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Grapes of Wrath and Strained Relations with Chile

Grocery stores throughout the United States pulled tons of grapes from their shelves when traces of cyanide were found in two grapes shipped from Chile to Philadelphia on March 13, 1989. The Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration advised Americans to get rid of all fruit in their homes unless they were certain it was not from Chile.

Hundreds of inspectors from the food agency and the Agriculture Department checked Chilean fruit stopped by the U.S. Government at ports of entry. The inspections began after an agitated anonymous caller to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago revealed he had poisoned grapes bound for the U.S. The ban on Chilean produce led to angry demonstrations in Chile and posed another setback to bilateral relations, which had been struggling to return to normalcy after the dark days of the Pinochet regime.

George F. Jones was the Deputy Chief of Mission at this time. He related his experience in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in August, 1996.  Charles Anthony Gillespie was the U.S. Ambassador to Santiago from 1988-1991, and told his side of the story in a September, 1995 interview, also with Kennedy.

To read more about Chile, the impact of agricultural issues in international relations, or South America, please follow the links.


“You stick around too long, you get into trouble” 

George F. Jones, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy Santiago, 1985-1989

JONES:  Chile is the country of my most bizarre experiences…. That was the story of the poisoned grape. Timing in life is everything … You stick around too long, you get into trouble. (Jones is at left.)

Had I left Chile as [Ambassador] Harry Barnes did in November of ’88 right after the plebiscite [on whether Pinochet should stay in power until 1997], we would have all been covered in glory, both externally and internally in Chile and the U.S. It would have been great. Tony Gillespie came in as Ambassador. The agreement was that I would stick around for about six months after he got there before leaving myself, to help him get his feet on the ground and get started.

I guess it was right around the turn of the year, we got an anonymous phone call. Somebody called up the embassy out of the blue and said that he had injected cyanide into grapes that were being shipped to the United States.

I’m trying to remember what he used as a justification for this. It was nothing political. I mean he didn’t say this was because of the plebiscite or the Rodrigo Rojas case [a young Chilean photographer who grew up in the U.S. and who was burned alive during an anti-Pinochet demonstration in 1986] or anything like that. I think it was to the effect that he didn’t have a job, and the economy was going to hell, and nobody would listen to him. So he just wanted to warn us that he had taken this dramatic act of protest.

Well, what the heck do you do? Of course you report this. Bearing in mind all of the injunctions from Washington about not over classifying, we sent it in unclassified. Absolutely nothing to protect about this phone call.

But that of course meant that it went to the Department of Agriculture, U.S. Customs and all these agencies in Washington who had no ability to discriminate between one kind of information and another, and they halted the importation of Chilean grapes over the weekend.

When we found out about it, the State Department was horrified; we were horrified. We were told sternly never to send anything like this in unclassified ever again. ‘You can’t let Agriculture get their hands on a State Department cable, for gosh sakes!’

With a lot of frantic work by the embassy and by the State Department, we persuaded them to release the grapes and start importing them normally again. And in fact it was even by a miracle kept out of the papers because we had gotten it turned around again fairly quickly.

The grape exporters of course knew what had happened. Once again I was chargé. All of these things seemed to happen when I was chargé, and I had the honor of calling them in and apologizing and explaining what had happened and so on, the heads of the major exporting associations. And so we breathed a huge sigh of relief; things were back to normal.

Then this guy called again, and assured us that ‘you haven’t found it, but I did poison those grapes. I just want to assure you of that.’ So we reported that, classified this time. As a result of the second report, the fruit inspectors for the Department of Agriculture began a very intensive search. They didn’t stop the importation this time, but they began a very intensive sampling of imported grapes.

During the winter, because we have opposite seasons, Chilean grapes are grown when the snow is on the ground in the U.S., and vice-versa. Our two markets fit together relatively well. Lo and behold, on a Sunday I think, an inspector found a couple of strange looking grapes, literally two out of hundreds of thousands if not millions of grapes, and what looked to him like a couple of puncture marks. They were rushed off to the laboratory.

