Colombian Protectionists Bite the Starbucks Hand That Feeds Them


EspañolTension continues to fester between Starbucks and a few vocal protectionists in Colombia, to the embarrassment of self-respecting coffee growers in this proud nation.

Starbucks is both a leading buyer and promoter of Colombian coffee, but you would guess the opposite from the reception they have received in the South American nation. (@CoffeeBrue)
Starbucks is both a leading buyer and promoter of Colombian coffee, but you would guess the opposite from the reception they have received in the South American nation. (@CoffeeBrue)

Far from greeting the world’s largest coffee retailer with gratitude, as both a buyer and promoter of Colombian coffee, many industry representatives and economic nationalists have stoked animosity towards the US-based company.

Merely getting a retail presence at all in Colombia proved a mission for the iconic international powerhouse, with the first opening in Bogotá less than a year ago. Starbucks executives have been buying Colombian coffee since 1971; yet they had more than 700 stores elsewhere in Latin America before they opened a single one in Colombia.

To assuage both industry lobbies and nativist sentiments, Starbucks partnered with local companies and made known that they would serve only 100 percent locally sourced coffee. However, since then — perish the thought — they have sold packaged coffee from elsewhere.

Dignidad Cafetera, an association of coffee workers, has been less than impressed with this development. “Starbucks came here like demagogues, lying and saying that they would sell only Colombian coffee,” association spokesman Oscar Gutierrez told reporter Manuel Rueda of Fusion. Gutierrez now wants targeted quotas and tariffs imposed, to stop coffee being “unloaded in this country.”

Whether Starbucks is in line with its original promise is open to interpretation, but regardless, they should never have had to make such a commitment to begin with. Perhaps on account of their Seattle headquarters, they have become the whipping boy while many other importers go under the radar.

Gutierrez’s organization and his protectionist allies are neither dignified nor in the business of promoting coffee. They might like to ask themselves why, for example, Colombians consume considerably less coffee than other people in Latin America — half the rate of Costa Ricans and less than a third the rate of Brazilians. Maybe it has something to do with a heavily protected market that seeks to keep a lid on competition such as Starbucks, which gives options and better service to consumers.

The National Federation of Coffee Producers purports to represent Colombians, but has had monopoly powers and enjoyed mandatory dues for decades. If Dignidad Cafetera cares so much about money going to the actual producers, rather than a crony bureaucracy, where is the outcry over that?

Considering that the vast majority of Colombian coffee is exported, the protectionist motto is trade for me but not for thee. If other nations were to erect barriers to Colombian coffee, producers on the home front would have a lot more to worry about than a little packaged coffee at Starbucks.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all, though, stems from the touted pride that protectionists have in Colombian coffee as the best around. It may well be, but that is a matter for consumers to decide, and empty declarations backed by limits on options convey the opposite message.

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