CNN Defends Chiquita on a Very Slippery Slope

In a jaw-dropping defense, a CNNMoney journalist argues that the iconic banana company has gotten "a raw deal."

On Monday the iconic banana company Chiquita pleaded guilty in Washington to one count of doing business with a terrorist organization after, it says, it was forced to pay millions to paramilitary groups in Colombia to protect its operations and workers in that violent country.

According to prosecutors Chiquita paid more than $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (or AUC) from 1997 to 2004 — a right-wing group that the AP reported “has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia’s civil conflict and for a sizable percentage of the country’s cocaine exports” — and also made payments to other such groups (including the leftist FARC) when they controlled Chiquita’s banana-growing area. The U.S. government declared the AUC a terrorist organization in September 2001, and in its plea deal Chiquita agreed to pay a $25 million fine.

That would leave us with nothing to say — if not for the jaw-dropping defense of Chiquita that CNNMoney’s Allen Wastler gave in a video on the site Tuesday, as he smugly vented about how Chiquita had been wronged.

“Talk about a raw deal,” Wastler began, adding that “this is a screaming example of how unfair our government and the whole international marketplace is to U.S. businesses.” Wastler reasonably argued that “to protect their employees, they essentially have to pay off the local thugs to leave them alone and give them a little bit of quote-unquote protection against Marxist rebels who probably would hit them too if they weren’t paid off.” But then his counterintuitive take slid off a cliff:

So that’s how you do business. And there’s plenty of places around the world where this is what you got to do to do business. You want to protect your employees, you want to get the product, okay? So because we pass a law saying you don’t deal with terrorist groups and we designate these paramilitary groups as terrorist groups, all of a sudden Chiquita’s on the hook when all they were trying to do was protect their employees and bring you bananas for your breakfast cereal.

So, by Wastler’s logic, complicity with terrorists (or brutal paramilitaries, depending on semantics) is acceptable in the name of “product”; violating U.S. law is no biggie; and Chiquita deserves our sympathy for its important contribution to our nutritional needs.

Next, Wastler complained that Chiquita’s fine represents about half of the profit its Colombian subsidiary made from 2001 to 2004 (¡pobrecita Chiquita!), was galled that the Colombian government wants to extradite some Chiquita executives, and declared that “the Justice Dept. extorted $25 million from a banana company that was just trying to protect its employees and do its job.”

We won’t engage with Wastler on the extradition issue, nor touch his intriguing history lesson of our and European nations’ old banana colonies in the Americas. Instead we’ll simply point to this quote from a U.S. attorney on the case: “Funding a terrorist organization can never be treated as a cost of doing business.”

This is the most slippery of rhetorical slopes. If Wastler thinks Chiquita has gotten “a raw deal” here, what is not OK in the name of profit?

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.