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The Nicaraguan Coffee Bean War

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Government Lawyers Drink Illegal Brew

On Monday, April 25, in the Dirksen Federal Building, two officials of the U.S. attorney's office voluntarily drank Nicaraguan coffee given them by a self-proclaimed "smuggler for peace." He was one Karl Meyer, carpenter and tax resister, dressed in a greenish suit, wearing a beard that appeared to be real. The coffee was brewed from beans that Meyer and his wife, Kathleen Kelly, had illegally transported into the U.S. in a large rough bag bearing the words "Nicaragua Libre." The bag was not taken into custody. Neither was Meyer's beige thermos nor Meyer himself, though he thought being arrested would give him a chance to enlighten a jury of his peers about the U.S. trade embargo of Nicaragua.

Also not arrested was Assistant U.S. Attorney David Stetler, chief of the office's criminal receiving and appellate division, who drank the dark contraband beverage. Asked to comment on the coffee, Stetler said: "It was just fine."

Nicaraguan Coffee Beans Seen as National Threat

In May 1985, President Ronald Reagan declared Nicaragua to be "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States" and established a trade embargo.

Reagan renewed the embargo on April 25, despite the Central American peace accords.

One of Latin America's leading exporters of coffee to the U.S. is Colombia. But Colombia is not a threat to the U.S., so there is no need to say no to Colombian coffee.

Banned Bean Transported Across State Line for Illegal Purposes

Karl Meyer brazenly admitted to having smuggled 152 pounds of raw green coffee beans from Nicaragua. He delivered the bulk of said beans, approximately 120 pounds, to Madison, Wisconsin, where a group calling itself Trade for Peace offers the coffee for sale to the public. In March, the U.S. attorney in Madison, alerted to Trade for Peace's activities, warned the group to cease and desist or face U.S. Customs Service investigation and possible prosecution. Besides ill-gotten coffee, Trade for Peace sells Nicaraguan postage stamps and handicrafts.

Amnesia Strikes U.S. Treasury Department: Even Transformed Beans May Be Illegal

Amnesia struck the U.S. Treasury Department last month. In 1985, according to lawyers for a coffee importer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the department said that importing Nicaraguan coffee beans would be legal if the coffee was processed in a third country.

Last week, however, a spokesperson for the Treasury Department told this reporter that the department had been unaware of this coffee loophole until fairly recently, when a private citizen alerted one of its branches, Customs, to an ad for the coffee. Now government lawyers have drafted a six-page report saying coffee that is "decaffeinated, roasted, ground and packaged in a third country will not be considered sufficiently transformed to lose its Nicaraguan identity." This new interpretation awaits approval by high Treasury Department officials. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan coffee processed in Canada and the Netherlands is legal for all ages.

No Sugar for Us; No Tractors for Them

In addition to keeping dangerous Nicaraguan goods out of the U.S., the embargo also keeps certain U.S. goods from being sent to various church, government, and peasant associations in Nicaragua. (It is easy, however, to send the same goods to the contras.) Volunteer groups in the U.S. that send material to Nicaragua have had trouble obtaining licenses to export. Oxfam America, for example, was denied a license to send agricultural tools to Nicaragua in 1985 because its request included a tractor and irrigation supplies. The license was granted after these items were removed from the list. Oxfam then went to Canada and bought a Japanese tractor, sparing American workers the shame of abetting a threat to our national security.

Protesters say the embargo violates international law. A committee of the Organization of American States voted in 1985 to declare the embargo illegal, but it was late at night and there was no quorum, so the vote didn't count. The issue has been thrown out of U.S. federal court because it's been judged a political question. Karl Meyer and other protesters want U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas to declare the embargo illegal, on the grounds that the embargo law contains language prohibiting the dissemination of false information. Meyer says the Nicaraguan embargo is based on false information.

A fine symbolic argument, says Jules Lobel, who teaches international law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, and worked on a suit against the embargo. But that language in the embargo law really refers to falsehoods about aspects of trade. Besides, Lobel says, if you took away falsehood and trickery, you wouldn't have politics.

Congress Rustles; Valukas Doesn't

Congress is supposed to vote on the embargo every six months, but has not, says Lobel.

But now Congress is rousing itself. In the Senate, Alan J. Dixon, new to the anticontra team, is part of a movement gathering signatures on a letter asking President Reagan to overturn the embargo if peace breaks out. A bill has been introduced in the House to lift the embargo.

U.S. Attorney Valukas was out of town when the coffee delegation visited his office. His staff found them to be "very nice people," he said, but he cannot declare the embargo illegal; his job, he pointed out, is to represent the government, not attack it. Valukas would not reveal whether he plans to indict the coffee smugglers, but he did say, "If I were them I wouldn't wait at home to be arrested."

Warning: Infernal Beans Loose in Chicagoland

At the Federal Building, some two dozen protesters took a coffee pledge, accepting one-pound bags of the illegal coffee and stating their intention to use it as they see fit. Nicaraguan coffee resembles legal coffee and may even be in your neighborhood now. According to rumors circulating in the nation's capital, the Reagan administration fears that drinking this coffee will make North Americans more alert.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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