Contrary coffee

Observations on trade

If you like a bit of far-right politics with your breakfast, the definitive product is here. Two American business graduates have set up a company that deals exclusively in coffee beans cultivated by counter-revolutionary "heroes" of the 1980s dirty war in Nicaragua. They call it Contra Café.

The enterprise is the brainchild of Tom Kilroy, an alumnus of Notre Dame and Dartmouth, who Notre Dame and Dartmouth, who spent time in Nicaragua after university working for non-profit organisations. Kilroy formed the view that right-wing veterans of that country's long conflict were finding it hard to qualify for lucrative Fairtrade status because of their political background.

"Fairtrade focuses completely on the left," he told me. "We joked around when I was out there about how we should create a coffee-trading organisation with a right-wing message instead of a left one. I told them there would be plenty of folks in the United States who would be interested!"

Back at business school, Kilroy and his friend Ryan Myers went to work, creating trading links with the farmers he had met in Nicaragua and launching a website, www.contracafe.com, which urges visitors, "Wake up to the smell of freedom fighters!"

Helen Yuill of the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign is appalled. "I have no problem with anyone selling coffee but this attempt to stir up old cold war conflicts is just terrible. Nicaragua has moved on largely from the days of the Contras. There has been a peace accord, demobilisation, a reconciliation process, and in the elections in November some Contras are even standing in an alliance with the Sandinistas."

But Kilroy claims his growers are good people. "The Contras were a mercenary army financed, trained and directed by the US," says Yuill. "'There is a massive and ugly record from Amnesty and other organisations about terrible human-rights atrocities."

The Fairtrade Foundation, too, has problems. "It's not about whether we would be against buying from Contras in principle, because anybody is allowed to apply through our system. They just probably wouldn't qualify because they are not sourcing from democratically organised farming, which is the cornerstone of the Fairtrade register."

Kilroy is unabashed, and says: "My impression from having been down there and worked with people on both sides is that there were things contrary to international law done by both sides of the conflict."