How to Become a Top Banana

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    At age 80, Lindner sits atop a corporate agglomeration that includes American Financial Group, Inc., an insurance business (annual revenue: $4 billion); Chiquita Brands International, Inc., the fruit-and-vegetable giant ($2.7 billion); and an array of other businesses, including Provident Financial Group, Inc., a bank holding company (assets: $8 billion); and American Heritage Homes, one of Florida's largest builders.

    At American Heritage, Lindner has been a business partner since 1996 with the king of Democratic fund raisers, Terence McAuliffe, described by an admiring Vice President Al Gore as "the greatest fund raiser in the history of the universe." McAuliffe has raised tens of millions of dollars for the Democratic Party, for President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign, for the President's legal-defense fund, for the President's library and for Hillary Clinton's New York Senate run.

    Since 1990, political contributions of $1,000 or more by Lindner, members of his family, his companies and their executives have added up to well over $5 million. Most of the money has gone to the Republican Party and its candidates. But at strategic moments, Lindner has made hefty contributions to the Clinton Administration.

    The short version of the money story is this: Europe first offended Lindner when it imposed import restrictions on bananas from Latin America, where his plantations are located. Lindner then contributed a quarter of a million dollars to the Democrats. Gore called and asked for more money. Lindner gave it. And then some more. So much more that Lindner had dinner in the White House, attended a coffee klatch there for the truly generous and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. Along the way, he periodically met with then U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and his staff, the officials who ultimately sought the trade sanctions intended to punish the Europeans and force them to give Lindner what he wanted.

    Clinton's people weren't the only ones looking after Lindner. Members of Congress--Democrats and Republicans, fund raisers all, beneficiaries themselves of Lindner's largesse--called or wrote or met with Kantor and the President to encourage action on behalf of Chiquita. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, did it. So did John Glenn, at the time a Democratic Senator from Ohio. And Republican Congressman Jim Bunning of Kentucky, now a Senator. And Charles Stenholm, the Democratic Representative from Texas. And Richard Lugar, the Republican Senator from Indiana. And Mike DeWine, the Republican Senator from Ohio. And, of course, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senator from Kentucky, who is Congress's most strident advocate of unlimited money in elections.

    On April 19, 1999, the U.S. Trade Representative imposed the punitive tariffs on nine types of European goods. To be sure, trade experts outside the European Union generally agree that the restrictive banana policies do violate free-trade rules. Indeed, four global trade panels have reached that conclusion over the years. But restrictive trade policies are hardly peculiar to Europe. The U.S. has its own, notably those that restrict the free access of sugar and peanuts to the American market.

    The Clinton Administration has been less than forthcoming about its relationship with the banana baron. In response to repeated TIME requests for documents relating to the decision to seek the WTO's help with the banana dispute, the U.S. Trade Representative's office stalled, saying it was having trouble coordinating its many files. When it finally began turning over documents last December, many were censored or blank, with the USTR claiming that release of the information would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

    The Banana Baron's Lament
    Carl Lindner began investing in bananas in the 1970s, and by 1984 he had acquired a controlling interest in one of America's enduring brand names. Lindner and his family, through their American Financial Group, own 40% of the outstanding shares in Chiquita Brands International, based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

    Before Lindner bought in, Chiquita Brands was the old United Fruit Co., a ruthless buccaneer that earned a justifiable reputation as a tyrant that bribed officials of foreign governments, used armed force to keep its workers in line and generally mistreated its thousands of dirt-poor laborers on impoverished Caribbean islands and Central American plantations. All of which helps explain why Chiquita was--and is--the world's dominant banana producer.

    But how did it come to pass that the U.S. government launched a trade war over bananas at the expense of small American businesses, especially since the U.S. does not export bananas and Chiquita employs no American production workers?

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