Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Unbridled Free Markets

I learned this weekend something that was new to me. There are charges that the Coca-Cola company has played a role in executing people that attempt to unionize in third world countries, particularly Colombia. I was aware that Colombia was the world leader in execution of union organizers, but I was not aware of Coca-Cola's involvement. Some details are here.

Of course Coca-Cola denies the charges, but it's interesting to note that 23 universities have banned Coke products, including my alma matter, the University of Michigan. That's rather astounding when you consider how interested universities are in getting money. Coke's denial of the charges of course mean nothing. That's to be expected regardless of the validity of the charges. These university actions mean something because a priori there's no reason for a university to single out Coke for a boycott. If I had to bet I'd bet that Coke is guilty. The documentary "Life and Debt" shows video footage that is claimed to be a violent break up of efforts by factory workers to protest their treatment with a work stoppage in a Latin American country. This is the kind of thing that happens.

So consider that when you purchase cola at the store. Pepsi may also be awful in similar ways, but I don't have suspicions of them being involved in executions. At least not yet.


HispanicPundit said...

I wouldn't put too much emphasis on the University boycott either. Universities care about PR, not human rights. They also cater to the politics of their constituents and students if its not too costly to do so.

Its probably because some student body organization believes in it strongly, and as acting government body, passed a bill saying the University will no longer buy Cokes. It's rarely more complicated than that.

Coke and Nike have been hated for a long time. They are the symbols of globalization. Even on economically sound issues like sweatshops, they are hated on by Universities.

In the Universities eyes, Coke would be a better company if it did what most other American companies did: just refused to do business in Latin America. But then, that would make the problem worse, now wouldnt it?

Jon said...

"It's rarely more complicated than that."

Rarely, eh? So you have some sort of evidence regarding the frequency of people just randomly objecting to what are portrayed as injustices for good PR as opposed to the incidences of people genuinely objecting to what they perceive to be injustices? That's the kind of assertion I'd expect from corporate propaganda but I wonder if it has any basis in fact.

"But then, that would make the problem worse, now wouldnt it?"

Short term it might. What happens is "free trade" is initially used to bludgeon people and destroy their livelihood. When they've lost their farms due to US subsidized agri-business they become desperate and will work in the Coke factory for pennies. Take away their pennies and it will hurt. But if you likewise take away the so called "free trade" products and let them rebuild their livelihoods, then long term I'd expect them to be better off.

Take a look at Clinton's admissions. That's a guy that imposed free trade in a crushing manner in Haiti. He's not the kind of person that likes to admit errors. But now with the corporate pressure off since he's no longer President he feels compelled to do so. You might rationalize that away and say he's really not genuine, like universities. But it would seem his incentives, as well as the incentives of the universities, are to continue to praise Coke or praise his own past actions to improve his legacy. So unless you've got some evidence I'd think it's safe to assume they believe what they say and do.

DagoodS said...

Interesting. Haven’t heard this one before. Spent an enjoyable few hours researching. I remain wholly unconvinced.

1. As near as I can tell, the university boycotts come from student groups obtaining their information from touring speakers, associated with killercoke.org. If so, then the only real foundation of information is not the independent determination of 23 various universities, but rather one (1) source. Like saying 23 Biblical scholars agree with Mark’s date for Jesus’ death…but if Mark is wrong… who cares how many scholars agree?

2. According to two (2) students I contacted, U of M has Coke firmly back on campus. Do you know how long the boycott lasted? And if it is still in place in other universities?

3. As you indicate (and in agreement with the independent study from the New York Group)—Colombia paramilitary groups suppress Unions. The study noted the number of union official murders for the years of 2001, 2002, etc. Around 100 each year. Apparently this is a national problem throughout Colombia; not limited to just Coca-Cola plants.

4. Therefore, it is not enough to indicate paramilitary groups killed union workers in Coca-Cola plants (they are killing union works in all plants)—we would need to show Coca-Cola either encouraged the suppression, or failed to take action. I haven’t seen that connection established.

