Fruit of the Poison Tree

Banana republic: The Dole sunburst logo is ubiquitous in Costa Rica, from an ad at Juan Santamaria International Airport vowing to "produce in harmony with the environment" to the trailers waiting at a processing plant for their cargo of bananas. The pesticide DBCP was pumped into the soil with handheld injectors, at bottom.
Charles E. Ames

For banana growers, the pesticide DBCP seemed like a godsend when it came on the market in the 1960s. The chemical has no equal for killing parasites that can devastate a banana crop. But DBCP proved to be uniquely effective for another purpose as well: sterilizing the men who worked with it.

Carlos Sosa knows all about DBCP's horrible side effect. Back in the 1970s, the thought that the foul-smelling mist he was injecting into the Costa Rican soil might be ravaging his reproductive glands never entered his mind. These days the thought seldom leaves it. His testicles have withered to a fraction of their normal size since his years working for American fruit giant Dole Food Company Inc., spraying the American-made chemical on bananas destined for American grocery stores.

It seems only fair that now he is looking to America for justice. To America or, more specifically, to a Dallas County jury that, starting next week, will determine just how much Dole should pay for allegedly emasculating Sosa and hundreds of his co-workers--or if the company should pay at all.

The sheer scope of the problem defies the imagination. The chemical, whose full name is dibromochloropropane, was used for decades on bananas from Uganda to the Philippines. In Costa Rica alone, where DBCP use ended in 1979, estimates of the number of affected workers range from 2,000 to 20,000. A full accounting may never be possible in this West Virginia-sized nation of 4 million people, because many of the victims are ashamed to come forward.

In Central America, fertility is a reflection of virility, and "los afectados"--"the affected ones"--have been the objects of scorn and even the target of jokes. One Costa Rican government official was heard to compare them to neutered beasts of burden, saying that "oxen work better than bulls."

Sosa, 49, a barrel-chested, voluble man with thick black hair and angular features that hint at Indian descent, speaks quite openly about his injuries--to a point. "My left testicle is this small," he says, placing his forefinger a hairsbreadth away from his thumb. Tests of his semen reveal some 500,000 sperm per milliliter; anything below 10 million is generally considered sterile.

Among the affected workers, impotence has exacted a high price in divorces. Sosa readily admits that his sterility has extended to problems in the bedroom, straining his marriage. He tells of friends who allowed their wives to have children with other men to keep their marriages together. But of his own two medically improbable children, Sosa will only say, "I love them as my own."

The Dallas trial involves 370 plaintiffs who worked for Dole in and around the town of Rio Frio in central Costa Rica. The group is part of a massive wave of DBCP litigation, Borja v. Dow, begun in 1993 when some 26,000 banana workers from 23 countries filed suit against a group of chemical companies and banana growers in American courts.

A federal judge rejected most of those suits, sending them back to their home countries under a legal doctrine called forum non conveniens. In Costa Rica, however, the nation's highest court ruled that the "convenient forum" was indeed the United States. Now some 6,000 cases have returned to American courts, and the Borja suit has come to trial--12 years after it was filed.

Five of the companies involved--manufacturers Dow, Shell and Occidental and banana growers Del Monte and Chiquita--settled with the workers in 1997 and 1998, coughing up more than $50 million. Dole, however, chose to fight on.

"We feel that these claims are absolutely without merit," says Dole's lead counsel in the Dallas case, Terry Murphy of the Jones Day law firm. His take is that many of the Borja plaintiffs are hoping to cash in on health problems that have nothing to do with DBCP. In 1992, Dole and others settled a DBCP lawsuit brought by Costa Rican workers for $20 million. "In that first case, there may have been some injured workers," Murphy concedes, "but not these guys."

Sosa couldn't be happier about Dole's intransigence. He received about $1,000 from the settlement with the other companies--but no apology. "The irreversible damage we have, the best lawyer for the other side couldn't pay for it," he says. "Nobody can." Sosa wants confirmation that he and his fellow workers were wronged. "The only way to truly exact justice is in a trial."

At long last, he'll get one. Both sides have been preparing for this courtroom clash for more than a decade. Dallas personal injury lawyer Fred Misko, the plaintiff's lead counsel, will try to sway the jury with the bigger picture: the humiliation that his clients have suffered and their sense of betrayal at the hands of their wealthy employer. Murphy will try to raise doubts about the specifics of each case, playing up the fact that many of the plaintiffs do have children and stressing the near impossibility of establishing exactly how much of the toxin each worker was exposed to.  

