Bolivia Government Downplays Reports of Coca-Cola Exit

By Martin Arostegui and Mike Esterl

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia--The Coca-Cola Co. (KO) looks set to stay in Bolivia after a government official said Thursday recent comments by a high ranking minister that hinted at an exit later this year were blown out of proportion by the media.

"Foreign Minister [David] Choquehuanca's statements about Coca-Cola were taken out of context and there is nothing official," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Consuelo Ponce said.

Coca-Cola fans in the landlocked Andean nation are no doubt relieved Bolivia won't join Cuba, North Korea and Myanmar as the only countries in the world where the beverage giant doesn't have operations.

Reports the Bolivian government was planning to give Coca-Cola the boot went viral on the Internet this week.

Those reports were apparently based on comments made by Mr. Choquehuanca last month at an indigenous peoples' religious ceremony. President Evo Morales and other high ranking government officials also attended the event.

The Mayan new year that starts Dec. 21 will mark the "end of selfishness and social divisions. December 21 has to be end of Coca-Cola and the beginning of Mocochinchi," said Mr. Choquehuanca, who is known for his rhetorical flourish.

Mocochinchi is a home made prune juice drink widely consumed in Bolivia.

"The Coca-Cola Company has been a part of the community in Bolivia, generating jobs, generating income for thousands of customers, suppliers and workers, and refreshing people since 1941. ... Like the Bolivian economy, our business has been growing steadily and we have plans to continue our investments and growth in the coming years," the company said in a statement.

Mr. Choquehuanca, a member of Bolivia's Aymara people, is an expert on indigenous cultures. His sometimes literal interpretation of their ancient beliefs and customs has often led to eyebrow raising statements by the minister.

Speaking about indigenous peoples' worship of the earth, Mr. Choquehuanca once said that "rocks have sex."

Praising the nutritional qualities of coca leaves, which are the main ingredient for cocaine but in their raw form are used as a mild stimulant by Andean peoples, Mr. Choquehuanca once told Congress the leaves should be provided in school breakfasts.

But it's not the first time Morales allies have expressed hostility toward Coca-Cola.

A leading senator for Bolivia's ruling party and chief organizer of the powerful coca growing union, Leonilda Zurita, said at the 2007 constitutional convention that Coca-Cola should be sued for using the name of the plant.

Venezuela's leftist president Hugo Chavez has also urged his countrymen to stop consuming Coca-Cola and opt for domestically made fruit juices.

In a televised address shortly after Mr. Choquehuanca's speech, Mr. Chavez said: "What are you doing buying Coca-Cola or Pepsi Cola, buy [grape beverage] Uvita."

Write to Mike Esterl at