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Death, Drought and Decay

For Coca-Cola's world empire, these are the "real things"


Porque amo la vida ... No consume Coca-Cola
Porque financia la guerra ... No consume Coca-Cola
No consume Coca-Cola ... No financio la muerte.

No, that little doggerel isn't the Spanish version of Coke's "It's the real thing." Nor is this line -- "Coca-Cola bhagao, gaon bachao" -- the ad jingle for the soft drink in India. The slogans do bring to mind some of the lyrics from Coca-Cola's 1971 hallmark commercial: "I'd like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony . . ." But the message people around the world are humming, orchestrating and hip-hopping to is far different from what Coke's Madison Avenue hucksters intended. The tune that many in the world are belting out is: "Go home, Coke!"

The Spanish verse -- from Colombia, where Coca-Cola is accused of being complicit in the murders of union leaders -- means, "For the love of life, don't drink Coca-Cola / Because it finances war, don't drink Coca-Cola / I don't drink Coca-Cola, I don't finance death."

The Hindi line translates as, "Save the village, chase away Coca-Cola."

Coke is, indeed, the fizzing personification of the Ugly American. It's the rich, white guys' burden made even heavier by George Bush's bellicose unilateralism.

Among the examples of blowback from the Bushies' foreign/economic/environmental policies, activists have declared war on two prongs of globalization:

Shoving often harmful products -- McDonald's fatburgers and Coke's teeth-eating acid, for example -- down the world's throat.

Obliterating millions of American jobs as corporations shut down factories here, moving operations to sweat shops in the Third World.

The very underpinning of the Republican/corporate financial agenda is to shift wealth to the elite and to "equalize" the world's work forces. That doesn't mean bringing other nations' workers up to our level, but depressing the American standard of living to the status of Wal-Mart greeters.

Naturally, not everyone agrees with that agenda. A poll released last week, funded by Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ford Foundation, showed that 53 percent of Americans are "not satisfied with the way the US government is dealing with the effects of trade on American jobs, the poor in other countries and the environment."

In January, in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), there was a less abstract expression of that sentiment. Tens of thousands of people gathered for the World Social Forum, a counterpoint to Big Money's festivities at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In Mumbai, Coke and Pepsi were banned; the drink du jour was squeezed sugar cane. Other symbols of American monopoly also were verboten -- laptops were running on Linux with Mozilla browsers, not that ultimate symbol of market dominance, Microsoft Windows.

Speakers ranged from Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz to Jose Bove, the sheep farmer who galvanized anti-globalization sentiment four years ago when he demolished a half-built McDonald's in France.

"Nestle, Coca-Cola, quit our countries, give us our rights," Bove shouted to the Mumbai crowds. They roared back.

Pretty bad public relations for Coke, you'd think. And around the world, it was. The global dissent was recounted in major stories in the European press, Israel's Haaretz, on Al Jazeera -- even a respectful account in the New York Times. They all noted, and some detailed, the anger at corporate America's economic imperialism and its ultimate symbol, Coca-Cola.

But not in the Charlotte Observer, the paper where foreign news goes to die and, even more appalling, not in Atlanta, the home of the corporation's headquarters.

In Atlanta, Coca-Cola demands a level of respect that approaches worship. Thanks to flaccid and fawning media coverage, Atlantans are seldom told of the corporate giant's blemishes. Occasionally, the adored "Co-Cola" management -- a somewhat humorous word when applied to the Borgia-like intrigue at the company's fortress headquarters -- bestirs a little interest in the local press. Or, when Coke gets caught red-handed lying and cheating, as happened last year in a world-class whistleblower story, you'll find desultory coverage in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Did you know there's a worldwide call for a Coca-Cola boycott? Or that there's a mass movement in the subcontinent to make India a "Coke-free zone"? Or have you read about the interesting twists in a federal lawsuit against Coke brought by Colombia unionists who are tired of seeing their leaders butchered by paramilitaries allegedly doing the bidding of Coca-Cola bottlers?