On a Monday morning we got the call that the lab tests from the Food and Drug Administration had shown traces of cyanide. Boom! The Food and Drug Commissioner ordered not only the cessation of imports of Chilean grapes, but ordered all Chilean grapes taken off the shelves of American supermarkets and destroyed.

Bearing in mind the Tylenol case and other instances where people had discovered poisonous substances in products on the shelves, there being no way to tell how many additional bottles of Tylenol had been poisoned, so the solution was to get them all off the shelves. And of course, at this point it did go public.

The Food and Drug Administration made a public announcement. Here we thought we had just established the best possible U.S.- Chilean relations and laid the groundwork for Pinochet’s departure and everything else, and this thing hits us in the face.

This is all a calculated Administration decision to punish Chile

In contrast to the Letelier case [the Chilean politician who was killed in Washington, DC, by Pinochet’s secret police], where there was no accusation of personal involvement or personal bias at all, in the grape case there was a prominent Chilean, not in the first rank but in the second rank of prominence, named Ricardo Claro.

He was an attorney; he was president of Santa Rita Vineyards; he was president of the Chilean-American cultural center. He was a regular lunch companion of mine. He gave everybody to believe for years that he was basically anti-Pinochet, although he confessed to me at the time of the plebiscite that he had voted for Pinochet. The other thing is that he was a stockholder in a shipping company that shipped grapes to the United States. (Claro is at right.)

He decided, this otherwise apparently rational man, an attorney for a number of prominent American companies, he decided that the United States government was responsible for this. Among many other things, he had a morning radio show, a five- or ten-minute broadcast in which he commented on various things that were going on in Chile.

He began to use his radio broadcast to attack both Tony Gillespie and much more intensely, me, for having personally plotted this as a means of getting Pinochet out sooner – because under the Constitution, Pinochet was to stay until March of 1990. There would be Presidential elections in the fall of 1989, so he was going to be around for a while. This was both punishment for Pinochet and a means of getting him out sooner.

Of course, he never spoke about the fact there was personal punishment for Claro’s pocketbook. Some of his ships’ cargoes became worthless; there was substantial economic impact on him personally and on a number of other prominent Chileans. He held a press conference announcing his resignation as president of the cultural center and saying he wanted nothing further to do with the United States. Just the bitterest kind of attack.

I spent the last two or three months in Chile defending myself to the right wing. The left wing generally kept their mouths shut with puzzlement and bafflement. The right wing unleashed all of the bitterness they had piled up over the plebiscite and many other things and said this was the last straw that the United States would do this. “Of course it was political. You mean to tell me the State Department doesn’t tell the Food and Drug Administration what to do! You’re lying through your teeth. This is all a calculated administration decision to punish Chile.”

I mean it was unbelievably bad. Just about as hostile an atmosphere as we could possibly have. A terrible start for Tony in his mission. I could get out of there in a couple of months but he had to stay.

“They had found the smoking gun, or the poisoned grape”

Charles Anthony Gillespie, U.S. Ambassador to Chile, 1988-1991

Gillespie: I had begun a process of introducing myself to Chile and Chile to me, as I indicated. One of the trips that I needed to take was to a city called Temuco, about 350 miles South of Santiago (seen left.) There was a university there and a lot of activities. It was really a sort of environmental hodgepodge. There were some bad things going on with timber cutting, and other things were happening. I visited there on March 13, 1989, if I remember correctly.

I had by now been in Chile for about three months. My wife was with me. We had been having meetings of various kinds. On the night before we were to fly back to Santiago [from Temusco] I received a phone call from George Jones, the DCM, Deputy Chief of Mission, in the Embassy, to the effect that the U.S. Customs Service had just stopped all fruit shipments into the United States from Chile.

The reason given was that cyanide-poisoned grapes had been discovered in a shipment of fruit from Chile. This was described as a terrorist plot of some kind to kill Americans. George told me that the Chilean Foreign Minister wanted me back up in Santiago right away. Well, there were no flights until the next morning.

I discussed this with George, and we agreed that I had better call the Foreign Minister [Hernan Felipe Errazuriz.] George told me what he knew, which was that a few days earlier we had received a phone call through the Embassy switchboard. Because the call had to do with agricultural products, the call had been passed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. A young Chilean receptionist/secretary had taken the call.