Five "bellwether cases" were randomly selected from among the Borja plaintiffs for trial. The cases will be used by both sides to test arguments and tactics for the trials to follow in the Texas courts and elsewhere. For Sosa and thousands like him, their hopes for what they see as redemption depend on what happens over the next few weeks in Dallas.

Miguel Picado Ruiz, 51, is one of the bellwether plaintiffs. He is a compact man with heavy-lidded eyes, a neatly trimmed mustache and close-cropped dark hair. His weathered complexion and mocha-colored skin are traits that he shares with most of the plaintiffs in the case, as is the story that pours out in a pleasantly raspy voice.

Like Sosa and most of his fellow plaintiffs, Picado sees the Borja trial as representing much more than monetary compensation for sterility. He is looking for retribution for a life of poverty, of poor health and of stolen pride, all of which can be attributed, in his opinion, directly to one source: Dole Food Company Inc.

The village where Picado lives is called, appropriately, Sagrada Familia, or "sacred family." It's a bit grandiose for what is really just a handful of houses, some of concrete, others of scrap lumber, clustered on a treacherous dirt road snaking through central Costa Rica's banana plantations near Rio Frio. Picado's home, though modest, is one of the more presentable structures, concrete with cheery yellow paint and wood trim around the door and window.

Still, it's a far cry from Dallas, where Picado and his wife, Elieth, traveled in September to give depositions. "The first thing I noticed was the vegetation," he says of his trip. "There's no green." In fairness, few places in the United States could compare with the verdant extravagance of Sagrada Familia's tropical setting. His wife was more amazed by Dallas' highways. "They're enormous," she says, the astonishment still in her voice. "So many lanes!"

The two sit with their shoulders touching, Elieth listening intently as her husband speaks, but Picado says that in the past, his frequent inability to have sex hurt their marriage. Picado suffers from a variety of other ailments--joint pain and headaches--that, along with his impotence, he attributes to DBCP.

The EPA listed the chemical as a carcinogen in 1975, and in conversations with other plaintiffs, one hears stories even worse than Picado's, tales of villages plagued with miscarriages, birth defects and cancer.

Even this laundry list of grievances, however, doesn't begin to explain the importance of this case in the minds of the farmers. In Costa Rica, banana workers usually earn $200 to $300 a month, or about half of the national average, and the struggle for decent wages has become intertwined with the DBCP issue.

American produce companies have a long and often unsavory history in the region, marked by labor disputes, land grabs and political machinations, some so blatant that they spawned the term "banana republic" in reference to the corporations' unchecked power. The plunder of Central America at the hands of the fruit companies is part of the regional folklore, incorporated in the works of Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As unlikely as it may seem, the reproductive problems of these aging agricultural workers have in a sense become a rallying point for national pride.

For the plaintiffs, that fact has magnified the importance of next week's trial in the 116th District Court well beyond the prospect, however attractive, of pocketing a few thousand dollars apiece. "I hope that the outcome will show that we are all equally valuable as people in the eyes of God," Picado says gravely.

His victory is far from certain, however. Nobody is disputing that DBCP is, in the words of one of Misko's colleagues, "the most horrifying testicular toxin on this planet." But most scientific data linking the poison to other illnesses besides sterility comes from lab animals, not humans. Further, it is virtually impossible to determine exactly how much of the chemical the plaintiffs were exposed to from quarter-century-old memories and sketchy work documents. Picado does have a low sperm count, but Dole's medical experts attribute that to a natural condition called varicocele, which they say they've found in three of the five bellwethers (a urologist for the plaintiffs disputes that diagnosis). Perhaps most likely to raise eyebrows among the jurors is the fact that Picado has three children, two girls and a boy, all born after his exposure to DBCP.  

The vulnerabilities of Picado's case aren't unique. Initially, nine bellwethers were randomly selected by a court official, but Misko's team decided to drop four of them as virtually unwinnable cases. Of the five remaining plaintiffs, all but one have children, and their exposure varies in duration from months, as in Picado's case, to mere days.

The possible holes in the bellwether cases have Murphy convinced he can win for Dole. "Most of them were not around the chemical at all," he says of the plaintiffs. "Among the five bellwethers, there are nine children, seven of them born after they say they were exposed. And the guy that has no kids has a normal sperm count!"

