“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”: Coca-Cola’s Secret History

Itak sa Puso ni Mang Juan (Knife to Juan’s Heart) by Antipas Delotavo.

Coca-Cola is a mainstay of everyday urban life in the Philippines. My colleagues, family, and friends drink it all the time. I drink it occasionally, especially when offered a bottle. It is everywhere, from our television sets, to the billboards along the highway, to the neighbourhood “sari-sari” store.

Coca-Cola is presently one of the leading US-based multinational corporations with its revenues reaching $46.5 billion revenues in 2012 and its operations encompassing over 200 countries. Along with Mcdonalds and Starbucks, among many others, Coca-Cola has been touted as the poster-boy of “globalization.”

Indeed, Coca-Cola itself is conscious in marketing itself as an icon of a globalized culture that brings together diverse locale, with its TV ads in different countries promoting the expression “Brrr…” as a global language.[i] If the cyber-world is being subjected to googlization, the world’s diet has long been subjected to coca-colazation.

Here in the Philippines, as in much of the rest of the world, Coca-Cola has been marketed as a wholesome drink for buddies wanting some good time or the whole family during special occasions.

But what many don’t know is that this very same drink is in fact manufactured out of the same ingredient that is used to synthesize the illegal narcotic cocaine: coca leaf. Invented by the pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton, Coca-Cola is made from a mix “of kola caffeine with a kick of coca.”[ii]

In an illustrated book entitled A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola,[iii] Ricardo Cortes puts together findings from declassified US government correspondence and various interviews and field research to expose how Coca-Cola has been able to circumvent the international ban on coca.

While coca is illegal in the US and most countries in the world, Coca-Cola has been able to secure exclusive access to the plant. In fact, the book suggests that the company’s virtual monopoly over coca leaf as an important ingredient of Coca-Cola’s secret formula has been crucial in ensuring its very success as a product for 125 years.

Named “Merchandise No. 5,” this coca “flavouring extract” has been processed in a discreet facility in New Jersey called the Maywood Chemical Works for decades as a result of the influence-peddling of Coca Cola man and former US Secretary of War Ralph Hayes with big people in the US government.

Hayes particularly established a cozy relationship with Harry J. Anslinger, the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner from 1930 to 1970. Anslinger ensured that Coca-Cola enjoyed special access to coca imports while Hayes used his connections to cement Anslinger’s position in Washington.

Apologists of the world capitalist system have always emphasized the role of the “invisible hand” of the market in determining which companies succeed and which products thrive. But the truth is that politics has much to do the domination of a few corporate monopolies based in the US, West Europe, and Japan.

What is being touted as something following the laws of “nature” is simply socially determined.

In 1961, the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was adopted. With Anslinger sitting as US representative, all the people of the world were ordered to stop the chewing of coca leaves and the sale of coca tea, and mandated the destruction of all wild coca bushes while a provision granted Coca-Cola right to the coca leaves.

This inconspicuous detail continues to be enforced up to the present, hence denying indigenous peoples of Bolivia and Peru their socio-cultural right to chew coca leaves as they have done for thousands of years and to use this substance as a source of income through the selling of coca tea.

Notwithstanding the neoliberal rhetoric of “small government,” the truth remains that the state has become more important than ever in protecting the interests of the ruling corporate elites. The secret history of Coca-Cola stands out as a symptom of an unequal system that deprives the 99 percent of their rights in favour of the 1 percent.

This is the secret behind its seemingly magical qualities wherein “the more you drink the thirstier you get, the greater your need to drink more – with that strange, bitter-sweet taste, our thirst is never effectively quenched.”[iv] This is the secret behind the daily junction on TV that says “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”

[i] Angela Mhae R. Herrera and Albert A. San Diego, “Brrr!: Coke Bilang Instrumento ng Globalisasyong Kultural,” Plaridel Vol. 9 No. 1 February 2012, 95-104.

[ii] Ricardo Cortes, A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola, New York: Akashic Books, 2012.

[iii] I received an advance reading copy of the book from the New York-based publisher Akashic Books. Much thanks for the free copy! I will be giving it as present to my younger brother, an economics undergrad, this Christmas.

[iv] Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For, London: Verso, 2000.

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