Coke won’t kick the can in Bolivia, but must dance diplomatic can-can...

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

The Bolivian flag
The Bolivian flag
Bolivian officials have swiftly moved to play down reported remarks by the nation’s flamboyant foreign minister that the government would kick Coca-Cola out of the country by the end of the year.

Cue sighs of relief in multinational boardrooms, although in South America – a key growth regions for firms such as Coke – one sometimes gets the weird sense that the Hugo Chavez effect is spreading.

Bottling giant Owens-Illinois (O-I) famously had to write down losses of $329m in Venezuela in January 2011, when the military seized two of its facilities under orders from Chavez.

Where one big business name has problems, others are likely to share them. Towards the end of July, Chavez urged Venezuelans to drink juice not Coke or Pepsi. All mouth, no trousers? Who knows?

But according to the Associated Press last week, Bolivian foreign minister David Choquehuanca, a philosopher specializing in the Andean Aymara culture, made similar remarks in a July 13 speech.

Like a cat outta hell…

He told an indigenous people’s religious ceremony, also attended by socialist president Evo Morales, that the Mayan New Year (from December 21) would mark the “end of selfishness and social divisions…the end of Coca-Cola and the beginning of [native peach-based drink] Mocohinchi”.

Choquehuanca’s ministry later said his comments had been taken out of context and there was “nothing official”​ in regard to Coke, but the pusillanimous media moggie was out o’ the bag and last seen tearing down the road in pursuit of the one-eyed tom from next door. I feel guilty for feeding him now.

In the west, we appreciate the anesthesia of short on-message soundbites that prowl over consciousness like a long, soporific wave.

This is why, as an Englishman, I’ve enjoyed Mitt Romney’s refreshing lack of tact during his European jaunt. You see, I also like the stimulatory quality of short off-message soundbites that stumble across consciousness like, well, Mrs Romney’s horse Rafalca across the Olympic dressage arena.

Of course, some South American political systems are different, and involve fanatics like Chavez taking over the wires and booming out prolix speeches, apparently making up government policy on the fly.

At first sight this seems curious, then a little laughable, then just plain scary. Imagine Kim Jong-il the second as a school disco date. No I can’t imagine that either. The dear leader cutting some shapes. Laughable.

Perhaps Coke would be laughing at Choquehuanca too, if the stakes weren’t so high. As if it wasn’t hard enough being a listed multinational, worried enough about the state of various indicative acronyms: EPS, HFCS, EBITDA...

Events, dear boy, events…

The last thing you need is tub-thumping politicians gaining political capital by laying into you. And naturally, business being business, you can’t really fight back. You can’t risk strangling revenue streams.

Nor slake a nation’s cola thirst, with Coke sales booming in Bolivia. According to Coca-Cola data, per capita consumption of the firm’s products grew from 81 8oz servings in 2001 to 244 in 2011.

Asked by a journalist what he most feared, former UK prime minister Harold Macmillan famously replied: “Events, dear boy, events..."

Top beverage executives like Muhtar Kent need to cultivate the same hawk-eyed awareness, the same feline sure-footedness as any successful politician, and the diplomacy to point out the obvious to politicians – that they need your company for jobs, taxes, inward investment.

At the end of July, Kent was asked by Fox Business Network what he thought of New York anti-soda crusader Michael Bloomberg. Coke’s CEO and president suavely answered that he had “immense respect” ​for the mayor, and urged the importance of collaboration.

Goodness knows what Kent thinks of Choquehuanca, but he will surely continue to tread the diplomatic boards, while keeping a keen eye on the Latin American newswires, hoping the music doesn’t stop...

Based in Montpellier, France, Ben Bouckley is a deputy online editor for William Reed Business Media SAS and BeverageDaily.com

Related topics: Carlsberg, Emerging Markets, Markets

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