Murphy shakes his head as he sits behind his broad desk in a Turtle Creek office building. "I have absolutely no problem with these guys," he says. "I know they're not bad guys. I sympathize with their problems--but we didn't cause them."

Fred Misko has no doubts about the strength of his clients' case--none he admits to, anyway. "This is the worst case of corporate malfeasance I have ever seen," he says in his mild yet penetrating voice.

After living with this case for more than a decade, Misko's attitude is an interesting amalgam of realism and righteousness. "I wonder if [Dole owner David Murdock] even knows about this case," he says. "I imagine we're just a line item on the budget for him--litigation costs."

Of the $50 million-plus settlement with the other defendants, Misko says he and his firm collected several million in fees. For the trial, Misko is not asking for a specific amount, but he does venture an opinion. "I think for the kind of damages that we see here, a million dollars a head is fair," he says, noting that American plaintiffs in DBCP cases won even more. If his decade-plus effort in Borja isn't entirely altruistic, it has been tenacious, and as part of any settlement, he says, he'll try to extract a pledge that Dole will abide by U.S. environmental laws wherever it operates.

This mix of crusader and capitalist also applies to Misko's Costa Rican counterparts. Costa Rican lawyer Susana Chaves, Misko's principal local collaborator, got involved in the case through her uncle Roberto Chaves, a doctor who was among the first researchers to begin documenting the devastating effects of DBCP in Costa Rica. She began working on the first case fresh out of law school in the 1980s, with little thought, she says, of financial gain. Nevertheless, the 1992 settlement agreement made her and her uncle comfortably wealthy.

Chaves has the proud bearing and no-nonsense attitude of a woman who has risen high in a male-dominated society. She thought she was finished with DBCP litigation after the settlement. "I came in the next day and thought, 'OK, I can go on and do these other things,'" she says. But she couldn't escape so easily. Her role in the suit was well-known, and other afectados began to seek her out in the days following the settlement, some of them referred by Sosa. She would arrive at her office in San Jose to find a line of waiting banana workers that stretched around the block. She was soon working with Misko on the next round of cases. "I never knew that this would be my life," she says with a laugh. "But it's a full-time job."

Part of that job is acting as a travel agent for her American colleagues when they travel to Costa Rica. In the run-up to the trial, Misko made the trip to meet with his clients and some of the expert witnesses who will testify in Dallas.

At the five-star Real Intercontinental Hotel outside San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, Roberto Chaves joins his niece and Misko for breakfast. Over fresh-cut fruit and made-to-order omelettes, the doctor, with a rumbling voice and bushy gray mustache, reminisces about the early stages of the DBCP cases. He recalls fondly the days he spent crisscrossing the country by train and boat to visit banana workers and talk them into submitting sperm samples for his research.

From the opulence of the hotel, the party heads out of the central valley and into banana country. The heavy commercial traffic on the serpentine mountain highway testifies to the prosperity of Costa Rica that separates it from its neighbors, while the spine-compressing potholes in the road serve as a reminder of all they share in common. The trip to Guapiles, the gritty, ramshackle hub for the surrounding farming towns, takes about an hour and a half. The town of Rio Frio and its outlying villages where most of the plaintiffs live is another 20 minutes, with vast fields of banana plants stretching away on both sides of the road.  

In Guapiles, the visitors are met by Carlos Sosa. He will act as a guide for the day, a necessary task in a zone where house numbers are nonexistent and roads are often flooded or blocked by landslides. Over the years, Sosa has come to dedicate much of his time to the cause, steering fellow bananeros to Susana Chaves and working for her as a driver and liaison of sorts.

The first stop is the home of bellwether plaintiff Oldemar Salas Monge in the tiny village of La Rita. Salas lives with his wife, Dinia, and his 9-year-old daughter, Allison, the girl he calls "my miracle," in a three-room house owned by his current employer, Del Monte. The plywood-walled, tin-roofed worker houses in this complex are arranged in orderly rows, accessible by concrete paths like temporary classrooms outside an overcrowded American high school.

From the banana industry's earliest days in Costa Rica, companies have offered their workers free housing--barracks for the single men, small duplexes or houses like Salas' for the families. It can hardly be called a perk, however: Workers' wages, competitive in the '70s, have declined to the present levels of $1 to $2 an hour for a laborer, making free housing a virtual necessity.

Salas is among the youngest of the plaintiffs at 40 and still works in the banana fields. He welcomes Misko and his companions into his home with an affable grin and patiently recounts the details of his work history that he has gone over many times before.

