Sunday, March 25, 2007

Chiquita, Coke, Nestle: The Moral Cost of Clean Hands

It was reported this past week that the Chiquita banana corporation had paid almost 2 million dollars to the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) for "protection money" between 1997-2003. The AUC are right wing paramilitary squads involved in the 40+year civil war in Colombia against the left wing guerilla movement, FARC. The AUC and the FARC are officially listed by the U.S. Government as terrorist organizations. Chiquita has agreed to pay $25 million in fines to the U.S. Justice Department. There is also discussion now that top Chiquita executives be extradited to Colombia for doing business with the AUC.

Chiquita does not seem to be alone in its dirty business in Colombia. Human rights NGOs have been accusing Chiquita, along with Coca Cola and Nestle, of collaborating with right wing paramilitaries, for many years now. As in most human rights abuses in Latin America, it is poor and indigenous people who are the ones swept up in the violence by such armed forces. The Coca Cola corporation, of course, denies invovlement, but the Chiquita case raises the question about whether or not doing business in Colombia can really be done with clean hands.

A few posts ago, I asked whether or not ordinary citizens can be held accountable for the crimes committed by their goverments. The Chiquita case raises another dimension: In this globalized world, can we, as consumers of products such as Chiquita bananas (or Coke or Nestle products) be held morally responsible for the kinds of violent crimes unleashed by multi national corporations?

A colleague of mine suggests that we might not be responsible, or at least as responsible, because consumers have a different relationship to corporations than citizens do to their governments. In a democracy, we can directly elect our leaders and hold them accountable; not so with a multinational corporation.

How responsible are people, qua consumers, for the crimes committed by corporations operating in a globalized world?

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At 9:11 AM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

Hmmm... I buy a coke can. Coca-Cola makes money off me. Coca-Cola uses that money to pay the paramilitary to kill union organizers in Columbia. It seems pretty clear that I'm supporting a system of murder. I try to support Coca-Cola as little as possible (though sometimes I give in when I'm really thirsty).

I agree that our relationship with a transnational corp. is different than our relationship with our government, and it makes it even harder when we ask "where we draw the line" for what is a "good company" and a "bad company." For instance, American Apparel can be lauded as wonderful because it does not use cheap overseas labor, but then its US labor is not the greatest (many still call it sweatshop), and there have been many accusations of sexual assault and harrassment against some of the heads of the business.

If going off the grid isn't the answer (living on some self-sustaining farm in the middle of Idaho seems to not engage society or work for change, to me at least), then trying to negotiate where to spend one's money seems pretty difficult. I'd say, yes, we are responsible for our tacit support of corporations, but how do we negotiate that without either destroying ourselves with guilt or becoming cynical and saying, "It doesn't matter what I do, I'll be hurting someone, so I might as well buy buy buy." Hmmm....


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