The Immeasurable Value of Confidence
A Reflection on Multinational Corporations in Colombia After Jeb Bush’s Visit
By Laura Del Castillo Matamoros
Narco News Editorial Columnist
March 1, 2005
In the name of the free market and free enterprise, Jeb Bush came to Colombia last week (his family knows that they will always have a home here). He was accompanied by an entourage of 190 noble businessmen (mainly from the technology, software, communications, hospital administration, and pharmaceutical sectors) who valiantly, also in the name of the free market and free enterprise, overcame their fear of coming to this strange and violent country they know only from CNN newscasts, to meet with the Super-President, Alvaro Uribe, on February 20, at a lunch in the Bogotá Country Club (where the most illustrious characters of the country’s political life meet to conspi… excuse me, to chat).
The U.S. executives came to sell their products (a sign of their enterprising commercial spirit) and to share their wisdom and vast business experience with Colombian business leaders, who showed themselves to be quite satisfied with the idea of “strengthening trade with the United States.” And best of all, these notable visitors were so happy with how the meeting went that they are looking for partners to help them promote their products here and to invest up North, especially in real estate. That is to say, the North Americans will be able to increase their capital in many ways, while the Colombian executives will be able to fulfill the golden dream of every authentic Colombian businessman: to live in Miami.
And words can’t describe the happiness on little brother Bush’s face when he spoke of how relieved U.S. business leaders have felt since President Uribe arrived in office: “President Uribe has made great achievements to increase confidence and attract investment,” he said, speaking on the issue of security. We must not forget the benefits, kind readers, of Plan Colombia, and its offspring (speaking of family) Plan Patriota, thanks to which it has been possible to strengthen, under the approving eye of the White House, the military apparatus that offers an effective twenty-four-hour security service to protect these sources of foreign investment that have done us the courtesy of setting their eyes on our country.
Bush also gave his support to the Colombian government for its continuing crusade against terrorism, stating, courageously, that the guerrillas will not scare off investors. How intrepid these foreigners are!
But the most moving part of this fraternal meeting, of “this mission of commerce and friendship,” as the Florida governor called it, was the moment in which, speaking approvingly of the Colombian government’s modest work in favor of U.S. capital, he spoke those moving words: “Colombia inspires confidence in us.”
Those beautiful words, which struck deep into obedient Colombian hearts, inevitably make one think, with feeling, of those foriegn companies that – in their crusade into the under-developed world, defending the free market – have stopped here along the road to help out in the struggle for progress that the landed elite and wealthiest sectors of our society have waged for years.
That’s why today, kind readers, as a sort of sweet homage, I would like to remember what the two U.S.-based multinational corporations most important for Colombia have done to make this country better; two companies that have placed their confidence in us. I speak of no more and no less than Coca Cola and the Occidental Petroleum Company.
What Would We Do Without Them?
Coca Cola: The “Spark of Life” (“La chispa de la vida” is its Spanish slogan), the symbol par excellence of the American dream. It has bottling plants, stockholders, and customers all over the world. In some countries, it has become an example of austerity for workers everywhere, promoting opportunities for poor children to contribute to the family economy, as in the case of the sugar plantation workers in El Salvador. This company – which has been “progressing with Colombia for 60 years,” as the slogan on their website proclaims, and which considers itself a friend to society in every place that it is does business – has twenty bottling plants in Colombia, seventeen of which belong to the Coca Cola FEMSA company, while the rest belong to individual owners. It has learned how to very efficiently exploit our water and sugar reserves, as well as other resources. The company has over $300 million in capital invested in Colombia, which it has invested very wisely in acquiring assets, improving factories, advertising, and other activities. And what could be the secret to such enviable prosperity? Let’s take a look below at the secret to this company’s success.
Coca Cola’s strategy has basically consisted of reducing production costs, something it has accomplished quite effectively through massive layoffs (as they say, “lo que no sirve que no estorbe” – don’t let he who isn’t needed get in the way). In this way, it becomes possible to invest in the latest technology, rather than take on the unnecessary expenses that labor implies: healthcare, insurance premiums, vacations, pensions, and other workers’ benefits. And if labor is needed, a method can be utilized that’s very popular in Colombia right now: subcontracting (PDF), that is, employing temporary workers who can’t demand any kind of guarantees because they have no job security or possibility of another job anytime soon.
And as Coca Cola Colombia knows, any strong, respectable economic strategy is sustained by cost cutting and saving. So, since September 2003, the company has been closing several of its bottling plants. Which, in the end, has been really positive for the more than 500 already forcibly retired workers. That’s how Coca Cola thanks its employees for so many years of hard work and dedication.
Of course, to reach this kind of prosperity one must also overcome all kinds of obstacles. In Coca Cola’s case there was no choice but to create a strategy to defend itself from the danger presented by those thankless employees who build organizations to damage the prestige of such a magnificent company; organizations also known as “unions.” For example, most of Coca Cola’s workers in Colombia have, for some time, been members of the National Food Industry Workers’ Union (SINALTRAINAL in Spanish). They oppose what they call “massive layoffs” (which, as we already explained, are nothing more than forced retirements), what they consider to be unfair salaries (they complain every time their salary goes down just a little – what do they expect with a modest budget of just $300 million?) , and because they claim the company’s layoffs are actually part of a policy to break up the union.
