Banana companies have long had a horrible history in Latin America, based upon political corruption, economic exploitation, and even the overthrow of democratically-elected regimes. Yet the horrible practices of multinational fruit companies in the region is not a relic of the past, limited to the twentieth century. Just in the last decade, Chiquita Brands International (which was originally the United Fruit Company, which in turn played no small part in the 1954 Guatemalan coup that led to 36 years of civil war and violence that left 250,000 people dead or missing) was found to have given money to Colombia’s Autodefesas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-defense Forces of Colombia; AUC). Given that the US government declared the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary organization, to be a terrorist organization in 2001, Chiquita’s funding of the AUC was a criminal act.
Yet today, Chiquita is fighting to prevent further knowledge, details, and understanding of its ties to the AUC to become public, filing a lawsuit to prevent the release of thousands of pages of documents. While such an act already smells like more than a little bit of a coverup, the fact that Chiquita is framing the issue as one of victimhood is even worse:
Despite the clear and existing evidence that Chiquita had engaged in criminal activity, Chiquita is arguing that under Exception 7(B) of the Freedom of Information Act, mandatory disclosure provisions do not apply to “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes . . . to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.”
In an effort to portray the multinational corporation as the real victim in this case Chiquita’s lawyer, James Garland, argued that the disclosure of the documents “will make them available to the general public, including members of the press and individuals and organizations that seek to distort the facts surrounding the payments that Banadex (a subsidiary of Chiquita) made to the AUC under threat of force. Past experience with release of Chiquita’s documents has demonstrated that media campaigns based on gross mischaracterizations of released documents are certain to occur in an effort to entrench misconceptions of relevant facts in the minds of fact finders integral to the fairness of the proceedings.”
Furthermore, Garland has engaged in a campaign alleging that the National Security Archive is not an independent research organization, but instead is seeking to assist lawyers involved in a class action lawsuit against Chiquita in Colombia, on behalf of the victims of paramilitaries, in addition to an ongoing criminal investigation of former Chiquita employees in Colombia. The fact that the National Security Archive would not have found evidence of criminal wrongdoing if it had never happened in the first place seems lost on Garland.
This is not just a case of some benign, consequence-free series of financial transactions, either. In 2007, the families of over 400 murdered and tortured individuals sued Chiquita, pointing to the company’s support for the AUC and the AUC’s subsequent violence as leading to the fruit company’s responsibility, and the AUC has long been known for targeting civilian populations and worsening the violence in Colombia’s nearly 50-year civil turmoil. That it is doing so while trying to prevent further understanding of the nature of Colombia’s civil war, and the ways multinationals affect and are affected by it, is disturbing; that Chiquita is framing itself as the victim, while disregarding the actual dead and their loved ones who suffered at the hands of the right-wing paramilitary forces Chiquita itself was giving money to is simply vulgar.
Authorities in Brazil and Colombia have announced they will investigate former presidents for very different actions during their administrations. In Brazil, former president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva (2003-2011) may face investigations into how much he knew about the Mensalão scandal that recently led to the conviction of several politicians, including his former chief of staff José Dirceu, for corruption. The Mensalão, or “big monthly [payment]” scandal, involved politicians and the PT using public spending to pay politicians to vote for legislation between 2003 and 2005, based on the coalition-style politics that define Brazil’s legislature. [Social scientists debate whether or not Brazil’s system of “presidential parliamentarism” can exist in theory or in practice, and the Mensalão became one of the focal points in debating the merits or demerits of presidential parliamentarism.] Though Lula was never implicated in the scandal, given that it reached the upper levels of his administration, it appears investigators are ready to open an investigation. Complicating the picture, many of the programs that were passed in the first years of his administration (at the height of the Mensalao) have had a very positive impact on reducing social and economic inequalities in Brazil and strengthening the economy.
Meanwhile, on an even more serious note, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) is finally facing an investigation into his ties to paramilitary groups that committed human rights violations and were tied to drug trafficking while serving as governor of Antioquia in the mid-1990s. Though Uribe alleged that the investigations are “criminal vengeance” from drug-traffickers in jail, it’s not clear how prisoners would have direct ties to investigators. This is not the first time Uribe has been tied to right-wing paramilitary groups; several high-ranking politicians and officials were arrested and convicted for their connections to groups like the AUC [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia], including Uribe’s own cousin, even while Uribe insisted he never had contact with or connections to paramilitaries. The fact that some of his top officials had such ties, combined with the fact there is enough evidence to his own connections to at least prompt an investigation, provides yet another indicator of his government’s ties to human rights violations in Colombia.
And as an addendum, both of these investigations have the potential to strengthen transparency, democracy, and human rights. To what degree democratic institutions are strengthened in the wake of these investigations will depend largely on their outcomes; even so, the fact that presidents cannot act with impunity in politics or human rights without facing the potential of public investigations down the road is part of a notable transformation in the last thirty years or so, and provides an encouraging sign for Latin American politics in the 21st century.
