Flor the Caña, the iconic Nicaraguan rum brand, is in the crosshairs, as calls for a boycott against the brand have picked up in December of 2018. It is not the first time that the brand has been boycotted, and it is not even the first time that it has been boycotted for what also amounts to human rights’ violations. The company, which is part of the Pellas group, has an awful trackrecord, though if you read Nicaraguan media, you would hardly know it. If you search the archives of La Prensa, you’ll find dozens of glowing articles about Flor de Caña, with titles like Nicaragua Produces the Best Rum in the World.
Boycotts of Flor de Caña have been going on in one way or another since at least the early 2000s. The reason behind the early boycotts was the high incidence of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Origin (CKD) among sugar cane workers. In 2013, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) described CKD as “a pressing and serious public health problem given its high incidence, prevalence and mortality rates, as well as the unmet health care demand and the burden it represents for the families, communities, health systems, and society as a whole.” The same report indicated that Nicaragua had the largest mortality rate due to CKD in Central America, with 42.8 deaths per 100,000 (p. 4).
Unfortunately, the early boycotts did not receive much attention, that is, until 2015 when Vice and The Guardian published scathing exposes about CKD, its possible links to the sugar cane fields, and Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government unconscionable betrayal of cane cutters. At the time, Victor Hugo Tinoco (MRS) told The Guardian that the workers had “been virtually abandoned by a president more interested in maintaining his business alliances.”
After reading the Vice piece, Houston bar owner Bobby Heugel stopped serving FdC at his bar because he could not knowingly support a business that causes so much death. Though three years later, Mr. Heugel believes FdC has cleaned up its act, though he did not want FdC in his bar in 2015:
‘We can’t pour this anymore in our bar.’ I don’t know how that couldn’t be your reaction. And I don’t know how you can willingly and consciously pour a spirit that you know is associated with the deaths of people who contribute to its production.“
As Heugel’s boycott was unfolding, the so-called “consensus model” was thriving in Nicaragua. The consensus model refers to the alliance between big capital and the government led by Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. The model gave Nicaragua’s entrepreneurial elites a privileged relationship with the government. According to La Prensa, private industrialists within the COSEP were able to influence law makers, which led to the approval of 124 laws that favored private business interests. In addition, COSEP members sat on the boards of over 40 public institutions.
Carlos Pellas, head of the powerful Pellas Group, was definitely among the beneficiaries of the arrangement. In 2013, Mr. Pellas was full of praise towards the “consensus model.” In fact, he hoped that the regime would “institutionalize it.”
“I think that [the consensus model] is very revolutionary and very positive for the future of the country. [We should] try to institutionalize this model because it is getting extraordinary results.”
Also in 2013, La Prensa quoted Mr. Pellas’ statements about the Nicaraguan political system, which he described as a democracy
Do I believe that there is a democracy? Well, there’s elections. Elections determine clearly who the winner is. To date, we have done things this way, and I believe that Nicaraguan obviously go vote and elect a winner. The process keeps going, so I believe that yes, we are living in an open country.
Mr. Pellas benefited from his cushy relationship with the regime in other ways as well. For example, in 2009, the Central Sandinista de Trabajadores (CST), a Sandinista labor union, acted as an ally in Pellas’ fight against ANAIRC, the Nicaraguan Association of People Suffering from CKD. According to the CST, calls for boycotts and any other type of campaign against Pellas were unwarranted because Pellas was “providing medical assistance to hundreds of people affected by CKD, spending up to one million dollars per year.” CST was one of three labor unions to sign an agreement with Pellas, which guaranteed 7000 jobs. Pellas also agreed to fund a clinic, an act that he believed would more than cover the company’s responsibility to worker, current and former. As he announced the funding decision, he characterized ANAIRC’s demands, protests, and the boycott as the actions of a group of greedy people:
Some of these groups (boycotters) have taken the position of saying that they are not interested in this [clinic]. What they care about is money, money, and money. Once you allow yourself to be blackmailed in this way, the blackmail does not end. What is happening here is that they identify us, as they say in the United States, as people who have deep pockets, and they attack us.
(…) Labor repesentatives (of the CST and other unions) have told us that they reject the CKD-related boycott against some of our products. We are committed to fight for the image of the company and for the protection of employment. We are committed, labor and us, to fight for job stability, to fight for the image of our company, because in the end, the company belongs to all of us. Both workers and us take tremendous pride on what we have built in the last hundred years, and we won’t allow some little group with commercial interests, or with any other interests, to destroy what has been built over such a long period of time
Pellas also inserted his interests in the research about CKD. In 2014, his company was among the ones that funded CDC research on CKD, to the tune of $1.7 million, as reported by the Center for Public Integrity.
The current boycott is different, as it is framed within the wider campaign to oust Daniel Ortega. Carlos Pellas has been singled out for several reasons. First, there is no denying that Mr. Pellas benefited from his uncritical stance vis-a-vis the regime. The regime backed Pellas against the sugar cane workers, even to the point of repressing a demonstration at the Ingenio San Antonio, the home of Flor de Caña. One man, Juan de Dios Cortez, was shot and killed by the police.
A second reason for singling out Carlos Pellas is his personal lobbying against the NICA ACT. In 2017, as the NICA Act was headed for a vote, Pellas travelled to Washington, DC to lobby against its passage. Though he wasn’t the only Nicaraguan businessman to do so, he was certainly the best known. The NICA Act finally passed the Senate and the House, and it is set to be signed into law by President Trump. There are no indications about Carlos Pellas lobbying against it anymore.
Pellas’ rum brand is an easy target for a boycott, particularly abroad. According the Flor de Caña’s own numbers, 80% of the rum’s revenue comes from exports, and the rum can be purchased in over 40 countries around the world.
Read more about the current boycott