MAYA KING AND INDEPENDENCE VILLAGES, Thurs. Oct. 22, 2015–Today, a demonstration was staged in front of the offices of the Banana Growers Association, the exporter for Fyffes, in Independence Village, by hundreds of workers of Meridian Enterprise Limited, located in Mayan King Village. These workers, their families and other sympathetic supporters were protesting the recent move by Fyffes, an Irish multi-national business, to sever its business relationship with Meridian Enterprise—a decision which means that they are now out of a job, and suffering through no fault of their own.
Fyffes has said that its decision follows reports that John Zabaneh, whom the United States of America had designated as a “drug kingpin” in 2012 over alleged ties to the Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel, has been connected with Meridian Enterprise. Zabaneh had formerly operated a banana business under Maya King Ltd.
When the US stamped Zabaneh as a “drug kingpin,” that opened the door to sanctions imposed by what is arguably, at this time, the mightiest nation on earth, and poor countries like Belize are virtually helpless against its sanctions, fair or not.
The US’s Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act prohibits individuals, even if they are from other countries, from conducting business with individuals declared by the US to be drug dealers, or companies associated with such individuals, or suffer the consequences, which can be harsh, as many individuals and companies have found out.
Simply put, US authorities can freeze these persons and companies’ assets in US banks or other monetary institutions connected to US banks. If other countries’ banks can’t do business with US banks, the consequences are dire, especially if the countries are poor and financially dependent on US banking services.
In a nutshell, Fyffes are afraid that they may themselves come under sanctions by associating with “lepers” such as a company whose owner has been stamped “drug kingpin,” even if no proof has been offered by the US, and even if it’s a different company, under different management.
Changing the name from Mayan King to Meridian Enterprise, and putting the business under new management, is apparently no protection from US officials.
At the demonstration today were the principal and teachers of United Community Primary School, (UCPS) who took off the afternoon to give their support.
Anthony A. Zuniga, principal of UCPS, said that the school’s population is about 800 and he believes that about 150 of his students will be directly affected by this US embargo on Zabaneh.
Zuniga said the children, whose families had migrated to Belize to work in the banana sector, have been in tears since their parents told them that they will have to relocate to Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras—the birthplaces of their parents.
“This entire situation will have some adverse effects on our school, economically and population-wise.” Zuniga added.
Jose David Gonzalez, the Director of Meridian Enterprise, told Amandala that Mayan King was the former trading name of Meridian Enterprise.
Gonzalez said: “The contract to purchase banana is with Meridian Enterprise. Mayan King was actually a previous management company for the assets that belong to Myrtle Sherran, the 80-year-old mother of John Zabaneh.”
Gonzalez furthermore explained that, “Meridian Enterprise manages the land assets of Myrtle Sherran and John Zabaneh is Myrtle Sherran’s official spokesperson.”
Gonzalez added that Zabaneh has been in communication with Fyffes, which had come to their aid during the recent drought. Additionally, Zabaneh, acting as the spokesperson for Meridian Enterprise, told a local media house that Fyffes had offered financial assistance.
According to an article in the Irish Times dated Friday, October 23, 2015, it was the revelation that Zabaneh was acting as a spokesperson for Meridian Enterprise which has caused Fyffes to immediately sever ties with Meridian.
Fyffes dismissed the allegation that it has offered financial aid to Zabaneh or the farms. It claimed to have severed ties with Zabaneh since 2012 when the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Zabaneh as a “drug kingpin” under their US Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, which prohibits individuals from conducting business with drug dealers or companies associated with such individuals. However, the Irish company continued to do business with Meridian Enterprise.
Gonzalez said that it was on October 15 that the devastating news was received in a letter which stated that Fyffes would no longer be conducting business with Meridian Enterprise.
Gonzalez said about two thousand people are being affected. Everyone living in Mayan King works on the banana plantation.
Gonzalez added that they have workers living in other villages such as Santa Cruz, San Roman, Santa Rosa, Maya Mopan and Georgetown, who are depending on their company.
Amlie Tzir, 28, is married with three children, and her family is only one of hundreds affected by Fyffes’ decision to stop doing business with Meridian Enterprise. Tzir has been living on the banana plantation at Maya King Village 13 years now, since she got married.
Tzir said that her husband works as a captain on the plantation, while she is employed making the strings that are used for tying the bananas. She said the situation is a sad one, since the couple, who have three children, have been left without jobs.
She expressed hope that Fyffes would resume its business relationship with Meridian Enterprise, adding that Meridian Enterprise provides housing for its workers on the plantation and the workers only need to pay $30 a month, making the arrangement cheaper for them to afford.
Gonzalez said, “The Banana Growers Association signed an exclusive arrangement with Fyffes, and so we have no other recourse than to sell to Fyffes, since they have a monopoly operation in our country. Gonzalez did not want to reveal the actual amount his business earned for the year from selling to Fyffes, but admitted it was in excess of 10 million dollars.
Gonzalez said that he has made efforts to reach a middle ground with Fyffes, but to no avail. Meanwhile they have opened a soup kitchen and are providing food for their workers.
Gonzalez said, “I can honestly tell you, in my opinion, that Mr. John Zabaneh is just a pawn that the Americans are playing in this region. They are master chess players and they are very good at sleight-of-hand, and they make you look at the left hand while they are doing something else with the right hand; that is just their way of doing things. I honestly believe within 5 to 10 years the truth will come out, because we are living in an age that no secret can stay hidden long enough.”
According to Irish Times, Zabaneh has confessed to being convicted of marijuana-related charges in the 80s.
Gonzalez said, “Whenever you pick a scapegoat, you have to make sure that scapegoat is not that clean, because you want your story to be credible; that is why they actually choose him. I believe we have reached irreconcilable differences with Fyffes; nevertheless, we will see what our legal recourse is in terms of damages.”
The situation is serious for Meridian Enterprise, since they are not even able to get a bank overdraft because of John Zabaneh’s kingpin designation; no bank in Belize is willing to do business with them.
However, the Belize Social Security Board (SSB) recently approved a multimillion-dollar loan for Meridian Enterprise, SSB’s chairman had confirmed to Amandala, citing the fact that collateral for the loan was being put up by Sherran and not Zabaneh, although he was known to help administer her estate.