-In the wake of his re-election this past Sunday, Hugo Chávez has named Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro his new vice president. I originally suggested that, in the wake of the election, one of the big questions would be whether Chávez made any attempts to institutionalize his policies and programs in the event he has to leave his office; the selection of Maduro suggests that Chávez himself, whose health is regularly a matter of speculation, may be moving towards institutionalizing his reforms and considering a time where he is no longer able to hold office.
-Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri is under fire after alerting a pro-life group to a rape victim who was seeking an abortion at a hospital. Macri made the move in what is a clear infringement on the woman’s rights in an attempt to pressure her to avoid abortion. Earlier this year, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that rape victims could not be prosecuted for ending a pregnancy that was the result of a rape, though that has not stopped Macri from consistently rejecting women’s reproductive freedoms by vetoing municipal bills that would allow abortion in the cases of rape or when the health of the mother is at risk.
-Citing tongue cancer and other medical issues, Alberto Fujimori’s family has formally requested a pardon for the imprisoned ex-president and convicted violator of human rights.
-Colombian paramilitary leader Hector German Buitrago (AKA “Martin Llanos”) confessed to the murder of villagers in 1997’s Mapiripan massacre as part of the right-wing paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia; AUC).
-This past weekend, Mexico’s military killed Heriberto Lazcano, one of the key figureheads in the Zetas cartel, one of the more powerful and violent cartels in the country, in what the Mexican government is now saying was an “accident.”
-The US Supreme Court has rejected Chevron’s appeal of an Ecuadoran decision that ruled the country owes $18.2 billion in damages for the systematic discharge of toxic waste that led to the destruction of the environment and an increase in diseases, including cancer, related to the pollution in the Ecuadoran Amazonian basin.
-Indigenous peoples and environmental activists in Brazil have again blocked access to a construction site at the controversial Belo Monte dam, protesting against the environmental impact and the destruction of indigenous lands that the dam will cause. At the end of August, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled construction on the dam could proceed, but opposition from indigenous groups and activists, as well as environmentalists, continues.
-Calls for Guatemala to investigate the military have mounted after armed forces shot into a crowd of protesting indigenous peoples, killing eight natives, and the opposition party has begun investigating the possibility of filing charges against officials in President Otto Pérez Molina’s administration. While such charges seem unlikely right now, the murder is not insignificant; military violence in Guatemala is still a highly-sensitive and charged issue since the end of the 36-year civil war that ended in 1990, during which the Guatemalan armed forces regularly targeted indigenous communities in a genocidal campaign.
-In a historic moment for Brazilian politics, Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa was chosen as the first ever black president of the court.
-Finally, in a logic that can at best be described as dubious, Trinidad’s Minister Jack Warner has announced the country will no longer release crime statistics to the public because such data (Warner alleges) encourages people to commit more crimes.
-Former president and convicted human rights violator Alberto Fujimori is planning on asking for a pardon from his prison sentence due to health issues in a move that would undo years of efforts for justice for the victims of his regime. Meanwhile, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights requested Peru annul a Supreme Court ruling from this past summer that could lead to Fujimori’s early release from the 2009 conviction that found him guilty of ordering death-squad killings.
-An alleged leader of the Paraguayan Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (Army of the Paraguayan People; EPP) released a series of videos that called for the elimination of private property in the name of Paraguay’s poor, highlighting the ongoing social and economic inequalities and ongoing social dissatisfaction and unrest over land distribution in one of Latin America’s two landlocked countries.
-In a move to streamline urban planning and familiarity, San José, Costa Rica, home to 1.5 million of the country’s residents, is finally installing street signs in the city. Prior to this, all addresses were based on landmarks (I don’t remember the exact address of where I lived in Costa Rica 11 years ago, but part of that address was “100 meters north of the school, on the right”). While this seems like a good idea for those visiting such a large city, cab drivers familiar with the old system are among those critical of the decision.
-With student protests and educational reforms causing serious problems for his government, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced his 2013 budget, with increased spending on education making up 20% of the budget. Although the move is no doubt likely designed at least in part to address criticisms Piñera has faced over education, it is unlikely to satisfy a student movement that wants institutional reforms and free public education for all.
-In Honduras, rights activist Antonio Trejo, who represented peasants in their struggles against wealthy landowners and who was opposed to recent plans to privatize three cities, was assassinated while attending a wedding last week.
-In a decision that should have happened decades ago, Brazil has formally outlawed the formation of and participation in militias and paramilitary organizations. While the law is an important one to have on the books, it certainly seems like a case of “too little, too late” in a country where police militias have resorted to extrajudicial executions of children, the poor, and others in Brazil’s cities since the 1980s, and the 4- to 8-year sentencing seems light for what is a very real security problem in Brazil. Meanwhile, a former officer who served over 25 years in prison for his role in leading a death squad that killed more than 50 people was himself gunned down in the state of São Paulo last week.
