Banana Republics and the Payola Dilemma

There is this thing I do late at night, generally around 1 a.m., to give myself one last surge of energy for writing before I collapse.  I take a nice ripe banana, savoring it in small bites, between spoonfuls of low-fat cherry-vanilla yogurt.  A more delicious treat can scarcely be imagined.  I chew thoughtfully, marveling at the notion that God is growing a snack for me on a tree in South America.

Which brings us to the story of Chiquita Banana and the federal case and the 25 million dollar fine and all of that.  The story has been unfolding all year but has come to a head over the course of September.  Essentially the company paid protection money to terrorists in Colombia to leave their banana crop alone, much in the way that American companies give contributions to both political parties in the hope their pension funds won’t be raided.

Some of the details are fairly unique, such as Chiquita’s claim that they voluntarily disclosed the payments to the Feds back in 2003 after their own legal department got the willies.  Very often in these cases the government’s footsteps are clomp-clomping right outside their corporate offices before that call gets made.  No one is claiming that out loud in this imbroglio, so we’ll give the company the benefit of the doubt and accept their version of events.

In any case, the government did not respond to the confession by saying to go forth and sin no more.  The Talmudic law of “spontaneous admission of an offense earns forgiveness of the fine” was not applied.  Instead, the company will pay 25 million dollars and go on five years of probation, whatever that means.  Thank goodness the bananas were not sentenced to house arrest.

Now, there is an approach which says that a society settles its moral questions by codifying its principles into law.  In that case, any creep who takes all the loopholes but never violates the letter of the statute is a moral paragon.  Any nice guy who forgets to cross every t — or f for that matter — and dot every i — j too now that you mention it — of the federal code is by definition a moral outcast.  I have never been a big subscriber to that approach.  Keeping the laws is only the first step on the moral path.  Yet sometimes a technical violation has no independent moral stigma attached.

It certainly is not permitted to give money to terrorist groups for protection.  Yes, but neither is it allowed to pay them ransom; would you condemn Chiquita for paying to redeem a hostage?  Nah.  You might even castigate them for cowardice if they failed to do so.  Then how bad can it really be to pay the ransom in advance of the kidnapping and cut out not the middleman but the middle abduction?

Look at it another way.  What if Chiquita did not own the land but rented it from terrorists?  It is far from clear that a terrorist should not be paid rent on his legitimate property.  What if the terrorists farmed the land and all we did was buy the bananas at the end?  An even stronger argument can be made for that: I can buy any legitimate product from any human being, no matter what he is likely to do with that money afterwards.  

Now double back in the opposite direction.  Assuming it is legitimate to pay a terrorist for his banana, what if he did not inherit or earn that land but expropriated it from peasants?  Most people would admit that was bad.  Okay, then jump ahead ten, twenty years.  How long do we have to protest the rip-off of the long-gone peasants?  Those bananas would not be too different from most of the oil we buy, which was “nationalized” right out of the hands of private companies owned by Ma-and-Pa stockholders.  Let’s not forget all the hard-working people who lose their livelihood whenever someone high-mindedly closes down this type of operation.

All in all, the U.S. Attorney who jumped to the mike the other day to proclaim that Chiquita had “blood on its hands” may be one platelet short of a full set of dishes.  These are very tough calls to make, morally, legally, ethically, you name it.  So I for one feel justified in relishing my banana.  Now back to the drawing board: what the heck can I write about at one in the morning?