"The selection of Eric Holder as the next attorney general of the United States is a deft political decision. Holder should face little if any opposition during the approval process given his bipartisan history. This would ensure a smooth transition at a time that requires decisive action. Still, Barack Obama's selection may not be something to celebrate.
The choice of Holder reveals a troubling disconnect between a key statement made by the president-elect during the campaign and views held by Holder. This disconnect must be examined in light of the dismal state of US foreign relations. The issue of direct payments to the justice department by offending US corporations is a worrying trend. It is one that has risen sharply under the Bush administration and was first championed by former attorney general John Ashcroft.
In lieu of a trial, companies are allowed to pay a fine directly to the justice department.
These agreements are readily accepted by companies, as they are cost effective, avoid the stigma of public trial and don't set precedents. None of the money paid goes to affected individuals or communities, which leaves any sense of justice wanting. There is also valid concern that abuse of this system may lead to companies being less scrupulous.
Representing Chiquita, Holder brokered a deal for the banana giant to pay $25m over five years to the justice department. This arrangement was made after Chiquita admitted in 2003 to providing $1.7m over six years to the paramilitary group The United Self Defense Forces of Colombia. This group was listed as a terrorist organisation by the state department. Chiquita also allegedly provided a cache of surplus Nicaraguan army AK-47s through their own transport network. The payments continued unabated for months after Chiquita's admission.
The company claimed the payments were made to protect its workers, but it is unclear who was protected. Colombia's attorney general, Mario Iguaran, roundly rejects Chiquita's excuses. Iguaran believes the payments were made to secure the unimpeded production of bananas and to quell labour unrest. He claims that at least 4,000 people were killed by these paramilitaries. Hundreds of the victims were banana workers and labour organisers. Iguaran wishes to extradite the Chiquita executives responsible for approving the payments and a lawsuit is currently underway representing the families of 173 workers who were killed by the paramilitaries. Holder continues to represent Chiquita in the resulting civil case.
Holder's reaction to the $25m settlement is unacceptable:
If what you want to encourage is voluntary self-disclosure, what message does this send to other companies? Here's a company that voluntarily self-discloses in a national security context, where the company gets treated pretty harshly, [and] then on top of that, you go after individuals who made a really painful decision.
It's not particularly certain what this painful decision was. Chiquita stood to be in a lot more trouble if they didn't come clean given the climate after September 11. The group in question had terrorist status. The paramilitaries were intimidating and murdering workers. If you have to break the law to do business in a region, you simply need not engage in that business. Holder's commentary is difficult to comprehend in light of the facts surrounding this case.
In the final presidential debate, Obama stated that he firmly opposed a free trade agreement with Colombia. He was concerned about the multitude of human rights violations repeatedly levied against unions and other workers there. Holder's views fly in the face of such concerns.
After eight years of Orwellian double-speak and intentionally misleading statements, US citizens must demand what was promised to both them and the world: change. How would Holder's leadership lead to a meaningful rethinking regarding the accountability of transnationals and their behaviour both at home and abroad? Especially when Holder views a deal so clearly favourable to a giant like Chiquita as excessive punishment despite the facts surrounding the case.
Every client is entitled to representation. Holder's roll as council to Chiquita is not questionable. The question is more fundamental: Does Holder represent the change we need and the change we were promised? It is time that someone who chooses to represent and serve human beings over corporations holds the position of attorney general."