Paul Wylie, a self-taught horticulturalist from Guelph, Ont., spent more than 11 months in a Nicaraguan prison after officials burned his industrial hemp crop and accused him of growing marijuana.
He blames U.S. antidrug efforts, which make no distinction between hemp and marijuana, and U.S.-Nicaraguan politics, but he is setting out to make the Nicaraguan government pay. The situation is complicated by the fact that one of his bosses is a former drug trafficker who helped to spread the crack-cocaine plague in Southern California.
Mr. Wylie, who works for a Canadian-controlled company, Hemp Agro Nicaragua S.A., was arrested on Christmas Eve, 1998, and says he might have died in prison had a friend not taken him food and medicine. A Nicaraguan appeal court threw out all charges in December, 1999.
This month, he and his employers launched a lawsuit against the Nicaraguan government for more than they think it can pay: $189-million (U.S.). They are prepared to take such things as mineral concessions instead of cash, he said in an interview from Managua, where the suit was filed.
The claim includes $2-million in personal damages for him and millions more for the company's owners -- most of them Vancouver-area businessmen -- but the bulk of it relates to lost crops. Mr. Wylie said the company hoped to have thousands of hectares of hemp under cultivation by now but was shut down when its first 71-hectare crop was destroyed.
He said he believes the government is ready to negotiate a settlement, an idea that remains unconfirmed. A Managua newspaper quoted the Finance Minister as calling the claim "absurd and unpayable." The Central American nation has five million people and annual economic output of less than $500 a head.
Mr. Wylie, 48, said Hemp Agro met all Nicaraguan requirements for growing hemp, a routine crop in many countries, although not in the United States.
Grown for oil, fibre, flour and other uses, it is the same plant as marijuana, Cannabis sativa, but bred for minimal drug content. Canada legalized it in 1998 with a limit of 0.3-per-cent tetrahydrocannabinol, a level at which one could inhale indefinitely without getting high.
Mr. Wylie said he was questioned for six hours by U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials and Nicaraguan police a few days before his arrest, "and I showed all documentation of our legality, of why this crop was not marijuana, it was in fact industrial hemp, but it was just to deaf ears."
He is pretty sure the Americans had him jailed, he said. "They said to me at the time that they had no jurisdiction in a foreign country; however, they were there to advise. So I can't really go out and say, 'Yes, the DEA said to charge these guys,' but I can assume that it was through their influence that all this came about."
U.S. influence is a major theme in the history of Nicaragua, where a left-wing guerrilla movement, the Sandinistas, overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator in 1979 and then fought a civil war with U.S.-sponsored right-wing guerrillas, the contras. The Sandinistas lost power at the ballot box in 1990 and failed in a second comeback bid this month when the right-leaning Liberals, favoured by U.S. officials, held onto the presidency.
If the Americans were not the cause of his troubles, Mr. Wylie thinks it could have been Sandinista sympathizers in the police settling scores with Hemp Agro's only non-Canadian owner, Oscar Danilo Blandon. He is sometimes described as a former contra leader, although there is debate about the importance of his role.
"He was a staunch supporter of the contras, who now mostly comprise the Liberals, and so it was through his influence that [we]gained our political favours here," Mr. Wylie said. "So he was actually very important at the start in order to get this operation up and running here in Nicaragua."
Mr. Blandon's background is not all political. He was a large-scale cocaine broker in the United States in the 1980s, part of a pipeline that flooded south central Los Angeles with the drug. Caught and imprisoned in 1992, he bargained his way back onto the street in 28 months as an undercover informer for the DEA, which rewarded him with a green card, among other things.
Mr. Wylie said he does not know whether being associated with a former narcotraficante had anything to do with his troubles. "I can tell you that it didn't help," he said. Then again, Mr. Blandon's DEA contacts were no help either, he said. Reached in Managua, Mr. Blandon declined to discuss the possibility of a political vendetta and offered no theory as to why the DEA might have thought the crop was marijuana. "They knew that I was growing hemp. I told them."
As he saw it, the case has nothing to do with his past. "We are thinking that we are in a good position to win this case because we are innocent and somebody has to pay everything, you know? Somebody has to pay whatever we lost."