer to “a specific group of farms in the (Honduran) division.” At the time, almost all of Chiquita’s banana plantations in Honduras, including Tacamiche, were located in the Sula Valley.
The Enquirer also has learned that Chiquita has leased the Tacamiche land with an intent to sell it to a trusted former employee, who continues to grow bananas on the land. When asked about the leasing, Chiquita, in a statement issued through its attorneys, stated that the former employee, Henry Murray, is using a farming method called “crop-timing”: planting bananas so they can be picked and sold when the market is at a premium. Mr. Murray sells his bananas exclusively to Chiquita. Chiquita stated that crop-timing “can be profitable on a small scale, but it has not been demonstrated to be successful over the long term and is not suitable for a large scale producer like Tela.”
To clear the way for the leasing and future purchase of the land, Chiquita and Tela insisted on the removal of Tacamiche village despite the impact on its inhabitants, whom the company referred to as “squatters.” Tacamiche village was de-stroyed but three other villages were not. All the four Tela farms were closed.
“Chiquita left us without any past,” said John Sevilla Connoley, 43, a lifelong resident of Tacamiche and the former village’s schoolteacher. “They erased all evidence of our childhood.”
In August 1997, Mr. Sevilla Connoley visited his former village for the first time since the eviction. “This is the street where I lived. These roads, I walked them as a child looking for firewood. I know them like I know my heart.”
Speaking through a translator, Mr. Sevilla Connoley said the eviction ripped him away from his roots.
The village had been created by Chiquita, then called the United Fruit Co., in the 1930s to house workers for its farms. The company acquired the land in 1936 for $1 from the Honduran government as part of a larger land deal. Until Tacamiche was destroyed, the majority of the villagers continued to work for Chiquita in the fields, and many had lived in the village most of their lives.
Several other villages also were set for demolition, but Tacamiche was the first to go. After getting a final court order for eviction, Chiquita asked Honduran military police to remove the 123 families in 1996. The decimation of the village on Chiquita’s orders was a hot political issue in Honduras and was condemned by human rights groups around the world.
Chiquita has responded that the Tacamiche closing was a regrettable but unavoidable decision based on hard economic reality: the land was no good.
But an April 12, 1989, legal memorandum by Manuel Rodriguez, a Chiquita lawyer, detailed a plan to close Honduran farms in order to reduce labor costs. The memo deals with farm closures in the company’s Honduran division but does not mention any farm by name.
Under a section titled “Labor Issues,” Mr. Rodriguez states: “Only feasible grounds for termination of employees is ‘liquidation, or permanent closing of company or establishment.”‘
Mr. Rodriguez also stated, “(Chiquita subsidiary) Tela should seek (Honduran government) approval for sale, and immediately thereafter sever the workers. Should be simultaneously as possible; though for legal reasons, closing of farms must be completed first.
“Tela has never implemented closing of farms and termination of workers in the size and nature of this proposed project,” the memo continued.
“Review with local (Honduran) counsel the procedure to effectuate terminations; our recommendation is to terminate all the workers at affected farms, rather than follow procedures of labor contract and – or (Honduran) Labor Code.”
The Enquirer made repeated attempts to contact Mr. Murray for comment on the Tacamiche closing and his proposed purchase of the land. He did not respond to the interview requests. Mr. Rodriguez also did not return Enquirer calls for comment.
In a March 16 internal voice-mail message from Robert Olson, Chiquita’s general counsel, to Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Olson said he did not want Mr. Murray talking to the Enquirer. Mr. Olson also said that if the Enquirer did reach Mr. Murray, he should not tell the reporters that Chiquita officials had told him not to speak with them.
A Chiquita statement, issued through its lawyers, described Mr. Murray as the prospective buyer of the Tacamiche land and “an associate producer” of Tela. Chiquita defines an associate producer as an independent grower with a contract to supply Chiquita with bananas.
Chiquita records obtained by the Enquirer show that Mr. Murray was a long-time employee of Tela. Company records reveal Mr. Murray was the administrator in the early 1990s of a Honduran company, gropecuaria Petare S.A., that was secretly controlled by Chiquita.
The Tacamiche villagers did not dispute the company’s right to the almost 3,000 acres of plantation surrounding the village. What they did dispute was Chiquita’s claims that the company owned the 925 acres of the village proper. Honduran courts, however, upheld Chiquita’s claim to the entire property.
In 1994, the 6,000-strong Honduran union for Chiquita banana workers, SITRATERCO, struck over the proposed closings but settled several months later. Chiquita offered workers jobs on other farms or buyouts but did not make offers to the hundreds of villagers who were relatives or descendants of Chiquita workers who lived in Tacamiche.
In statements issued through its attorneys to the Enquirer, Chiquita said the company requested Honduran military police to evict the villagers as “appropriate legal action to protect its property and business interests.”
Chiquita tried to enforce its court eviction of the village several times, but villagers refused to leave. The military came into the village in February 1996 with tear gas, bulldozers and rifles. In a statement issued through its attorneys, Chiquita stated that the February eviction “took place peacefully and no one was hurt.”
Tacamiche villagers dispute that claim, arguing that shots were fired and tear gas used. Photographs of the event show soldiers with assault rifles forcibly removing women and children as bulldozers destroy the village. Several villagers claimed to the Honduran and international media at the time that they were beaten.
Chiquita in its written statement said that it eventually issued more than $360,000 in relocation costs and buyouts to set up a “new” Tacamiche on the land of a sugar company several miles away. Each family was paid about $500 by Chiquita as a “relocation subsidy.” The company also paid money to build houses or move those that had been knocked down.
Chiquita emphatically denied through its attorneys that it paid the military police who raided Tacamiche. However, in an Oct. 11, voice-mail message by Tela employee Jorge Mendoza to Chiquita attorney David Hills in Cincinnati, Mr. Mendoza detailed in-kind payments to the military for their services.
“We did have feeding expenses for the personnel and soldiers who were in all that process. There they were paid, uh, the food was bought by us from a restaurant….Car rents were paid for some of the movements that were to be done when all the necessary equipment was not available and some cars were rented by us. Fuel was administered to the army trucks that were mobilizing the soldiers and this was done before, during and after this thing was calming down.”
In its official statement, the company claimed that many of the “squatters” were in fact new people who had come into the village to cause trouble. Villagers disputed this allegation.
Regardless of such arguments, Tacamiche was a public relations disaster for Chiquita. The situation was covered widely in the Honduran press.
After the Tacamiche incident, Chiquita stopped plans to remove other nearby villages.
For the Tacamiche villagers, now ensconced in their “new” village miles away from their home, Chiquita’s decision to destroy their homes is unforgivable.
“Once you are no longer useful, they discard you,” said Juan Pablo Barahona Romero, 66, who said he had worked for Tela since 1946 before being evicted and fired. “If the president of Chiquita were ever to come down here, all I would tell him is that we want our land, to recover the place that we have always known, where we have lived our whole lives.”
Mr. Romero was let go from Chiquita after the eviction. His severance package for a lifetime of service was about $3,200 plus a house in the new Tacamiche.