-With one week to go before national elections in Venezuela, a suspect has been arrested in the murder of three opposition activists at a rally last week. Though the suspect’s identity has not been released, opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles spoke out against the killings and the violent climate in Venezuela that they say allowed the killings to take place.
–Thousands of Haitians took to the street to protest against President Michel Martelly’s government, blaming it for rising food prices and the cost of living and accusing it of corruption.
-Bolivian miners who had been in conflict with each other over possession of a mine have agreed to end their conflict, with both sides having access to the Colquiri mine. Earlier struggles had led to months of protests and strikes and even turned violent, with one miner dying in clashes last month.
-In a macabre landmark, a new report says that landmines have killed or maimed 10,000 Colombians in the last 22 years. Leftist guerrillas are responsible for a majority of the mines, a defense mechanism they’ve employed during Colombia’s 48-year (and counting) civil war.
-Speaking of mines, Chile is set to de-mine a path leading to the Torres del Paine National Park, on the Chilean-Argentine border. Both countries heavily mined their respective territories in 1977-1978 when a maritime border dispute over some islands at the southern tip of the continent nearly led to war, with ultranationalists in Argentina particularly aggressive in their declarations. The conflict revealed that, while the dictatorships of South American countries collaborated on human rights abuses via Operation Condor, not all relations between the dictatorships were cordial.
-Margaret Myers has another edition of her “Chinese News Coverage of Latin America” posts up, with Chinese headlines reflecting a preoccupation with eco-tourism, diplomatic ties with the Pacific Alliance, and tariffs, among other items.
-At the UN meetings last week, Argentina and Iran met and agreed to begin talks over prosecutions for those connected to the 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, which left 85 dead and to which Iran had been connected.
-Uruguay claimed to have deactivated a bomb placed at the Venezuelan embassy in Montevideo. Though pamphlets claiming ties to a left-wing group were found near the bomb, it is unclear who actually planted the bomb or the pamphlets – though it may have been leftists, it could also have been from the right in an attempt to discredit the Chávez government, if not something altogether different.
-Finally, Curação’s ex-Prime Minister, Gerrit Schotte is saying he has been removed in a bloodless coup. Schotte accused governor Adeel van der Pluijm-Vrede of illegally swearing in a new government, though the Dutch government, whose kingdom Curação is still a part of, has said the interim government is legal.
After unconfirmed reports started emerging this past weekend, yesterday Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that the Colombian government will hold peace talks with representatives from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a guerrilla group that has been one of the main engines of a civil war in Colombia that has now lasted nearly 50 years.
While peace talks are certainly no guarantor of success, the move is significant in that it’s the first time since the 1990s that the government has opted to engage in negotiations for peace with the rebels (the administration of Álvaro Uribe took a considerably harder line against the FARC during his presidency from 2002 to 2010). Why now is not totally clear, but certainly, the FARC’s recent string of losses in leadership and general discontent with and weariness from more than four decades of civil conflict among the Colombian population more generally could be another, as recent actions of the Nasa indigenous people against rebels and the government forces alike demonstrate.
Boz has some observations on the potential for the talks, how this round is already different from previous rounds, and what the focus should be (he mentions child-soldiers in particular, a very real humanitarian problem in the decades-long struggle).
One thing I would add that’s not being brought up much is the issue of paramilitary groups. Will they be a part of the negotiations, not necessarily as actors but certainly as a topic that needs to be considered? Will the FARC push for their disbanding, and will the government, which has often had close ties to paramilitaries, listen? Will paramilitary group leaders be given a place at the table in the talks?
It’s certainly too early to answer these questions – as Santos himself said, the government will announce details in the coming week(s), and Boz is right to say the process will likely be slow – but it is a very real issue and concern. But for all of the violence that the FARC and official Colombian military forces have caused, one cannot overlook the role of right-wing paramilitary groups in human rights violations historically as well as in present threats, to say nothing of their connections to drug trafficking. Quite frankly, even if in the best of circumstances the peace talks lead to a truce between the government and FARC but do not include the paramilitary groups, it is hard to see just how solid this peace could be. Put simply, if the peace talks do not at least broach the subject of paramilitary groups, it’s hard to see how much success they can have. I hope it is an issue of discussion, but only the coming months will the path of talks become apparent.
Yesterday, Colombian ex-general Mauricio Santoro, one of former president Álvaro Uribe’s security chiefs, pled guilty to ties with right-wing paramilitary terrorist groups while avoiding facing charges of drug trafficking (in which paramilitary groups are also involved). Given how many top-ranking officials from the Uribe government (and even Uribe himself before he became president) have now been connected to right-wing paramilitary groups, one cannot help but wonder how many more connections are needed before if it’s only a matter of time before an explicit connection between these groups and Uribe’s presidency emerges.