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Banned Fruit Provokes Chilean ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Against U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Despite the torrents of rhetoric pouring forth over Chile’s “grapes of wrath,” no one has yet made a persuasive case explaining who could benefit by poisoning exported fruit--and shutting down a vital national industry.

Lacking an obvious culprit at home, many Chileans have focused their ire on the United States, which banned Chilean fruit Monday after finding traces of cyanide in two grapes. A few hundred protesters assembled outside the U.S. Consulate on Thursday to protest the ban, which in the worst-case scenario threatens up to 250,000 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Americans, Don’t Cut Off Our Hands,” one banner said.

President Augusto Pinochet visited two packing plants, ate two grapes and an apple, and said the United States “wants to kill a fly with a tank.”

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In the first reprisal taken against any of the several countries that have barred Chilean fruit, Adm. Jose Toribio Merino, the military junta member for the navy, said five Japanese fishing boats have been detained in Chilean ports and will not be permitted to sail until Japan lifts its prohibition on Chilean fruit, according to the semiofficial news agency Orbe. He gave no indication of a legal basis for the action.

Some Chileans flatly disbelieve the discovery of cyanide. Others, on the far right, have suggested that the U.S. government itself, or left-wing Americans hostile to Chile, are to blame.

Yet the government, while referring generally to “terrorism” and “international communism,” has not explained why its foes would resort to such methods so soon after winning their first political victory over Pinochet since he took power in a coup in 1973.

Members of the 17-party opposition alliance note that they have every reason to ensure the health of the economy after the defeat of Pinochet in last October’s plebiscite because the alliance has a strong chance of winning presidential and congressional elections in December. Had Pinochet won the ballot, and thus extended his rule by eight more years, they say, theories of leftist sabotage would have had far more currency than they do now, in a time of transition to democracy, which the opposition had sought for so long.

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“In current Chilean terms, this is irrational; it damages the opposition very badly,” said Jaime Estevez, a think-tank economist and a leader of the left-of-center Party for Democracy. “Since we are likely to win the election, we would be damaging our own economic prospects.”

Estevez added: “Some also wonder if the government might be trying to create a pretext to stay in power, but that doesn’t seem rational either. . . . This must be a group of crazies, who may try to define themselves as a political movement of some sort.”

Chile’s Communist Party has angrily denied any role, and in turn accused the government of diverting attention from the use of dangerous chemicals in agriculture, which the party said may have affected the grapes. Agronomists, however, have virtually discounted such a possibility.

The Communist Party, illegal in Chile, is holding a nominally clandestine congress, its first in two decades, and is expected to advise its members to take part in the December election. Many analysts say, given the political changes of recent months, the party has shed some of its doctrinaire ideology in favor of pragmatism.

It was the left-wing newspaper Fortin Diario that applied the John Steinbeck title to the current crisis, a usage that is fast gaining favor here. In an editorial that carried the phrase as its headline, the paper said that an incident in which all Chileans are suffering “is being used as an oxygen tank by an agonized government dictatorship that vainly tries to blame the opposition.”

On the right, the most fanatical Pinochet supporters might want to keep Pinochet in power, but the two largest right-wing parties, National Renovation and the Union of Democratic Independents, are committed to the electoral process and have distanced themselves from Pinochet. The businessmen who have suffered from the fruit ban are among the principal supporters of those parties, and would not likely tolerate such tactics.

Chile has no major competition for its American fruit market because its harvest occurs during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter. Therefore farmers here regard economic sabotage by competitors as implausible. Furthermore, fruit industries in other producer countries have noted that copycat cases could hurt them, too, in the future, and the psychological impact affects all fruit producers.

The conservative newspaper El Mercurio recalled that foreign trade unions had come to Chile recently and raised the possibility of a boycott of Chilean products, among them fruit, to press demands including the release of two labor leaders sent into internal exile last year.

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But fruit industry laborers seem unlikely to want to kill their own source of income. Farm workers in Chile complain that they do not share the profits of Chile’s export boom, and seasonal fruit pickers earn less than $3 a day, working without contracts, recognized unions or benefits. But in rural areas there are few if any job options.

Furthermore, however militant the dockworkers may be in the port city of Valparaiso, they too, have discounted the possibility that anyone from their ranks would help paralyze the docks.

The limited information available on the two anonymous phone calls to the U.S. Embassy here in early March offers few insights. The male caller, with a Chilean accent, apparently rambled on about the bad Chilean government and the problems of the poor. He is known to have answered some questions from the embassy employee who tried to elicit details.

The calls were specific about the poisoning of fruit headed for the United States, but the man did not disclose the shipment involved. U.S. officials say investigators in Philadelphia chose crates of grapes at random from a ship that left Chile on Feb. 27, three days before the first phone call.

The calls do not appear to have been taped or traced. Embassy officials have declined to discuss details, saying the Chileans are investigating.

Appeals Court Judge Domingo Yurac Soto was appointed Wednesday to serve as coordinator of the Chilean probe.


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