5. There is some biased reporting. For example, the 1996 killing of Isidro Gil. Called a “union leader” (gray term.) One of the connections attempted by killercoke.org is to question how the paramilitary could get into the plants to do such killings. Yet Businessweek notes Gil was the gatekeeper. Thus explaining how the paramilitary forces could enter the premises, I think.

6. Also the dating seems…off. We have a 1996 killing, the closing of plants in 2001 – 2003, yet they are jumbled together as if connected.

7. It is alleged this attacks were convenient in timing because negotiations were “ongoing” at the time. What little involvement I have had with unions…it seems to me negotiations were always ongoing.

What do you think are the strongest arguments Coca-Cola is responsible in some manner? And, I would be curious to know, at what level do we hold Coca-Cola responsible? For example, if a manager of a Colombian factory (due to his own personal beliefs) conveniently allowed paramilitary troops to enter—does this mean we hold ALL of Coke responsible? What level do we hold an entire corporation responsible from the actions of its employees, sub-contractors, subsidiaries, etc?

Jon said...

Well, Mr. Lawyer, I think we need to start with what standard you are requiring in order to be convinced. Are you wholly unconvinced based on a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard or "preponderance of evidence" standard, or another standard? My position right now is more like a claim of if I had to guess if it was true I'd say it was. Here's my thinking.

I look at it from a Bayesian perspective. What is believability this claim is true based upon my background knowledge? Well, do paramilitary groups with US backing engage in violence for the benefit of US corporations? As far as I know that's the only reason they do engage in violence. Iran in 1953, the Contras in Nicaragua, the violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, etc.

Take a look at the case of Oscar Romero, who a UN panel found was ordered killed by a School of the Americas graduate. He was speaking out against corporate interests in El Salvador. A few days after the fall of the Berlin wall another 6 Jesuit priests were murdered by a paramilitary hit squad that had just completed training at the JFK Special Forces School in North Carolina. Again, same sort of problem. They infuriated the US backed military dictatorship, which is doing US bidding by providing policies favorable to US business.

Consider also that Colombia is our hemisphere's leader in US military funding. Once again a right wing dictatorship on the model of Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc. We should start with the presumption that this military funding is coming about for the same purposes in Colombia that it has been elsewhere in that part of the world. Crushing people's movements that undermine corporate profits.

I'm not pretending that I am able to connect the dots from a specific company to a specific military action. But union activists are being executed in Colombia by hit squads. Massive military funding is coming from the US into the right wing dictatorial government in Colombia. And presuming Coke is a major player in Colombia and also assuming executions have occurred as has been done in the past in similar situations throughout this part of the world we can see who the major beneficiaries are of these deaths. So this claim is very believable from an initial probability perspective. It's basically part and parcel to neo-liberal economic reforms imposed by the US. With basic knowledge that military action is being funded in Colombia by the US and that Colombia has a right wing US backed dictator installed I'd wager that this kind of thing would be happening.

You combine that with the various sources asserting that it is happening, such as this book and Killer Coke I would wager that these claims are true. But I could be wrong on that. Coke could be well intentioned and doing what is right but drawing my suspicions more due to past behavior of other corporations more than anything. I'm open to their innocence. You'll notice my claims are guarded. I describe my beliefs as a suspicion. But I think those suspicions are deserved. It's kind of like Iranian conspiracy theorists. Iranians are perhaps quick to assume any American walking around in Iran is a CIA agent. They are sometimes sort of mocked in the media for this attitude. But then they did have their elected government removed by the CIA. So it's natural and logical for them to be trigger happy in this way. Greenwald has an interesting related article here.

DagoodS said...


I am using the “preponderance of the evidence” (more likely than not) level of proof. But that’s the hitch—the evidence must preponderate! It is not enough if the evidence is possible, or even if it is equal. It has to be more substantial than any counter-evidence.

Having read your links, and the documents provided by Killercoke.org, it would appear this is a pervasive problem both in Colombia and perhaps the culture itself. What I haven’t seen yet, as you eloquently put it, is a “connect the dots” between Coca-cola and killing of union employees. What, specifically, are you saying Coca-cola did? And at what level?