Since these gentlemen from the union don’t understand that the company does all these things for their own good, there is no choice but to confront the matter with a firm hand. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because they have links to subversive elements, as the respectable manager of Coca Cola Colombia, José Gabriel Gastro, claimed in 1992 when he publicly accused the workers and the union of being guerrilla agents. And on that front, the Colombian military, and the hopefully soon-to-be legal paramilitary forces, have done excellent work. Just think of all the military-corporate victories in the past few years, like the raid on the headquarters of the Coca Cola Workers’ Cooperative on September 30, 1996 by an elite squad of the National Police. Or that December 9, 1996, when members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in Spanish, the umbrella organization for paramilitary groups) entered the Coca Cola plant in Carepa, Antioquia, to “forcibly retire” all of the SINALTRAINAL employees at gunpoint.
According to SINALTRAINAL, nine union members and leaders at Coca Cola plants have been assassinated, 38 have had to flee their homes, and 67 others have received death threats. It’s facts like these that give this company so much confidence in Colombia.
The Occidental Petroleum Company and Its Commitment to Colombia: We have had the privilege of this U.S. corporation’s presence since 1983, when “Oxy,” as it is better known, helped us to find the Caño Limón oil field in the Arauca department. At the time, it signed a contract with the Colombian state oil company, Ecopetrol. The contract stipulated that each party would keep fifty percent of the profits. (Fortunately, thanks to the Uribe administration, the future liquidation of Ecopetrol will allow foreign companies to keep all the profits for just a small fee, in a show of thanks for their investment in the country.) The Caño Limón oil field is a total gold mine. It is possible to extract 200,000 barrels per day from the site (and I imagine, kind readers, that you have some idea of how much that equals in dollars). Oxy has, since 1985, quenched a bit of the insatiable thirst of the big U.S. oil company stockholders, who continually demonstrate to the local businessmen that ambition is no defect, but rather a virtue that should know no limits.
It was just that ambition that motivated Oxy in its “mega-project,” the oil pipeline completed in 1986 that goes from Caño Limón, right in the heart of the eastern plains, to Coveñas, on the country’s northwestern Caribbean coast. The oil travels across the whole country, through forests and mountains, until it gets to the tankers that transport it directly to the United States. Now that’s what I call progress! But for the environmental organizations, that means destruction of the environment (Spanish PDF). Apparently, these hippies have nothing better to do.
Without a doubt, the most admirable thing about this company is its courage in handling difficulties and facing its enemies: the guerrillas, the non-governmental organizations (mostly environmentalists), the indigenous communities (especially the U’wa people), and the same plague that threatens Coca Cola and the other reputable companies: organized workers. These are members of the main Colombian oil workers union: the Petroleum Industry Workers’ Organization (USO in its Spanish initials). They fight for the same reasons as the Coca Cola workers: against the unjust salaries, for the elimination of temporary employment, for the rejection of the company’s internal policies. They get so monotonous, these workers!
Oxy’s ambition allows them to stand their ground against the accusations of the organizations that work with the U’wa community. According to these people’s very peculiar way of looking at the world, the company’s extraction efforts, since their beginning, have been carried out on sacred indigenous land, and as such constitute an assault on their culture and the community’s autonomy. (The embarrassment these undeveloped people make us go through in front of First World citizens!) In fact, Oxy Vice President Lawrence Meriage has strongly responded to these accusations. According to Meriage, in an interview published February 15, 200 in the newspaper El Tiempo, these organizations “don’t care about Colombia or the U’wa. They just need an issue for fundraising.”
Of course, these organizations are nothing like Oxy, which cares so much about the country that it has contributed to the military build-up in various regions. There is no country that has inspired Plan Colombia as much as Oxy. In fact, in the above-mentioned interview, Mariage said that the only criticism he had of military operations in Colombia was that they should be “more balanced.” That is, they shouldn’t just focus on Putumayo department, but also Arauca, North Santander, and the border region with Ecuador. In other words, the regions where Oxy was expanding its operations, and where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) were also moving in, attacking oil fields and pipelines, striking against the country’s economic development.
Some time later, Mr. Meriage’s words and his continual lobbying in U.S. Congress would bear fruit: from the Plan Colombia resources approved in 2003, $99 million would be invested in protecting the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline. A modest security apparatus that consists of just ten helicopters, an intelligence unit of the 18th Army Brigade stationed in the area, the creation of the new Mobile Brigade #5 (assigned exclusively to the protection of pipeline), and additional river patrols and police units. What’s more, in January 2003, sixty U.S. Special Forces members arrived in Arauca. Not to mention the private military “contractors” that have become indispensable in these defense operations.
As for the environmentalists, the trade unionists, the human rights workers, and the little Owls, or whatever those Indians are called, there isn’t much to worry about. In such cases, Oxy has had no problem sticking its hand in its pocket and coming up with a few dollars from its modest budget for the heroic armed representatives of the elite to do humanity a favor and get those horrible people out of the way of the ever-shorter path to progress in our country.
And all of this is why the Occidental Petroleum Company also has confidence in Colombia.
I could write forever about virtues of all the multinational corporations that have blindly believed in the force of our hard-working nation, in the infinite possibilities for exploitation that our natural resources offer, in the warm and charismatic nature of our people (qualities that become surprisingly better known when U.S. or European citizens come here), in the efforts of the current government to make this country safer (for foreign investment).
I could. Unfortunately, because of lack of space, I won’t be able to go on about companies like Nestlé, Drummon, Monsanto, BP, and Repsol, among many others (500 or more). But all the same, it doesn’t matter. But in this case, there is no need to think of that childhood game where one of these things is not like the other, and doesn’t belong. No, here, everything is like everything else. All of these multinationals have basically the same modus operandi, based on honesty, peace, respect, and support for the forces of order, just as I described in reference to Oxy and Coca Cola.
Because when you look at things that way, it’s easy to believe in Colombia, right Mr. Jeb?
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