No Justice for Nicaraguan Banana Workers

In July a Los Angeles judge overturned a previous ruling that had awarded $2.3 million in compensation to six Nicaraguan banana workers. Dole Food Company, the workers’ former employer, had authorized the administration of dangerous pesticides that left the men sterile. The U.S. court ruled that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had knowingly manipulated the case, Tellez v. Dole Food Co., through the use of fraud, allegedly recruiting fake employees to testify that they had been exposed to pesticides that had caused them severe health problemswhile employed by the food giant.1 However, the testimonies that pointed to the scam came from witnesses whose identities were not disclosed, ostensibly in order to protect them from hostilities in Nicaragua. As a result, none of the statements can be checked for accuracy, nor could one readily determine the credibility of these anonymous witnesses. One such witness later recanted his testimony, asserting that Dole had flown him to Costa Rica and bribed him to say that the plaintiffs had never worked on the plantations. The payment for his testimony amounted in the end to some three hundred dollars, a sad illustration of the desperation that pervades the lowest classes of the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere.

Beyond being a disappointment for the six Nicaraguan bananeros seeking compensation for their pesticide-induced sterility, the case’s dismissal leaves thousands of other exploited Nicaraguan workers in the dark, without resources and without hope. Thousands of these workers, plagued by unacknowledged illnesses, line the walkways outside of the National Assembly in Managua. They have been living in makeshift tents there for years since departing from rural areas like Chinandega, a northwestern town where Nicaragua’s banana industry has thrived at the expense of its labor force. The workers have demanded that the state take action against multinational corporations, such as Dole Food, that have knowingly used harmful pesticides on their plantations. These companies have repeatedly put their unsuspecting employees at risk and have done so thus far with practical impunity. For the time being, this latest legal defeat dims prospects for achieving justice on behalf of exploited bananeros in the U.S. legal system.

Dole Picks its Poison

Victims have attributed their sicknesses to the long-term administration of Nemagon, the commercial pesticide that includes Dibromochloropropane (DBCP), which was widely used on the banana plantations in northwestern Nicaragua. Formulated in the 1950s, DBCP was used both as a soil fumigant and a nematocide on over forty crops throughout the U.S. until 1977, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that use of the chemical be limited to treatment of pineapples in Hawaii. Realizations of the pesticide’s harmful qualities prompted this restriction, and in 1985 the EPA banned outright all applications of DBCP.2 Use of the product in Nicaragua began many years earlier during the dynastic Somoza dictatorship, which allowed essentially unregulated use of the pesticide in an effort to boost agro-exports.3 Transnational companies like Dole, Del Monte, and United Fruit continued to administer Nemagon in Nicaraguan plantations until the Nicaraguan government banned the chemical in 1985, though some of these companies ended such usage following the nationalizations of the Sandinista era.4,5

Studies dating back to the 1960s have revealed adverse effects of DBCP exposure. While DBCP can be absorbed by ingestion, it can spread throughout the tissues following inhalation and direct physical contact, making bananeros who handle it especially susceptible to its baleful effects.6 Recognized by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Toxicology Program as a potential human carcinogen, DBCP has been shown to cause reduced sperm production and testicular injuries.7 While tests have been performed on only animal subjects, exposure to the pesticide left workers at a California chemical plant sterile.8 The Center for Disease Control also recognizes that DBCP heightens risks for certain cancers; however, the EPA notes that the links between the chemical and cancer in humans can’t be proven due to insufficient studies, as these links have been deduced from animal testing. Regardless, these studies strongly tie exposure to the chemical to startling health complications, illustrating that DBCP has had a deleterious effect on thousands of Nicaraguan bananeros.9

Years of Struggle

In 1992, legal action forced Dow Chemical, a company guilty of producing DBCP, to pay some $22 million in damages to 812 workers. Sadly, after legal fees and other complications, the compensation money dwindled down to only $132,000 to be divided among all of the victims. Throughout the 80s and 90s, afflicted workers in Central America and Africa attempted to press charges against these companies to no avail.10 Finally, in 1999 thousands of bananeros marched the 140-kilometer trail from Chinandega to Managua to air their grievances to the government.11 Their efforts proved fruitful, culminating with the passage of Law 364 by the National Assembly in January of 2001.

In a show of support for the workers, the new law facilitated the available remedies for the workers’ struggle. As a result, in December 2002 a Nicaraguan court ruled against Dole, Dow, and Shell DBCP, mandating that the transnationals pay $489 million in compensation to 583 workers.12,13 However, the companies refused to pay the fees, citing irregularities in the trials that allegedly did not give Dole a sufficient opportunity to defend itself.14 Furthermore, the U.S. ambassador made an effort to have Law 364 declared unconstitutional.15 In the face of so much opposition and resistance, the law failed to achieve any substantive results for the afflicted workers.

