In these golden days of early autumn, Chile’s central valley is normally as busy as a beehive gathering in the fruits of a long year’s work. This year, because of two poisoned grapes placed by unknown hands in a shipment to the United States, the valley is crippled and in shock.
I live in this valley, in a farmhouse surrounded by an orchard of nectarines, apples and grapes. My neighbors are mainly fruit growers, producers, packers, truckers and rural laborers. They work the four seasons to produce some of the best fruit in the world and the rhythms of their lives culminate in the annual harvest.
Last Tuesday, thousands of men and women who had been harvesting hand-groomed bunches of grapes, flawless Packham pears and hearty red Delicious apples were assembled in front of the packing houses and told that they were out of work. Some men fainted. Women sobbed. The farm owners promised to rehire everyone--if the U.S. ban on fruit imports from Chile was lifted (as it was on Friday).
But as the week advanced, the crisis only deepened. Refrigerated trucks carrying fruit to ports disappeared from the Pan-American Highway. Huge new packing houses that line the highway were locked and surrounded by security guards.
The Chilean government, headed by a military dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, held emergency cabinet meetings all week, as if Chile were confronting an act of war. Demonstrators marched around the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, scattering leaflets and shouting anti-American slogans.
Most of the people in my town don’t care much for military dictators. A majority voted against Pinochet’s bid last year for another eight years in power. But whatever they feel about Pinochet, they unanimously reject a sabotage campaign against Chile’s hard-earned position as an international fruit exporter.
“The social problem is going to be enormous,” said Ramon Achurra, who operates a large farm and packing operation. “Chile’s fruit industry employs 300,000 workers, and with their families this suspension affects at least 1 million people. The central valley is going to be a cemetery of all their hopes this year.”
My neighbor, Juan Ramon Cuevas, a farm foreman, and his wife Macarena, who is expecting their third child, had bought some furniture on credit, expecting to be able to pay with the harvest bonus. There will be no bonuses this year. They may lose their furniture. Ricardo Soto, who has hauled fruit for me, bought a second truck to take fruit to the ports of San Antonio and Valparaiso, the hubs of Chile’s $600-million-a-year fruit export business. Then he was notified that all truck contracts had been canceled. Still, he has payments each month on the truck.
As telexes poured into the offices of export firms canceling orders for shipments of Chilean fruit, the dimensions of the crisis widened. Export firms defaulted on bank loans, shipping contracts were broken by foreign brokers and farmers, with refrigerated warehouses loaded to capacity, watched ripe fruit begin to fall in their orchards with no place to go.
“There has been a hysterical overreaction in the United States and Europe,” onegrower said. “There is no plausible relationship between two poisoned grapes and 30 million boxes of quality grapes that we ship to the United States.”
But however implausible, the reality was as devastating as an earthquake. A telex from A&P;, the U.S. supermarket chain, to the Chilean Fruit Exporters Assn. gave little hope: “When we resume offering Chile’s fruit to the public, whether next month or next season, we must be able to offer a safe piece of fruit, free of tampering. We must remove the cloud of doubt.”
In the central valley, people are too baffled by the reaction in foreign markets to have a clear idea of how to get their fruit back on the shelves of American supermarkets. The government plans a major advertising campaign abroad to restore confidence in Chilean fruit. And even though the United States has lifted the ban, this year’s harvest seems lost, with ruin for many, large and small.