Book Review: Belching Out the Devil


10-23-08, 10:41 am

Belching Out The Devil by Mark Thomas New York, Ebury Press, 2008

Morning Star

Coca-Cola is the poster child for capitalism. Its brand alone is valued at $65 billion – number one for six years in a row.

Never has so much money gone into selling such a sugary syrup, but the marketing myth-makers are keen to keep the company's dark side a secret.

Unfortunately for them, campaigning comic turned respected reporter Mark Thomas has blown the lid off the corporate criminality with this international investigation of theft, violence and even murder.

The trail starts in Colombia, where trade unionists working for Coke have been killed by paramilitaries. But, because the bottlers are allegedly 'independent,' the corporation denies any responsibility.

Its PR people have gone into overdrive with plenty of warm words, but their argument ultimately boils down to 'it's all in the past, things are better now.'

They can't cover up the death threats, though, such as last year's from the Black Eagles calling on named 'terrorists in the trade union' to 'stop the backlash against the Coca-Cola company.'

The union in question is Sinaltrainal. Since its leaders started to get assassinated, including Isidro Gil, who was actually gunned down in the Coke factory in 1996, membership has dwindled, but it's still fighting and calling for an international boycott.

Thomas's interviews with its current leadership are especially gripping and bring home the severity of what life's like for the labor movement in Colombia. Where we have strikes in Britain, they have hunger strikes.

Thomas effortlessly makes you laugh and cry at the same time, dismissing the company's boasts of special privileges for workers in the firing line to 'a day off, a taxi and a loan.'

Next, we're in Turkey, where employees charge that they're beaten up and sacked for organizing. Again, Coke hides behind the 'independent subcontractor' spin. A pattern is beginning to emerge.

Next is El Salvador and we're warned that the product 'may contain traces of child labour' – eight-year-olds cutting sugar cane. Coke even admits that its ability 'to assist in addressing these fundamental issues of tradition and norm that surround rural poverty is limited.'

Thomas takes issue with using the word 'tradition' in this context – surely it should be reserved for 'warm and pleasant things, brass bands and summer fetes, rather than stuffing kids up chimneys.'

His biggest indictment comes from India, where the water wars are waged. To produce Coke, you need triple the amount of water and the company has a habit of building factories on drought plains.

Farmer after farmer eloquently explains how they used to have enough water before Coca-Cola's arrival and now they don't.

Thomas cuts through the corporate crap. Coke's own sponsored report admits that 'community water issues do not appear to be an integral part of (its) water resources management practices.' In other words, then, it 'simply didn't give a fuck.'

Coke tries to buy off communities with jobs, but they're the kind that no union would stand for, leading to 'men lining up outside the gates waiting for a chance to work in the chlorine fumes for a company which is pumping millions of liters of water out of the ground while the women fight each other for pots of water and the children are taken out of school.'

Thomas has got an eye for connections and puts everything he sees into context with a liberal dose of contemporary cultural references. But this is single-issue politics at its best and he lets the facts speak for themselves.

Although the book doesn't explicitly back the boycott call, it will be used by grass-roots activists as the ultimate recruiting tool. You can almost imaging it being waved at Coca-Cola executives inside angry shareholder meetings in the same way that Greg Palast's books are brandished at anti-Bush demos.

Thomas's strengths are his honesty and ability to fairly present both sides of an argument. But the Coke corporate reps make your skin crawl, with one wide-eyed drone even asking him: 'Why are are you picking on us?'

He's trying to build the widest possible consensus against the company's practices and that means working with people who don't see taking on Coke as a step towards overthrowing global capitalism and building socialist revolution.

One such person is New York councilman Hiram Monserrate, who's taken up Sinaltrainal's cause in the US. He's an ex-marine, spent 12 years in the New York Police Department and 'looks like his CV – I bet if you were able to snap him in half, you'd find the word COP running all the way through his body like a stick of Brighton rock.'

So, what's his beef? The company 'represents American capitalism' and so 'should never be about allowing your workers to be subject to violence or death because they are organizing to defend their rights. What does it say about America?'

When Coke gets pressure like this from all sides, it's forced to act. It has had to shut down some, but not all, of its plants in India after communities stood up to it with international support.

And then there's Raquel Chavez in Mexico, who proved that the company was acting unconstitutionally by refusing to sell her Coke after she started stocking its Peruvian rival Big Cola. It was fined $50 million, the largest amount ever in Mexico. Chavez's victory was even more of a miracle in a country where the establishment is riddled with ex-Coke executives.

Like Chavez, the Indian farmers and the trade unionists in Colombia and Turkey, Thomas is taking on the king of fizz against overwhelming odds. Coca-Cola bosses should be terrified of this book. The rest of us should be terrified by it.