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Thousands Jobless : Confused Chile Workers Turn Anger on U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Even in a town accustomed to earthquakes, people are finding it impossible to fathom the worldwide shock waves emanating from their two bad grapes.

Curacavi, a town of 8,000 residents west of Santiago that built its future on grapes and other fruits for export, now is collectively dumbfounded. And many here and elsewhere in Chile are directing their growing anger at the United States, accusing it of caving in to economic terrorism and even of threatening Chile’s transition to democracy by overreacting to the poison threat.

The U.S. ban on importing Chilean fruits, imposed Monday after the discovery of traces of cyanide in two grapes out of a crate from a Curacavi farm, already has thrown tens of thousands of grape pickers, truck drivers and dock workers out of work, industry spokesmen said Wednesday.

At the height of the Chilean harvest, picking and shipping have been halted until at least Friday while the fruit is inspected to assure foreign buyers that it is safe.

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In the eye of the storm is Julia Saavedra’s tidy farm, a couple of miles outside of Curacavi on the road from Santiago to the port city of Valparaiso. U.S. officials say it is the source of the tainted fruit.

“For two grapes, how can they do so much damage?” asked Andres Undurraga Saavedra, the owner’s son, who manages the 125-acre farm and its modest fruit-packing plant.

“Now, when all Chileans want to return to democracy, they want to destroy this possibility,” he said. “What the U.S. government has done now is to help world terrorism . . . . By reacting so drastically, this is encouraging it to happen again. It’s like hijackings. If you give in, you encourage others.”

Undurraga said that, if the Americans are certain that the grapes came from his family’s farm, they should have banned his grapes alone, not all fruit products from Chile.

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“This is an aggression against the entire country,” he said.

Wants Bush to Eat Grapes

To restore American government credibility, internationally and with its own consumers, Undurraga proposed, “President George Bush should explain that it was an error, and he should eat Chilean grapes in front of the cameras.”

While Undurraga chatted with a reporter, government agriculture inspectors checked the fruit-packing plant on the flat plain of the Curacavi Valley, surrounded by dry, brown peaks. The conveyor belts in the open-sided packing shed were idle, and about 20,000 cases of green and red seedless table grapes were stacked to the ceiling in the three-story brick refrigeration building.

The grape grower said that a key element of successful exporting is quality control, on which Chilean producers pride themselves: "(Sales) have grown in the United States because we have met the high demands of consumers there.”

He said his workers clean each bunch, sort the grapes according to quality and then pack them for storage until the grapes are fumigated, just before export.

Neither Chilean nor U.S. officials have indicated whether they think the grapes were laced with cyanide in the field, in packing, at the docks in Valparaiso or during shipping.

Employs 200 Workers

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With its production of 80,000 crates a year, built up over 10 years, the Saavedra farm has grown to be No. 2 in grape output in the valley. Along with a permanent staff of 20, the operation employs up to 200 workers during the growing and harvest season--December to April in the Southern Hemisphere, perfect timing for delivering fruit to winter-bound northern countries.

“This damages the whole Chilean economy as much as an earthquake--or worse, because, with an earthquake, you know what happened and what you have to do afterwards,” he said.

About 20 workers milled around angrily outside the farm gate on the highway Wednesday morning after demanding in vain that they be paid a month’s dismissal wages. They had been told Tuesday to go home until operations are resumed.

Their complaints reflect part of the Chilean dichotomy: impressive overall economic growth that has not been translated into much well-being for the poor.

Right-wing President Augusto Pinochet, the army general who took power in a 1973 coup, relied heavily on Chile’s export boom in his unsuccessful campaign in October for eight more years in power. He emphasized the growth of fruit sales abroad, which have more than doubled in five years to $585 million a year.

However, the Saavedra farm workers say they are paid 700 pesos a day, or less than $3, with no benefits. They formed a union in January with others in the valley, but no grower has agreed to negotiate with them, the union president, Guido Flores, said.

“The government talks of exports, of growth, but we don’t see it. It doesn’t reach us,” he said. “We want to share in the progress of Chile, too.”

When asked whether any of the workers might have poisoned the grapes, the men, most of them in their teens and 20s, responded nearly in unison: “Why would we deny ourselves work?”

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Jorge Reyes, 42, said the only positive aspect of the crisis was that “it might call attention to how they treat us.”

A workers’ neighborhood of one-room brick row houses in the town exemplifies a government achievement, providing cheap housing, but it also underscores the hardships that the people face here. In the Carol Urzua district, named for a kidnaped and assassinated general, young Jaime Oyanadel said he had not worked since February. He said nine people live in his 3-year-old house, which measures about 15 feet by 15 feet.

Residents said the government recently had sold mortgages for the houses to a private firm, which was now demanding back payments, and many families feared eviction. Chile’s campaign to privatize industries and public services has been a cornerstone of government policy.

One mother, Noemi Toro, said diarrhea among children is common, many families make do with potatoes as a staple and crime has increased because people earn so little from the seasonal farm work.

Mayor Julio Sagredo said the crisis would affect at least 2,000 people, a quarter of the town’s population, who work in the fruit industry. “It’s like after an earthquake--you can’t estimate the damage immediately.” He said the most recent major quake occurred in 1985 and demolished 85% of the buildings in town.

Among the townspeople and an additional 8,000 people who live throughout the valley, the mayor said, the reaction has been “surprise and incredulity.”

At the agricultural cooperative near the quiet, tree-lined town square, manager Eduardo Araya said the 80 members were reeling from the U.S. ban and saying: “This can’t be, this is a thing without a name,” that is, indescribable.

All work has stopped. That means not only at farms and packinghouses but transport and related businesses, he said.

“It is strange to me that the United States is prejudicing all of Chile,” Araya continued. “How did they know where to look (for the bad grapes)? There is a black hand in this, I am sure.”

Why would anyone seek to sabotage the economy, especially after Pinochet’s defeat in the plebiscite, which put Chile on the road toward open elections? Araya was asked.

“There is jealousy everywhere because this country has been growing so fast under Pinochet,” he replied. “Some people might do anything to hurt us.”

Araya said inspectors were checking all operations in the valley, which he compared to California--long, narrow, mountainous and perfect for fruit.

In Santiago, the national capital, government officials refused to say what direction their investigation is taking.

The president of the State Bank, Alvaro Bardon, told reporters that the crisis could “signify that the transition (to democracy) could be frustrated.”

Bardon said that, given the damage to the national economy, emergency measures might be needed “that would not be consistent with maintaining the normal political order.”

Bardon, who had been a major Pinochet campaigner last year, added that, “when there are serious economic crises, democracies collapse . . . . This is a measure of aggression by the United States, of a sector of the State Department (and) by certain Chilean political sectors . . . .”

The focus of Chilean anger appeared to shift on Tuesday from communism to the American decision itself with a statement by Adm. Jose Merino, the military junta member for the navy, who described the U.S. ban as “one of the many despicable acts that the United States has carried out against our country since independence.” He said the United States is disposed “to take up anything that is against the Chilean government.”


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