Have many American business scribes reported the success of the anti-Coke movements, which the company admitted in its own financial reports, where, for example, polite language concedes a "weak beverage industry" in India, and that sales there were "impacted" by what the publicists call "false accusations"? (Actual numbers aren't included in Coke reports, but news accounts from India say the company has lost half its market in some regions.)

Or, have you seen a news account about how an outfit called Corporate Campaign is seeking to force another Atlanta corporate pillar, SunTrust Banks, to divest itself of its 130 million shares of Coke stock?

If all that wasn't enough to generate a little press attention in Atlanta, there are cries around the world to bring the demonstrations to the streets of the Sunbelt capital.

"In the battle over big business, symbolism is a key leverage point," says Naeem Mohaiemen, a New York-based journalist. "After [Mumbai], organizers plan to focus on campaigning against Coke in its hometown of Atlanta. If the campaign can leverage Coke's own symbolism against itself, the giant corporation may find itself with much more than a simple "PR problem.'"

Don't hold your breath waiting for news coverage from the Coxopoly press. The AJC's only acknowledgement of the Mumbai conference was a well-buried, 500-word short last week that declared (contrary to an avalanche of world reports), "Anti-globalization fest fails to incite passions." That stunning revelation (perhaps emanating from the reverse comic reality world of "Bizarro") was the result of a single interview with -- you guessed it -- a business leader. He declared the gathering of 100,000 people (who doggedly got there without corporate travel expense accounts) a "non-event."

The fact that Coca-Cola -- Atlanta's, and indeed the South's, signature company -- was a major target of the conference was mentioned only briefly at the bottom of the AJC story. There was, of course, almost no exploration of the charges against Coke, and it was all written off to grousing by "some activists."

Meanwhile, the rest of the world read, as stated by journalist Mohaiemen, that Coke "will soon be hit by a global boycott of unprecedented scale and ferocity."

Understand Coca-Cola's global strategy. Or Pepsi's. They own image and the right to license that image. The image is the American dream, and there's no doubt that the world's masses crave a little of our culture, even if it's only a red and white can filled with a health-undermining beverage. In India, as in most of the world, Coke is manufactured by independent bottlers, using Indian water, Indian-made bottles and Indian labor. The wealth that's generated is siphoned off to the US, or spread among a small group of elite vassals who run the bottling companies.

"Coke is symbolic of corporations exporting a useless product, selling it around the world but refusing to take responsibility for their product," says attorney Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, which has sued Coke on behalf of the Colombian unionists.

Indian communities claim Coke is ravaging water resources, draining groundwater supplies and transforming farmland into desert. Toxic sludge from Coke vats is polluting the countryside and has even been pumped into the holy Ganges River. In one village alone, Plachimada, dried-up wells and ponds destroyed the livelihoods of 2,000 farming families.

Moreover, tests by nonprofit groups and government agencies show that Coca-Cola in India contains dangerous additives, including pesticides, that would be banned in the product in America.

I asked Coke for a response, and the company has a prepared package denying everything. It's a mixture of techno-jargon and claims that are eerily reminiscent of Big Tobacco's never-ending assertions that there was no scientific proof that smoking caused cancer.

Coca-Cola may have solid rebuttals on some points. It's hard to judge whose "experts" are the most expert. But the major thrust of the company's counteroffensive has been to throw big bucks into the spin machine in India and do its damnedest to squelch the news elsewhere. And, interestingly, despite Coca-Cola's denial of sucking up Indian water supplies, the company concedes it has begun trucking in water to recently moonscaped villages.

Coke is using its massive economic clout to buy Indian politicians. It has hired publicists and lobbyists, who seek to marginalize protesters. Demonstrators are increasingly at risk of violence from security forces.

And, at all costs, the company has sought to bury the stories from India, Colombia and elsewhere. America, apparently, doesn't need to know the "real thing" about Coke.

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