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Protest blocks unloading of Salvadoran coffee shipment

Waving signs with slogans such as "Decaf the death squads," about 100 activists rallied at Long Beach Harbor on Sunday to stop union dockworkers from unloading 34 tons of Salvadoran coffee beans from a Colombian freighter. It was the fourth time this month that the vessel, the Ciudad de Buenaventura, has docked at a West Coast port but been unable to shed its controversial cargo because of protests.

Members of an organization that has called for a nationwide boycott of Salvadoran coffee formed a picket line shortly after dawn on a rain-soaked road leading to the pier where the Ciudad de Buenaventura was anchored. Arriving dockworkers, members of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, honored the picket line.

"Boycott Folgers, boycott Hills, Sal-va-dor-an cof-fee kills!" the protesters chanted.

Eventually, an agreement was announced in which the longshoremen would be allowed to work the Ciudad de Buenaventura, unloading all cargo except the Salvadoran beans.

"This," remarked one union official, "has become the Flying Dutchman of coffee (shipments)." He was referring to a bad-luck omen in maritime lore, based on the fabled Dutch captain condemned to sail the seas until Judgment Day.

Although longshoremen leaders said they would not touch the Salvadoran coffee, there was no way to verify independently what was being unloaded from the ship. Bruce Wargo, general manager of the Pacific Container Terminal where the Ciudad de Buenaventura had been docked since early morning, refused to let reporters approach the ship.

Later Sunday, however, an operations manager for Pacific Container Terminal said that no coffee had been unloaded. He said that because of the problems the Ciudad de Buenaventura had encountered in other ports, there had never been any plan to unload the coffee in Long Beach.

The boycott, sponsored by a private group called Neighbor to Neighbor that opposes U.S. policy in Central America, was announced Nov. 21 to protest the murders in San Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter. A Salvadoran colonel and eight other officers and soldiers have been charged with the killings.

Coffee is one of El Salvador's most lucrative cash crops. Sponsors of the boycott maintain the action will put economic pressure on the U.S.-backed government and ruling party, some of whose members are the country's largest coffee producers. Some leaders of the ruling party have in the past been linked to death squads.

But Salvadoran officials contend the boycott will backfire and hurt the very people activist groups profess to want to help: peasant farmers who depend on coffee to make their living.