The caller was some man who was ranting and raving about how he was going to cause all kinds of problems for us. He wasn’t very specific. The Inspection Service had made note of the call. The receptionist, quite appropriately, reported the call to her boss, who reported it to the Embassy Security Officer.

The Security Officer considered that this was not a direct threat to the Embassy’s safety, but he had told everybody to be alert to the fact that we were getting threatening phone calls. He had done everything by the book. In fact, because of bomb threats received in the past, he had a taping device attached to the phone. He had said, “If anyone calls again, make sure that we get this kind of call on tape.”

A few days later, another call came in. This one was probably from the same person, and the Embassy taped it. On the basis of this, the Embassy had prepared a reporting cable. I was traveling on this trip to Temuco, so I didn’t see the every-day reporting. George Jones had approved the cable and sent it on to the Department of State, saying that we had received this report about Chilean grapes and other fruit that might be poisoned.

You have to put this kind of incident in context, which was very hard for the Chileans to do. A couple of years earlier we had had the Tylenol case, involving poisoning Tylenol pills with cyanide. More recently, there had been an incident in New England of cyanide-poisoned yogurt, on the shelves of grocery stores. (Gillespie is at right.)

Only a few weeks before the phone call to the Embassy there had been testimony, if I remember correctly, by Meryl Streep, or someone like that, about Alar, the chemical used to treat apples in northwestern United States and keep them from spoiling. The allegation was that chemicals like these were going to kill American children – cause cancer and do all sorts of things like that…

So against the background of these incidents we had received two phone calls, the second seeming to confirm the first, that someone in Chile might be doing something to fruit exports to the U.S. The embassy dutifully reported this. We did something else. We not only reported this to Washington but we also reported it to the Foreign Ministry.

We sent the information we had, including a memorandum of conversation by the receptionist who received the first phone call and then a transcript of the recording of the second phone call. Our security officer told the Chilean Police about these incidents. This was all done almost immediately.

Unbeknownst to us, the U.S. Customs Service began to ask what shipments had left Chile that might be coming to the United States since these phone calls had been reported. The reality is that nearly 97% of the Chilean fruit exports were going to the U.S. These exports were growing. I think that they amounted to about $8.0 billion worth, or some huge amount like that. It was right in the middle of our winter and the height of the Chilean growing and shipping season…

The fruit left Valparaiso, Chile, on ships going to the U.S. The ships went North through the Panama Canal and up to Philadelphia, where they were unloaded. So the U.S. Customs Service immediately put out the word that we should be careful about Chilean fruit. They began to inquire into what ships had left Chile, bound for the United States, since these phone calls were received at the Embassy in Santiago.

They worked out that there was a particular ship coming into Philadelphia. The ship arrived in Philadelphia about a day or so before I received this phone call from the Foreign Minister. The Customs people in Philadelphia started a search and sampling of all of the fruit aboard this one vessel. I think that Customs was checking about 10% of the fruit in this particular shipment. A Customs inspector opened a box of grapes, unwrapped the paper in which the fruit was shipped, and found some grapes that looked suspicious.

He sent these grapes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in Philadelphia. They ran tests of the grapes and found cyanide. They had found the smoking gun, or the poisoned grape. At that point Customs ordered a halt to the import of all fruit from Chile.

“This incident started to have repercussions all over the world”

That was when I got the phone call from the Foreign Minister. I called Foreign Minister Errazuriz (seen right.) He really let me have it in low grade Spanish, using angry expletives throughout what he said. He said, “Ambassador Gillespie, what’s going on here? What are you people doing to us? You’re ruining our economy. This affects our whole export structure. Good heavens, this is terrible!”

Finally, I just yelled at him. I said, “Stop! Shut up! Hold on! Mr. Minister, we can either yell at each other, with you doing most of the yelling, and I’ll hold the phone away from my ear, or we can start talking about what’s going on and figure out what we’re going to do about it.”

I could almost hear him take a deep breath. He didn’t apologize or slow down. He just said, “You’re God damned right! You’re absolutely right! How soon can you be back in Santiago?” I said, “I’m going to take the first flight tomorrow morning, which leaves Temuco at about 7:00 AM. The flight takes about an hour. I’ll arrive in Santiago at 8:00 AM and I’ll be in your office by 9:00 AM.”

