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Adios Banana Republics! Brazil Firm Buys 'Colonial' Chiquita

The emblematic U.S. banana firm, a confidante of 20th century Latin American regimes, with a long history of mistreating workers, tried in vain to avoid falling into Brazilian hands.

Cutrale-Safra, a Brazilian firm, has finalized the purchase of Chiquita.
Cutrale-Safra, a Brazilian firm, has finalized the purchase of Chiquita.

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — It was never just about bananas. Chiquita Brands became, in the 20th century, a symbol of a quintessentially cynical colonialism most often attributed to the United States. It had a part in ensuring that many Latin American states became known as — and perhaps remained — "banana republics."

But now, a Brazilian firm, Cutrale-Safra, has finalized the purchase of Chiquita.

Chiquita Brands International was founded in 1871 by the railroad entrepreneur Henry Meiggs. It used to be called the United Fruit Company and was based in Charlotte, North Carolina. It became in time the world's premier banana firm, taking control of some one-third of the world's banana business.

In 2000, it lost its top position to Dole Foods, though its name remained engraved in the histories of states where it set up shop: Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua and Mexico.

In these countries, the firm did not so much build itself a reputation as earn notoriety. It was only in the early years of this century that Chiquita agreed to negotiate a collective pact with banana workers unions, and abide by an international framework on minimum standards of work and union rights.

The Peron showdown

Until then, many considered its history a shameful litany of dirty dealings and political interventions. In 1928, for example, the military shot dead thousands of the firm's employees in Colombia after they protested over poor working conditions. In 1975, a Securities and Exchange Commission probe found that Chiquita (then known as United Brands) had bribed the Honduran President Oswaldo López Arellano — that affair was branded "Bananagate."

Echoes of its malfeasance also reached here in Argentina. In 1948, the former U.S. ambassador in Buenos Aires, Spruille Braden, a symbol of opposition to the populist president Juan Perón — Evita's husband — became a lobbyist for Chiquita in Central America.

Since the 1980s, the firm has been in a showdown with the European Union, which has ruled that the firm has abused its dominant market position.

It is a long story with an unexpected ending. On Tuesday, it was announced that the Brazilian consortium Cutrale-Safra had bought Chiquita for $1.3 billion, after a battle for control that lasted three months. The U.S. firm, showing its last gasps of pride, rejected three previous purchase offers, even trying to merge with its rival Fyffes Plc. to avoid falling into Brazilian hands.

The purchase is a victory for the Brazilian banker of Lebanese origin, Joseph Safra, and the "orange magnate" José Luis Cutrale, who joined forces to add Chiquita to their juice and soybeans empire. Chiquita shares had risen 40% when Cutrale-Safra announced in August their intention to buy it. That eventually led shareholders to overrule Chiquita's chairman Kerri Anderson, who resisted to the last minute the latest Brazilian offer for a business with an annual turnover of some $7 billion.

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