Basically, it seems any multinational company acting in Colombia would be indicted (“guilty by association”) by the evidence presented thus far.

Let me try and explain what I mean by analogy. This isn’t perfect, by far, but I hope it presents the essence of what I am getting at.

Imagine someone complaining Shell Gas stations do not protect their employees enough from robbers. A gas station attendant was killed by a robber in 1996, and is utilized as demonstration of the problems. But the argument goes on, “169 Gas Station attendants (in ALL gas stations) were killed in 2001, 184 in 2002, and 92 in 2003. Since 1986, 4000 Gas station attendants have been killed.”

This sounds to me like this is predicament in ALL gas stations—not just Shell. Now, it may still be proven Shell was at fault. Perhaps they could have done more, perhaps there is some study demonstrating it was suggested they take certain steps they did not—it is those types of facts I am looking for to connect Coca-cola to some wrong-doing.

Something more than “You are a multinational company doing business in Colombia so we must boycott you.”

Jon said...

Here's how I understand things to work in these third world countries. The US wants a client regime installed in order to provide beneficial conditions for US businesses. This is sort of not really hidden. For instance Clinton would talk about how US military action is called for in order to go about "ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources". The very reason powerful corporations set up shop in these countries is because through military force and other means the US has created conditions that make production cheap.

So when a labor force goes on strike in a Latin American country military bands come in and break it up violently, ensuring profitable conditions for the powerful businesses working there. These military groups are using US made and provided equipment.

Last I knew Colombia was #3 on the list of countries that lead in military funding assistance from the US (Israel and Egypt being in a separate category). Colombia also has the worst human rights record in our hemisphere. I understand there is a clear correlation between human rights abuses and US military funding. This funding is pouring in for the clear purpose of backing US corporate interest, as has been the case all over the world. So when we see Coke union organizers executed by military hit squads and we already know military funding is pouring in for this very reason, don't we have enough connected dots to satisfy the "preponderance of evidence" standard? Coke may have known about it and tipped off the hit squads or they may not have and these hit squads are working in Coke's interest without the need for express directives. In either case we know that Coke is here in Colombia because of the favorable labor conditions, made possible by US military backing.

The drug war is the same sort of thing. As I wrote about here, source country control is the least effective method of controlling drug use. On the other hand it does clear the land of peasants which just so happens to be a benefit to US mining interests. The mining companies may not be specifically ordering the bombing raids, but they are there because of the (from their perspective) beneficial effects of the US military action. So they share the blame and I object to what they do.

DagoodS said...

Jon: Coke may have known about it and tipped off the hit squads or they may not have…
So that is what you are saying Coca-Cola did? They “may or may not” have tipped off the hit squads?

Then yes, it is safe to say this does not preponderate.

HispanicPundit said...

Loving this exchange. Glad someone had the energy to take Jon to task on some of his more ridiculous claims...I know I always dont. :-)

Jon said...

Well it does require work to do actual argumentation as opposed to offering assertions that my arguments are "ridiculous". Note DagoodS's method. He makes arguments and does the work. Whether he's shown my arguments to be "ridiculous" he leaves for the reader to evaluate based on the actual reasons he's offered. That's my method as well. You should try it.

HispanicPundit said...

But then what about time for ones children, ones work, ones personal time?

We live in a world of limited time and resources. Sometimes you have to put statements through a giggle test first before you delve right in.

Its not just you I sometimes dismiss. I also dismiss global warming deniers or creationists. Theres only 24 hours in a day...and some topics are just not worth it.

Wouldnt you agree?

Jon said...

Yeah. It doesn't pass the "giggle" test. My arguments are laughable. Well, that's what we call ad hominem. You ridicule the person that delivers the argument. You don't actually refute the argument. If you don't have time that's fine. But what you do is make time for ad hominem, since that's effortless, but don't make time for offering a reasoned non fallacious response. I say if you don't have time to offer something reasonable then just don't say anything.