In 2004, the workers marched once more to Managua. Upon arriving, they set up camp outside of the National Assembly in spaces left empty by the 1972 earthquake that had devastated the city. After the workers had spent several months there, then-president Enrique Bolaños agreed to negotiate with them. In return for their departure from the site, he would refrain from reforming Law 364. Although the bananeros kept their end of the agreement, the government took only minimal action to further the workers’ goals. Moreover, Bolaños had promised the afflicted workers access to medical treatment; however, due to Nicaragua’s struggling economy, the National Assembly did not approve the necessary funds to cover such medical costs.16 To its credit, the government did provide many medical consultations and handled funeral costs for a number of the victims for as long as it was able to.17

The Bolaños administration blamed its inaction on its lack of authority to carry out the workers’ demands. Then–Solicitor General Alberto Novoa Espinoza admitted that “the government doesn’t have the representation of [the workers], for it is an individual, personal problem with the company.”18 Noting that the 2002 case had been rejected by U.S. courts, he acknowledged the powerlessness of the Nicaraguan state to seek redress in the situation, saying that “our arms do not reach to the sources of power in other countries.”19

Marching Without Return

After exhausting available legal remedies, the bananeros again marched on Managua in what they deemed “la marcha sin retorno”—the march without return. This time they arrived better organized and in greater numbers. Three thousand workers settled again in the city outside of the National Assembly. Nevertheless, they faced the same problems as before. Frustrated over the lack of progress, many stayed put in Managua and remain there today. Although later marches were to occur, they were not as effective, as many problems faced the bananeros. For instance, they had lost strength in numbers, as many of their compatriots had died of complications they attributed to Nemagon poisoning. Perhaps even more damaging to the strength of their demonstrations, the bananero movement grew factionalized. A split occurred due to disputes over the appropriate strategy to employ—some believed civil disobedience to be the best means, others sought lawsuits and negotiations. As a result, such opportunism and bitter infighting ultimately hampered the movement’s credibility.

After their failure to gain compensation or redress grievances, the bananeros finally got a taste of victory in 2007. A jury ruled in favor of six workers rendered sterile through exposure to DBCP while working for Dole and awarded them a compensatory payment of $2.3 million.20 However, this did not prove a lasting triumph, as Dole quickly appealed the case, claiming massive fraud by the plaintiffs and their lawyers. The case finally reached the Los Angeles Superior Court, and last month Judge Victoria Chaney overturned the jury’s decision. The judge dismissed the obligatory payment and demonized the case as part of a widespread conspiracy against multinational companies mounted by Nicaraguan doctors, U.S. lawyers, the bananeros, and the Nicaraguan judge who issued the 2002 ruling.

While dismissing two previous DBCP cases, Chaney compared the so-called conspiracy to a chimera in an absurd extended metaphor. Comparing the many groups involved to a “fire-breathing she-monster with a head of a lion, a body of a goat, and a tail of a snake,” Chaney said the conspiracy was “created from separate organisms cemented by human greed and avarice.”21 However, Chaney’s most recent ruling in Tellez relied upon the testimonies of several John Doe witnesses whose identities were withheld from the public and from the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The judge did so ostensibly to protect the witnesses, alleging threats of violence against them.22 They testified against the plaintiffs, confirming Dole’s allegations of fraud. Given the witnesses’ condition of anonymity, the trial offered the bananeros’ lawyers no legal method to verify the legitimacy of their claims.

Further discounting the authority of the witnesses, Francisco Cano Centeno claimed to be one of the John Does and admitted to taking a bribe from Dole for his false testimony. Cano Centeno, a poor farm worker, said, “What they wanted was for me to testify that the tests had been altered, that [the plaintiffs] had not worked on the banana plantation, and that for saying what they wanted, they would give me $225,000.” After they flew him to Costa Rica and recorded his testimony, Dole only paid the man $300.23 Regardless, the court ruled against the bananeros, setting back progress in the fight for justice against DBCP and the companies that carelessly endangered their workers by administering the poison.

The Struggle without End

The dismissal of both the workers’ case and the previously decided multimillion-dollar award symbolize not only a major defeat for the six banana workers, but also a setback for the many other victims, of which there are approximately ten thousand in Nicaragua alone.24 With many other cases pending in the U.S., this decision suggests that other DBCP victims will not achieve the justice they so desperately seek. Though Judge Chaney spoke of “human greed and avarice” in her oral ruling, it is a shame that she overlooks the greatest greed in this equation—that of Dole and the other sociopathic companies who profit through exploitation of their employees.

En route to the Metrocentro Mall in Managua, a tourist cannot miss the hardened faces of the bananeros, camped out in a tiny community of makeshift plastic tents. Nor can lawmakers easily avoid the unsettling display of hundreds of sickly workers settled outside of the National Assembly, who remained there after more than ten years of protesting. They have participated in hunger strikes, marches, and protests; they have lobbied legislators and tried to negotiate with their former employers; they have even filed court cases domestically and abroad. The bananeros have pursued each of these pathways without receiving any compensation for their grievances. Given Judge Chaney’s decision in July, one wonders if they will ever see justice in their lifetimes.

References for this article are available here