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Friday, 10 August 2012 09:19

The Battle Over Killer Coke and Coca Leafs in Bolivia

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Bolivia appeared set to become the fourth nation to ban Coca-Cola (Myanmar, North Korea, and Cuba), but quickly backed off this past week.

It's an interesting news story that reveals much about transnational corporations, the coca leaf industry in Bolivia (Coke originally used the coca leaf narcotic in its secret formula), the branding of caramel colored fizzy water as an international product sold in more than 200 nations, and the darker side of the Coca-Cola empire.

Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, was elected as an indigenous populist president, capitalizing on his prominent position as head of the coca growers union, called the Cocalero.  A key Morales presidential campaign objective was the protection of coca growing (in limited areas) for traditional non-cocaine uses that have long been part of the Andean culture.  Morales first was elected as leader of Bolivia in 2006 and again, with 64% of the vote in 2009.  

Earlier this summer, one of his ministers told a meeting of indigenous Bolivians that to celebrate the end of the Mayan calendar that the oppressive effects of capitalism would cease in their nation, including the end of Coca-Cola sales.

Apparently, however, it was all -- to the relief of Coca-Cola -- which has seen rising sales in Bolivia, a "misunderstanding."  The Morales government wants to completely legalize coca leaf consumption for a variety of uses -- again this is not the same as snorting refined cocaine -- in Bolivia (even though it is widely used already, distributed and sold from the allowed domestic crop) by the end of this year, and the foreign minister who became the source of the Coca-Cola ban rumors was apparently trying to position Coke as the symbolic transnational usurper of indigenous customs and commerce, even using the coca leaf in its name.

Indeed, Coke is perhaps the most mind-boggling example of the triumph of branding (as described in Naomi Klein's "No Logo") over substance.  There is no more ubiquitous product in the world than Coke. Yes, you may see Nike shoes on feet in cities across the world, but Coke is the only product you can walk ten miles into a dusty backwater town and see the Coca-Cola trademarked logo on a street food cart.

Coke has a museum in Atlanta devoted to the history of how the cola has been marketed, and brilliantly so.  Over the years, coke has made individuals feel that they will be everything from instantly refreshed, more socially accepted, and more in love once they drink the magical elixir.  This, as Klein points out, is branding a product by its association with aspirational feelings: products then aren't bought for their actual value, but rather for fulfilling emotional needs as represented by associative advertising.

So it is ironic that Bolivia, who has a president who emerged from the community of coca growers – and who is considered a leftist obstructionist by the US government in the nation where Che Guevera was gunned down – would like to ban Coke, but hesitates, possibly because that the action might precipitate a major conflict with DC.  Showing Coke the door would be healthier for Bolivians and would likely precipitate the drinking of local juice drinks that would help stimulate the local economy rather than the bottom line of the ultimate multinational corporation.

Given that the US government hasn't yet initiated a coup against Morales, given his widespread popular mandate, kicking Coke out of the land of coca leaves might have been one bottle too far for Morales's well-being.

Ironically, one of the three countries that has held out against Coca Cola (also called Killer Coke as pointed out in the Truthout on the Mexican Border series on the eponymous website "Killer Coke"), Myanmar (Burma), is about to lift the ban.  This appears to be in return for the US ending some sanctions against the nation.

According to the Canadian Globe and Mail,

Coca-Cola is planning to begin doing business in Myanmar, one of just three countries – along with North Korea and Cuba – where the U.S. beverage group does not operate. The world’s largest beverage company by revenues said on Thursday that once the U.S. government gives it a general licence to do business there, it will begin making “significant” investments across the country during the next three to five years….

The move comes as Myanmar’s new government has been moving quickly to liberalize its economy after decades of oppressive military rule and looking to lure western companies to make investments.

“Coca-Cola has always stood for optimism at times of change and progress around the world,” Muhtar Kent, Coke’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Ah yes, here we go again, Coca-Cola's president declares that the beverage is associated with "change" and "progress."  All this and more from a fizzy beverage?

At least for the time being, in Bolivia, you will still be able to make "Things Go Better With Coke" as you pause to "refresh" yourself at a roadside stand in some destitute town.  But as of next year, you can legally be chewing on a coca leaf between each sip.

In a way, that's putting the coca leaf back into Coca-Cola, in Bolivia at least.