The Coca-Cola Crisis in Bolivia
by David Boldt
(Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia)
Today's column is an E-Zine investigative report on "What Happened to the Coca Cola?" Not everyone seemed to notice, but last December it was suddenly difficult - indeed, some days impossible - to put one's hands on a bottle of Coca-Cola's diet or "Zero" products: Coca Cola Zero, Sprite Zero, and Fanta Zero - especially in the smaller 500 cc size.
I thought there would be a general sense of outrage, especially since Cruceños drink more of Coke's diet products than any other city in Bolivia, but the populace has apparently become so used to the mysterious arrival and disappearance of various products from store shelves that they just shrug it off.
This writer, however, was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it anymore. I dashed off a letter to Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola company in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, telling him what a disappointing job his bottler in Santa Cruz, Embol SA, was doing. And I must say that if you want a response to a letter, Mr. Khan is the man to send it to.
Within a week a six-month supply of Coke and Coke Zero had been delivered to my house, and I had letters from the regional heads of Coca-Cola in Lima and Buenos Aires begging forgiveness and promising expanded bottling facilities someday soon.
However, since then things have not returned to normal, and I have long since run out of free Coke. So the other day I called Veronica Ocampo, who handles corporate relations for Coca Cola in Santa Cruz, to find out what the story was, and I have to say that she couldn't have been nicer.
The new equipment, which will expand the capacity of the Santa Cruz plant by 80 percent, is half here, she said - four big pieces of machinery sitting the Coca Cola plant in the Parque Industrial with only four more to go. It should be up and running by the end of September, ending the city's Coca-Cola crisis. She invited me to come and watch when things get rolling, and I may.
That was good news, but I had more investigative-type questions. What, I demanded, had caused the sudden shortage in the first place? In Bolivia one tends to be quick to blame corruption or incompetence in such cases, but she insisted that there was no truth in this. Embol people, she said, were slapping the caps on the 275,000 bottles that roll out of the plant every day as fast as they could. (That counts Burn, Fanta, Powerade, Mineragua, Guarani, Vital water, and a few others products.)
The problem, she said, was that Bolivians got a lot thirstier faster than anyone had expected. Demand for Coca-Cola products in Bolivia has zoomed up by double digits in the last several years - 12 percent over the last 12 months alone. Moreover, Coca Cola's market share has grown, and the company now sells 60 percent of all soft drinks Bolivians buy.
All of this, of course, in spite of all those nasty things President Morales had to say about Coke. Why the President had it in for Coke (not to mention chickens) is unclear since Coca Cola does in fact - and let's settle this matter once and for all - contain one of his favorite products, coca. The company occasionally acknowledges this in articles it hopes no one actually reads that appear in locations like the Op-Ed page of the New York Times or the National Geographic.
The coca is in the form of an extract that is not cocaine, never was cocaine, and can't be made into cocaine. "There's nothing harmful" in Coke, as Ms Ocampo prefers to put it. And while the extract is no more lethal or intoxicating than a cup of coca tea, it may help to explain why Coca Cola is "the pause that refreshes", as one of the company's more famous slogans put it. (For the full, if somewhat boring, story of coca in Coca-Cola, see Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, by Dominic Streatfield, St. Martin's Press, New York, 2001, pgs. 190-193).
In any event, Bolivians drink a lot of Coke - the equivalent of 261 8-ounce (236-cc) glasses a year. That's not bad by world standards, but well behind people in the US, who knock back about 412 glasses a year, or Mexicans, the leading Coca-Cola consumers in Latin America, who drink an astounding 635 glasses a year.
Why are Bolivians drinking more Coke? Who knows? It may be partly an index of increasing disposable income. Overall, Coke is a fairly expensive refreshment, and to be buying so much more, more Bolivians must feel that they have a few spare Bs. jingling in their jeans.
What else? Ms. Ocampo isn't sure, but for all she knows global warming may have something to do with it.