The banana war's missing link - campaign funding

Claiming that europe has "unfair" banana import policies, the Clinton administration has ignited a costly trade war, which will harm countless innocent workers and wreck the economy of our good neighbors in the Caribbean.

The press is dutifully reporting the US claim of damage to our economy. But there is none. The real - unreported - reason for the action is the American system of unfettered political campaign contributions.

Few cases demonstrate the corrosive power of campaign contributions as dramatically as US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky's decision to help Chiquita cut off Caribbean banana sales to Europe.

This needless trade dispute will cost the US dearly. Besides nearly doubling the prices - or eliminating the import - of European-made cheese, wine, cashmere sweaters, toys, and other goods, it will inevitably lead to prohibitively high tariffs on American-made exports.

By doing the bidding for Chiquita Brands International Inc., the Cincinatti-based multinational that grows its bananas primarily in Central America, the US has developed a legalistic rationale that what's good for Chiquita is good for America. All this over a product the US doesn't even export.

The US claims Europe's banana policy is discriminatory. But Chiquita already enjoys a 24 percent share of the European market, compared with the Caribbean's 9 percent.

After years of financial allegiance to the GOP, Chiquita president Carl Lindner began contributing heavily to both Republicans and Democrats in 1993. That proved to be a wise investment. Just 24 hours after Chiquita Brands gave $500,000 to the Democratic Party in 1996, the Clinton administration launched its banana war at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

If Chiquita is experiencing financial limitations in Europe, it's not due to European banana policy but to Chiquita's incompetence. Its US rival, Dole, has successfully expanded its European market share under the same rules Chiquita calls "discriminatory."

The US has been relentless in its campaign to drive Caribbean bananas out of the European market for Chiquita. The US succeeded in pushing the WTO to order Europe to alter its trade policy by January 1999. To restrict Caribbean access to Europe further, Ms. Barshefsky this month announced 100 percent duties on a wide range of European imports, totaling nearly $520 million. Even before Barshefsky officially announced the new sanctions, a stream of criticism from US businesses and associations had begun. Caribbean governments protested that further attacks on their ability to sell in Europe would wreak havoc for them; bananas are to the Caribbean what cars are to Detroit.

Now that Barshefsky has imposed import sanctions, Europe will likely respond in kind, plunging Americans into a trade war over products the US doesn't export. Americans have been brought to this point because of the distorting power of one lavish political donor. Chiquita's influence on trade policy has wrecked US-Caribbean relations. American businesses and consumers will be hurt.

How many other contortions are Americans enduring because campaign contributions have distorted their government's behavior?

The Clinton administration can perform a public service by telling Chiquita that it's already gotten its money's worth. It's time to move on.

*Charles Ogletree is a professor of law at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. Randall Robinson is president of TransAfrica, a foreign policy advocacy organization in Washington.

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