Salas says he went to work in the banana fields at 13 and that he was exposed to DBCP when he was 15, in 1979--after the substance had been banned. For five days, he worked on a crew detailed to recover all the unused pesticide from the various farms and pour it into barrels at a central warehouse.

"The gas cans were hot, so when we opened them there would be a 'poof,' and the vapor would come up at your face," he recalls.

The very reason he was working with the chemical was because it had been banned as toxic, and yet he says he was told nothing and issued no safety equipment. At times he was literally soaked in the stuff.

After a year of trying to start a family after his 1987 marriage, a test revealed only trace amounts of sperm in Salas' semen. He had given up hope completely until Allison was born in 1996. As Salas talks to Misko with Chaves translating, Allison sits next to him, snuggling under his arm, and his grin reappears every time he glances down at her.

The walls of the home end two feet below the metal roof, leaving a screened gap that allows the tropical air to circulate. The shelf formed by the top of the wall is lined with stuffed animals, Allison's gifts from her doting parents. But like Sosa, Salas endures the sidelong glances of neighbors who wonder if one of "los afectados" can really have fathered a child.

Despite this seemingly outrageous tale of corporate wrongdoing, Salas' story may prove problematic in court. Because he was underage, his work records do not show him working for Dole until 1982, when he turned 18. Additionally, his exposure, though undoubtedly high in concentration, lasted only five days, while most scientific data documenting human health effects is based on exposures of three months or more. And, of course, there is Allison, the ultimate refutation of a claim of sterility.

Sosa bristles whenever weaknesses in the cases are brought up. "The best cases to bring [against Dole] have already died," he states flatly. "The whole family died. Exactly what caused it, nobody can say, but they all died of cancer--the mother, the father and the child. They disappeared."

Misko pays a visit to another of the bellwether clients, Adelicio Vargas Arias, who lives in Rio Frio. Vargas, 46, is polite and dapper, his wide mustache and carefully combed hair giving him the vague aura of a Latino matinee idol. Vargas went to night school after long days among the bananas and now works as a clerk for the government's irrigation agency. By working two jobs he saved enough to buy the small concrete house where he lives with his wife, Sandra, and two daughters.

Sitting on the front porch amid banana and coconut palms and brilliant potted orchids, Misko listens intently as Vargas relates his experiences with DBCP. The tale is repeatedly interrupted as the skies open up, the deafening roar of water pounding on the metal roof precluding any conversation. During the lulls, Vargas describes how he applied the pesticide as part of his work for Dole in the late 1970s.  

Vargas has the exposure history, and his low sperm count has been repeatedly confirmed, but his case has its complications, too. In his younger days, like many single bananeros, he frequented a nightclub where many of the workers came to unwind--and its prostitutes. The two STD episodes that resulted could offer the defense an alternate explanation for his low sperm count.

Even without the prospect of exposure to powerful toxins, life as a Central American banana worker is no sinecure. Banana plants are not a true "tree" but rather a woody shrub, with the trunk made up of the stumps of old fronds. Still, they can stand 20 feet high or more, requiring careful teamwork when harvesting the fruit-laden stems of 100 to 150 bananas weighing more than 100 pounds.

Typically, one employee will perform a variety of jobs on a farm: cutting dying fronds from the plants, clearing the paths between rows, harvesting, even working in the processing plant trimming down the stems into small bunches for shipping. Duties also include bagging the stems of developing fruit in blue, pesticide-impregnated plastic bags and, of course, applying pesticides and herbicides.

DBCP, sold under the commercial names Nemagon or Fumazone, was applied by injecting it into the soil with a pump shaped like a jackhammer. The chemical was created to kill nematodes, soil parasites that attack the banana plant's roots and can eventually kill the entire plant.

Workers who injected DBCP speak of the pungent smell, an acrid odor that would hang in the hot, humid air trapped under the overhanging banana leaves. In mixing and transporting the chemical, direct skin contact wasn't unusual, and in some cases the odor would permeate the air in nearby villages.

Problems with the chemical were first noted early in its development in the late 1950s. A study published in 1961 documented cancer and testicular damage in lab animals exposed to DBCP, but scientists hired by the chemical companies attested to its safety for humans, and it was approved for use in the United States in 1964.

