This story spread like wildfire across the internets in the last two days. The reason is simple: a documentary film about why McDonald’s didn’t succeed in Bolivia (which, btw, seems really interesting and worth watching) was just released. But someone must have failed to notice that the documentary points out that McDonald’s closed its Bolivia franchises in 2002—not “just recently”—and Bolivia has therefore been a McDonald’s-free country for almost a decade. (Did anyone at Hispanically Speaking News think to contact McDonald’s for a quote or comment?)
This leads to bad analysis for two reasons: First, since the article suggests that McDonalds only now (in 2011) “failed” that this is somehow a “success” for the Morales administration in its fight against globalization and/or capitalism and/or American cultural/political/economic hegemony (take your pick, it’s a veritable smorgasbord). Yet because this happened before Morales ever came to office (in 2005), this makes many American-based Morales supporters look really out of touch (if you really cared about Bolivia you would’ve known it was McDonalds-free sine 2002). This makes their credibility on other, more complex, issues on Bolivia highly suspect. This is, of course, compounded by the article’s claim that the documentary was made by McDonald’s itself (rather than, as it actually was, by an independent—and Bolivian—documentary crew).
Second, the triumphalism leads to a bad form of analysis. Only if we reflexively & uncritically assume that McDonald’s is “bad” can we attribute its failure in Bolivia as a “success.” And while there are many reasons to despise the kind of homogenizing influence of McDonald’s (and Starbucks, or any other global “brand”—including “progressive” ones), there are reasons to stop and think about the kinds of places that do and don’t have McDonald’s. For many Bolivians, the lack of McDonald’s is not seen as a “positive” sign of success against globalization, but an indicator that Bolivia’s economy is too small, too unstable, and too bureaucratized to make foreign investment appealing.
If you look at the Wikipedia list of countries with McDonald’s franchises, something stands out instantly: McDonald’s has franchises in countries that, all things being equal, I’d rather live in. There’s McDonald’s in Sweden, but not Somalia; there’s McDonald’s in Turkey, but not Iran; there’s McDonald’s in South Africa, but not Congo. Basically, countries with McDonald’s are also on the higher end of both GDP per capita and HDI (the UN’s human development index).
Taken in that light, the fact that Bolivia is the only country in South America (other than Guyana) without McDonald’s can be interpreted with less triumphalism and less surprise. Bolivia also has the lowest GDP per capita (even lower than Guyana) and lowest HDI (other than Guyana) in the region, as well as the highest income inequality in the region. Noticing a significant correlation between level of development and presence of McDonald’s, it’s probably no surprise that there’s no McDonald’s in Bolivia. But I’m not sure that’s a source of celebration.
Of course, Bolivia’s Burger King franchises still exist (in fact, they took over the McDonald’s locales). So perhaps there’s more to the story.
Either way, Hispanically Speaking News (a site I’ve never heard of until this internet même) clearly gets an F for the story. Especially since they link to a YouTube video (from a Bolivian news interview with the documentary filmmaker). I find it odd that a source called “Hispanically” Speaking News clearly didn’t understand an interview conducted in Spanish.