The Pause That Represses? Coca-Cola's Controversies

In the case of water depletion, it is hard to untangle allegations from reality. Coke likes to point out that its bottlers use tiny fractions of total regional water supplies. Other factors, like variation in rainfall from year to year and heavy watering by local farmers, make it next to impossible to distinguish correlation from causation. (Nonetheless, Blanding does find a director of an India-based nonprofit who convincingly discredits Coke's "rainwater harvesting" initiatives, which the company claims offset its water use in the country entirely.) Coke's arguments about the killings in Colombia, however, are not quite as persuasive.

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Poster created by The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke.

Was the Coca-Cola Company to blame for the deaths? This is the question with which Blanding ultimately grapples. The Coke Machine's final chapters chronicle the efforts of the union and two labor lawyers to sue Coca-Cola, and also describe the union-backed Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, a splashy, Saul Alinsky-style crusade to publicize the murders that was masterminded by self-described "corporate thug buster" Ray Rogers. (At Coke's 2004 shareholder meeting, Rogers was tackled and thrown to the ground by four security guards after accusing CEO Doug Daft of lying about the situation in Colombia.) Blanding's description is nuanced, with twists and turns as the lawsuit proceeds and facts are unearthed. But his final finding is uncomplicated: "Barring some sensational testimony from a demobilized paramilitary commander, it's unlikely we'll ever know what connections, if any, Coke's Colombian bottlers—much less Coke Atlanta—had to the murders."

Undeterred, Blanding doesn't let Coke off the hook. By the end of The Coke Machine, the company still looks tainted, mostly by its fierce attempts to keep whatever facts exist, incriminating or not, from surfacing. After Rogers was tackled at the shareholder meeting, his movement, fueled largely by college students, continued to swell: Many schools, including New York University and the University of Michigan, would eventually threaten to terminate (and in some cases, actually terminate) their contracts with the company. In 2004, Coke general counsel Deval Patrick pledged to commission an independent investigation of what happened in Colombia—but the idea was shot down, and Patrick, now better known as the governor of Massachusetts, resigned.

Instead, Coke began a public relations blitz and entered talks with the union, a move that stemmed the activism even as Coke made demands including that Web sites and search engines be scrubbed of all references to the campaign. The delays, coupled with an eventual study of the company's conduct in Colombia by the United Nations International Labor Organization, which Coke promised would "evaluate past and present labor relations," were enough to kill Killer Coke—even though the U.N. actually examined only "current working conditions" and not the lead-up to the assassinations.

Today, Coca-Cola's official position is that it is innocent, a claim that is supported by inquiries completed by the Colombian Office of the Attorney General and the outcome of the U.S. legal case. A district court in Miami exonerated both the Coca-Cola Company and its Colombian bottlers, and on August 11, 2009, an appeals court upheld the decisions, calling the union's allegations "too vague and conclusory." Even so, Blanding argues that Coca-Cola's steamrolling of the Ray Rogers campaign and its endorsement of a questionable U.N. investigation exemplify a strategy it has pursued throughout its history: "to remove the threat to its brand without agreeing to any enforceable requirements that might hold it accountable down the line."

Whether Coke has dodged enforceable requirements is up for debate. But in removing threats to its brand it has of course been nearly flawless, which is why we can remain surprised when Blanding's painstakingly reported book reminds us that Coke's global success—perhaps like all spectacular global success—came at a price.

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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