Saturday, March 24, 2007

What's A Banana Company To Do?

It appears that I'm more sympathetic than most with regards to Chiquita Bananas' problems in Columbia. It seems to me that this is really a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

My issue is that a lot of people are taking them to task without suggesting alternatives. It's very easy to tell them not to give money to the AUC, but the other possibilities don't seem very reasonable either:

  1. Suck it up and hope that too many people don't get killed.
  2. Rely on Columbia's government to enforce law and order.
  3. Form their own paramilitary force.
  4. Withdraw from business in Columbia.

How should a company conduct business in country, such as Columbia, that has fundamental problems with maintaining law and order? In a perfect world Option 2 would be sufficient; that's the way things work in other places. But I feel safe in asserting that the Columbian government isn't capable of maintaining order; we wouldn't be having this discussion (or we'd be having a different one) if they were.

Which leaves the remaining options. Option number 1 is generally unacceptable on the grounds that people dying is something to be avoided. If Chiquita wants to remain in Columbia it needs the ability to protect its employees. The government isn't up to the task, and paying off the AUC is definitely morally sketchy, which leaves self-defense by means of a company police force. But private militias have their own set of problems; I suspect that if Chiquita were to raise a private police force they'd soon run into criticism from that angle.

It's questionable whether there's any legitimate way for Chiquita to do business in Columbia. It would be irresponsible to leave their employees vulnerable to the depredations of the various local paramilitaries, but there doesn't seem to be any way to protect them that doesn't also expose the company to criticism. Which leaves withdrawal as the remaining option.

From a moral standpoint withdrawal is surely the safest option; there is no harm direct harm done in pulling out of the country1. That raises the bar for doing business fairly high; if applied uniformly the list of companies where an American company could do business would be much shorter. But this rule is only applied to those entities who have been defined as "terrorist organizations" (a definition which may be overly broad); companies are free to continue to do business with "legitimate" regimes whose civil rights abuses are just as heinous as those of the AUC.

In summary, the people who are criticizing Chiquita need to suggest an alternative which allows them to continue to do business in Columbia. If they cannot do so they must be prepared to call for American businesses to withdraw from every morally unacceptable business arrangement, regardless of whether such arrangements involved "designated terrorist organizations" or recognized state actors.

1 Though there could be a lot of indirect harm. Withdrawing large amounts of foreign capital from Columbia certainly runs the risk exacerbating regional instability.


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