As the presidential campaign heats up the media has failed to analyze John McCain’s ties to corporate America and in particular to the beer industry. Anheuser-Busch, the nation’s largest beer producer, has proven highly instrumental in McCain’s rise on the political stage. McCain’s wife Cindy was the daughter of a multimillionaire Anheuser-Busch distributor and her beer earnings have afforded the Arizona Senator a wealthy lifestyle including a private jet and vacation homes. In the early years of McCain’s Washington career, Anheuser-Busch’s political action committee was among the Senator’s donors. Though McCain’s fundraising base is now far broader than his family bank accounts and Anheuser-Busch, executives from the company have been important and longtime supporters.
Though Anheuser Busch is most known for its domestic beers such as Budweiser (which some ridiculously refer to as the “King of Beers”), the company has also become something of an international player. For example, Anheuser-Busch has a stake in Mexico’s largest brewer, Grupo Modelo, which makes Corona, Negra Modelo, and Pacífico. Since the mid-1980s, the company has had particular success in the United States with Corona, a light-tasting beer — often served with a wedge of fresh lime — that became popular with many young adults.
For Modelo, a strong incentive for entering the deal with Anheuser-Busch was the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA: under the accord, U.S. import duties on Mexican beer were eliminated. As a Senator, McCain has been a big booster of economic globalization which has made consolidation of the beer industry possible. The Republican presidential hopeful supports NAFTA and has in fact assailed Barack Obama for his criticism of free trade. According to labor unions, NAFTA has cost the U.S. at least one million jobs, a fact of little apparent concern to the Arizona Senator. Though the agreement has led to a social and ecological disaster in Mexico, McCain does not support special provisions which would protect workers and the environment. In recognition of his efforts, the right wing Cato Institute gave McCain a 100% ranking when it came to promoting the free trade agenda.
McCain, IRI and Anheuser-Busch
On Capitol Hill, McCain has long opposed Third World governments which seek to contest corporate supremacy and free trade. Since 1993, McCain has chaired an outfit called the International Republican Institute (IRI). The group, funded by U.S. taxpayers and private money, bills itself as non-partisan and claims to promote democracy world-wide. On the surface at least, IRI seems to have a rather innocuous agenda including party building, media training, the organization of leadership trainings, dissemination of newsletters, and strengthening of civil society.
In reality however the IRI serves as an instrument to advance and promote the most far right Republican foreign policy agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger operation than a conventional research group, IRI has aligned itself with some of the most antidemocratic factions in the Third World. In Haiti, IRI helped to fund, equip, and lobby for the country’s two heavily conservative and White House-backed opposition parties, the Democratic Convergence and Group 184. The latter group, comprised of many of the island’s major business, church and professional figures, was at the vanguard of opposition to Jean Bertrand Aristide prior to the Haitian President’s forced ouster in 2004. In Venezuela, IRI generously funded civil society groups that were militantly opposed to the Chávez regime.
Significantly, Anheuser-Busch has donated tens of thousands of dollars to IRI. On a certain level the brewing company’s financial support is not very surprising. If it can avoid it, the company would undoubtedly like to turn back the tide of so-called Pink Tide regimes which have come to power in recent years. As I explain in my current book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan 2008), nationalistic governments from Venezuela to Brazil to Argentina have opposed the creation of President Bush’s corporately-driven Free Trade Area of the Americas.
McCain, Anheuser Busch and CAFTA
Hoping to outflank hostile left wing regimes in the region, the Bush White House has been busy over the past few years hammering out free trade agreements with more conservative governments. In 2005, the U.S. Congress passed the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA, which cuts tariffs among the United States, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Having reaped maximum gain from NAFTA, Anheuser-Busch is likely to benefit from an expansion of corporate-driven free trade in Central America. In Honduras, Anheuser-Busch introduced Budweiser in 2006. The following year, Heineken announced that it had reached an agreement with Anheuser-Busch to produce and market Budweiser in Panama. The production and bottling of Budweiser in the tiny Central American nation is a major achievement for the company, as it provides a starting point for expanding the brand to other markets in the region. What’s more, under CAFTA U.S. beers will be able to enter Central America duty free by 2015. The beer industry hopes that CAFTA will spur increased per capita consumption, particularly in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, thus leading to greater profits.
McCain has been an important backer of CAFTA and voted for the agreement in the Senate despite the fact that the deal, modeled after NAFTA, does not contain adequate environmental or labor protections.
Not only does McCain support CAFTA but he also wants to expand free trade to other governments throughout the region. Despite Colombia’s status as a human rights and labor nightmare, the Senator backs a pending trade deal with the Andean nation. McCain’s lobbying on behalf of the Colombia deal stands to benefit his political benefactor Anheuser-Busch: in February, 2006 the company introduced Budweiser in the Andean nation.
Touting the virtues of mediocre Budweiser, Esteban Amoia, a regional marketing manager for Anheuser-Busch International, remarked that “Budweiser has exceeded expectations in Colombia…and there is a growing demand for the brand’s clean, crisp and refreshing taste.” Encouraged by Budweiser’s success in Colombia, Anheuser-Busch is now marketing Bud Light. Amoia added that the beer could “become the brand of choice for young, fun-loving men and women who are on the move.”
From his earliest days as a politician, McCain has eagerly enmeshed himself in an insidious political web with Anheuser-Busch. If it weren’t for Cindy McCain and her beer money, the Arizona Senator might not have achieved great political power in the Senate. In exchange for Anheuser-Busch’s support, McCain looks out for the beer company’s long-term interests abroad. Truly, it might be said that the Arizona Senator is the “King of Beers” in Latin America.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan)