New Internationalist

You can’t block the bucks

It’s hard to imagine a place where green letters and black sirens don’t decorate each corner of the high street, where red cups are unheard of and people actually know where their coffee comes from. Up until recently, Central America was that place… but Starbucks has just moved in.

On the cobbled streets of Antigua, Guatemala, you can’t walk for more than a few steps without stumbling across a small independent coffee shop – stocked with beans from nearby farms and furniture made from the bags the beans were delivered in. In the capital, it’s slightly less idyllic looking, but drive-through cappuccinos are still an important ritual of the early morning commute. Café Barista, &Café and El Cafetalito may all be chains, but they are also all proudly Guatemalan. Even the idea for the global phenomenon McCafé was developed here.

Coffee runs in the blood of Guatemala

Given that Latin America is the largest coffee-producing area on the planet and Guatemala is the world’s fifth-largest coffee exporter, you’d think the country’s café culture would be fairly self-sufficient. So why has the US giant descended?

Over half of the coffee produced in Guatemala is exported to the US, so it seems strange that the US is now selling it back.

Starbucks in Guatemala

A spokesperson for Starbucks America Latina insists that it wants to enhance the coffee experience of the local consumer. But the bar is already set pretty high and with lattes at nearly twice the price charged at other places, few ‘local consumers’ will be able to afford Starbucks’ beverages. With so many local chains and independent coffee shops already competing for a cut of the market share, many fear that the fashionable franchise will cripple its local competitors.

One local coffeeshop owner from Antigua said that it’s always a worry when a rival business opens in your area, but he predicts that the larger chains, like Café Barista, will be more affected.

When Starbucks opened in Condado Concepción shopping centre, Guatemala City, last month there were queues around the block, parking lots were full and people waited over an hour for a table.

Starbucks placard

Is the flavour really that much better?
Often the appeal of famous US chains to a developing country is not so much about the taste of the product on offer, but the statement it sends to others. Starbucks’ designer cups have become something of a fashion accessory to be admired by onlookers. And it’s for this reason that Starbucks Guatemala will no doubt be a success. But at what price to the local coffeehouses?

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  1. #1 Jo 19 Apr 11

    It's awful to think that wherever you go in the world you are going to be confronted by the same shops, cafes, bus companies and banks.

    I'll never forget returning to Malta after an absence of several years to discover that it has become HSBC Central - there are over 40 branches on an island which is just 320 sq km. It made me want to weep!

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About the author

Anna-Claire Bevan a New Internationalist contributor

Anna-Claire Bevan is a freelance journalist currently based in Guatemala City. She writes about political, environmental and social issues for magazines both in Guatemala and back home in the UK. Anna originally set up her first blog Vida Latina as a result of her travels in Latin America and frustrations at the lack of international media coverage that this area of the world receives.

Read more by Anna-Claire Bevan

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