Nevertheless, the lab results prompted safety guidelines that mandated the use of protective clothing. When Dole first began to use the chemical in Central America in the 1960s, boots, gloves and cloth masks were distributed to the farms in accordance with the manufacturers' recommendations. But incredibly, after a few months the safety equipment was recalled.

In 1977, workers at a California DBCP manufacturing plant noticed that "there weren't any children being bore," as one foreman put it. Testing revealed that 35 of the 114 plant workers had been sterilized. Use of the chemical was immediately suspended in the United States, but in Costa Rica and dozens of other countries, workers continued pouring, mixing and spraying--and absorbing.

The ban was made permanent in the United States in 1979, and Costa Rica quickly followed suit. Most accounts say that Dole and other growers simply gathered up their supplies and sent them to farms in other countries. One witness reported DBCP use in the Philippines as late as 1991.

"Accidents happen in any industry," plaintiff Picado says. "The worst part is that this was not an accident."

There is evidence that Picado is not exaggerating. After use of the substance was suspended in the United States in 1977, Dow notified Dole that it intended to stop providing DBCP because of the potential liability. Even though the dangers of the chemical were undeniable by that point, the grower threatened Dow with a lawsuit for breach of contract unless deliveries continued to Central America.

Only after Dole signed an agreement to cover Dow's losses in the event of a lawsuit would the chemical giant resume distributing the toxin. A copy of that agreement will be one of Misko's key exhibits in the trial.

That Borja is going to trial in the United States is a rarity in itself. Much of the tortuous litigation has been over which court, in which country, will host the proceedings.

"The defense will make a lot out of 'what is this doing in a Texas court?'" predicts Charles Siegel, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, "but the simple fact is that Shell, one of the defendants in this case, is based in Texas. It's just that simple--there's nothing improper or deceitful about that."

Murphy disagrees. "I think the plaintiffs' lawyers just thought that Texas was a good state for plaintiffs," he says.

The truth is probably somewhere in between and has a lot to do with a once-obscure doctrine in Scottish jurisprudence called forum non conveniens, literally "inconvenient forum." The doctrine was initially conceived to relocate lawsuits deliberately filed in distant or out-of-the-way venues. Over the years it instead became a means for multinational corporations to avoid facing lawsuits in American courts. For example, after the 1984 Bhopal, India, disaster that killed an estimated 8,000 people, Union Carbide invoked forum non conveniens when survivors sued in U.S. court.  

"Basically, U.S. multinationals want to have it both ways," says Erika Rosenthal, an environmental lawyer and consultant to San Francisco-based activist group Pesticide Action Network. "They want to be able to export their products even if they can't use them here, but they want to be shielded from any liability."

The same year as the Bhopal disaster, Dallas law firm Baron & Budd, best known for its asbestos litigation, filed suit in Houston on behalf of about 1,000 Costa Rican banana workers claiming DBCP injuries. At the time, Texas did not recognize forum non conveniens. After a bitter legal fight, Dow, Dole and the other defendants settled in 1992 for $20 million, and corporate interests, alarmed by the outcome, quickly put pressure on Texas lawmakers to adopt the doctrine.

After that case, banana workers around the world began to come forward, and a former Baron & Budd lawyer, Charles Siegel, teamed up with Misko to file Borja v. Dow in 1993--just a few months before forum non convenienswas formally incorporated into Texas law.

Misko's haste to beat the deadline, however, proved to be in vain. In a brilliant legal move, the defendants brought forum non conveniens back into the picture in 1995 by adding to the case an Israeli government-owned chemical company that also manufactured DBCP. Once a foreign government was involved, the suits automatically fell under federal jurisdiction, where the doctrine is recognized.

"We were all ready to go to trial," Misko says. "We had witnesses lined up, evidence ready, but suddenly everything was frozen." The federal judge sent the workers home, and the cases scattered across the globe, many to countries with scant judicial resources.

Misko was forced to seek a settlement, and in 1997 he got one: $41.5 million from the chemical companies. In 1998, Del Monte and Chiquita also settled--but Dole refused. "I think it's a bad idea," Murphy says of the settlement. "If you sue and you automatically get money, then that just encourages everybody to sue."

In Costa Rica, Borja eventually worked its way to that country's Supreme Court, which ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over the case since it had already been filed in the defendants' home country. The case was returned to America for good, and the bellwether plaintiffs from Rio Frio will be the first of Misko's roughly 6,000 remaining clients to present their case before a jury.