He said, “Okay, I’ll be waiting for you. What can we do in the meantime?” I said, “You’ve got to ask the Chilean Ambassador in Washington to talk to the U.S. Customs people and find out what’s going on. I’ll be finding out as much as I can,” and so forth.

In the meantime, that night, I had a phone call from the Commissioner of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the U.S. He said, “I’m not sure that this is the right thing to do. I’m not sure that we really know what’s going on here, but we absolutely have no choice. It has to be done this way for now. However, I want you to know that my objective is to resume these shipments of Chilean fruit to the United States as quickly as humanly possible. To do that, I will need cooperation from the Chileans. Here is what I will need.”

And he listed what he needed. When I went in to see Foreign Minister Errasuritz the next morning in Santiago, I said, “At this particular moment, let’s not think about what has happened. Let’s think about what we can do to get the shipments of Chilean fruit going once again.” He said, “Okay, let’s do that.” This involved making arrangements for Foreign Minister Errazuriz to go to Washington to meet with Secretary of State Baker, Vice President Quayle, and President Bush.

Now it was 1989, and the Bush administration, and no longer the Reagan administration, was in office. Meetings were set up. The Chilean Ambassador in Washington was very capable and effective. Everyone was working together. In the State Department they didn’t know what had happened. Nobody thought that it was a plot by the Chilean government to do any harm to the United States. Economic harm had been done, both to Chile and to U.S. commercial interests as well.

The biggest loss was suffered by Chile, but there was some loss in the U.S. as well. It also turned out that many of the shipments of fruit that leave Chile headed North to go to Canada. Some went to Saudi Arabia. On the basis of an alert that the U.S. FDA put out, Canada and Saudi Arabia shut off imports of Chilean fruit.

This incident started to have repercussions all over the world, so it wasn’t just in the U.S. It wasn’t just one ship that was affected. This situation really hit Chile very hard. So Secretary of State Baker and other, senior U.S. officials took time to meet with Foreign Minister Errazuriz.

It turned out that the White House, in fact, had approved the decision to shut off imports of Chilean fruit. The judgment was that, on the basis of the information they had, they ought to go ahead and shut down the import of the fruit. Secretary of State Baker argued strongly against this, as had a couple of other people. However, the handwriting was on the wall, and I later learned that Baker knew that. He was just making that argument, quite frankly, so that he could tell the Chileans that we had not lightly reached the decision to cut off the import of Chilean fruit and that the decision had not been unanimous…

This incident presented me and our Embassy with a challenge which was not unique but not often paralleled in the Foreign Service. It was really something, because it colored and continues to color, to some degree, U.S. and Chilean relations. This incident probably cost the Chileans something in the neighborhood of $350 million, which is not inconsequential. However, as it was happening, it touched or looked as if it were going to touch Chileans whose livelihood depended on their ability to export their fruit all over the world…

We got the fruit shipments to the U.S. started again after seven days. Everybody worked to make that happen. It wasn’t anything that I did or any one person did. The Chileans did their thing, and we did ours. The FDA did a super job in cleaning up this matter, whatever they did or didn’t do to cause this mess. They really worked on the cleanup. For example, the FDA sent experts down to Chile. For their part the Chileans were just remarkable. They basically asked, “What do we have to do to get these exports of fruits started again?”

The fascinating but tragic thing is that the man who ran that operation for the FDA came back to Chile some months later and was warmly welcomed by the Chilean government and the fruit growers because he had helped get the fruit exports started again. They were flying up in northern Chile to see some vineyards where they produced table grapes. The plane crashed and he and his partner were killed, along with the pilot. It was just tragic.

In any event in seven days we got the exports of fruit to the United States going again. This showed that you could do that kind of thing if you can get everybody to agree on what the real objective is. I must say that the U.S. and Chilean Governments worked together to this end. The incident completely changed the relationship of the U.S. Ambassador and the Foreign Minister and, to a large degree, the U.S. Embassy and the Foreign Ministry.