In some ways, it makes sense that Dole is the lone holdout. Of all the defendants, Dole is the only private company, controlled by 81-year-old billionaire David Murdock. Murdock took Dole private in 2003, buying up the outstanding stock of the world's largest produce company for $1.4 billion. With no stock price to worry about, Murdock can ignore any bad publicity surrounding the suit. And with net sales in 2003 of $4.7 billion and control of one-quarter of the world banana market, Dole certainly has the resources to pay any case costs, regardless of the outcome.

But the allegations against Dole clash with the image the reclusive Murdock is cultivating as a wellness guru. He took Dole private in part so he could lavish money on his pet project, the California Health and Longevity Institute. According to company literature, the $1.5 million spa and hotel complex near Malibu will feature "an over 700,000 square-foot complex to comprise medical facilities with physicians on-site providing state-of-the-art diagnostic services; a 267-room five-star hotel to be operated by a first class hotel and resort company; a full-service spa and fitness center; a conference center and an ultra-modern TV production facility..."

The contrast between the superspa and the Dole company town of Rio Frio couldn't be greater. Rio Frio features one paved street, a hangar-like "Mas X Menos" grocery store, a video rental store, a handful of cafes serving chicken, rice and beans, and an inordinate amount of bicycle traffic, cars being well beyond the means of most banana workers.

Following the road out of town where it reverts to cratered mud, a traveler comes to a windowless concrete block building hunkered among the banana plants with the word "Nightclub" spelled out in huge, fading letters on the side. It is here that the overwhelmingly young, male and single banana workforce finds paid female companionship.

No manicured spa can match Rio Frio for sheer greenery, however. Beyond the town's dusty commercial strip, the houses appear in danger of being swallowed by a riotous growth of palm trees, flowering vines, fruit trees and tall tropical grasses. Splashes of neon blooms only underscore the dominance of green. It is no wonder that this fertile land, with abundant rain and mild temperatures year-round, has been coveted by foreign growers since the Spanish colonial era.  

In the battles between companies and workers for the wealth of the land, Dole and its subsidiary Standard Fruit are not as notorious as Chiquita's United Fruit for ruthlessness, but "La Standard" has had its share of controversy. In 2002, thugs working for a Dole subsidiary in Honduras were implicated in the murder of three banana workers claiming homestead rights to unused parcels of the company's. In April 2004, 80 families in Rio Frio that had occupied unused Standard land were forcibly evicted.

Wages of banana workers have actually declined in the last decade, partly because of the price pressures brought by the entry of--who else?--Wal-Mart into the U.S. grocery business. Incredibly, though Costa Rican banana workers make about 500 colones an hour, or just more than $1, they face the prospect of seeing their jobs outsourced to countries where labor is even cheaper, such as Brazil and Ecuador.

How much of that kind of background the jury considers in its deliberations will be a key factor in the outcome. If the jurors concentrate solely on the details of each case, Dole may be able to exploit individual gaps and inconsistencies and emerge with a favorable verdict. On the other hand, the plaintiffs' team will try to contrast the steps Dole took to protect itself with the steps it didn't take to protect its employees. If they are successful, the banana giant may come off looking like an unrepentant villain.

"I've always thought that if we can get this to a trial, the jury is going to hate them," Misko says.

It has worked that way for Carlos Sosa. "To have a cheap product in the States, we have paid for it here," Sosa says. "Those sons of bitches, they don't even understand the problem--this is not a financial problem; this is a human problem."

Borja has already had important legal repercussions for the future of forum non conveniens. The Costa Rican courts' refusal to try the case may spell the beginning of the end for the doctrine as a corporate legal dodge. Environmental lawyers are watching closely as well, looking for clues as to how to pursue other cases against multinational firms in U.S. courts.

Courts in other countries have rendered verdicts against Dole and its usual slate of co-defendants, most significantly a 2002 judgment in Nicaragua for $489.4 million. In that case, as in others, the companies have refused to pay on the grounds that the Nicaraguan laws have been rigged against them. In essence, the only realistic hope employees in developing countries have of making a judgment stick against a U.S. company is in American courts.

For the Rio Frio banana workers, though, the trial in Dallas has even greater significance.

"For a few miserable colones, [Dole] took us for complete idiots," Sosa says. "They threw us away like garbage." As he warms to his subject, the intensity in his voice begins to build, offering a glimpse of the frustration of a proud man humiliated. "The fact that we've gone to the courts of the United States, we the Latino Indians, gives us a lot of pride. It's very important. It's transcendent."

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