McDonald’s Left Bolivia in 2002; Fast Food Still Abundant on City Streets

According to the blogosphere, the biggest news out of Bolivia in the end of 2011 is that Bolivians have rejected McDonald’s. Headlines such as “McDonald’s goes belly up in Bolivia”[i] and “Fast Food fails to deliver in Bolivia”[ii] have topped Google alerts for weeks. Most all of the articles on the subject offer the same quote from news-site Hispanically Speaking News: “Bolivians consider a good meal to be prepared with love, dedication, certain hygiene standards and a proper cook time.”[iii] Everyone from nutritionists to anti-corporate activists would like to hail this victory for Bolivia. But the inconvenient truth is that it’s no better to devour unvetted news than it is to gobble fast food.

McDonald’s left Bolivia in 2002.[iv] After operating in the country for 14 years, they closed all 8 of their Bolivian franchises. That same year, McDonald’s closed 175 branches and pulled out of 10 countries.[v] The reason bloggers only picked up on this news now, ten years later, is that a documentary entitled Por qué quebró McDonald’s en Bolivia, or Why did McDonald’s Bolivia go Bankrupt, has revived the story. Though Hispanically Speaking News’ review of the film correctly states that McDonald’s left Bolivia in 2002, bloggers picked up only on the review’s December 22, 2011 headline: “McDonald’s Closes All Their Restaurants in Bolivia.”[vi] Many blogs even used photos from McDonald’s not in Bolivia to accompany their articles: Scallywag and Vagabond both printed a photo from Miraflores in Lima, Peru, mislabeling it “McDonald’s in Bolivia.”[vii]

Beyond misleading readers to believe that McDonald’s exit from Bolivia was breaking news, the blogs also convince a willing readership that the reason McDonald’s left was that Bolivians do not like fast food. Indeed Hispanically Speaking News says that the film, Por que quebro McDonald’s en Bolivia, “includes interviews with a series of interviews with cooks, sociologists, nutritionists and educators, who all seem to agree, Bolivians are not against hamburgers per sé, just against ‘fast food,’ a concept widely unaccepted in the Bolivian community.”[viii]

Monica Heinrich V., a blogger, accuses the movie of failing to look at their question of why McDonald’s left Bolivia—and she is careful to point out that closing its franchises in Bolivia is distinct from going bankrupt—in a methodical way. Rather than support its thesis with statistics and numbers, Heinrich says the movie relies on anecdotes to prove its message that Bolivians value their traditions of slow meals over the convenience, taste or popularity of a Big Mac.  She counters with her own anecdotal memory of McDonald’s opening day in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz: “The last thing anyone received was fast food because the lines were so long.”[ix]

Despite the flurry of news his movie has provoked, the definitive answer to filmmaker Fernando Martinez’ question about why McDonald’s left Bolivia remains unknown. Did Bolivia’s economic instability make it less lucrative than other places for McDonald’s? Was the cost of McDonald’s food—much of it imported despite the existence of Bolivian sources—too high for the average Bolivian? Or do Bolivians simply prefer a Whopper? In any case, the presence of Burger King, Subway, fried chicken chains and hot dog joints, not to mention Bolivian specific fast food providers such as salteñerias, on every block of most Bolivian cities suggests that the slow food movement would be unwise to look to Bolivia as a model nation of consumers.

[i], “McDonald’s goes belly up in Bolivia,” 26 December 2011.

[ii] “Fast Food fails to deliver in Bolivia.” 10 January 2012.

[iii] Hispanically Speaking News, “McDonald’s Closes All Their Restaurants In Bolivia,” 22 December 2011.

[iv] BBC “Bolivia: McDonald’s cierra sus puertas,” 2 Decemeber 2002.

[v] Monica Heinrich V , Aullidos de la calle. “Falso Conejo.” 8 November 2011.

[vi]McDonald’s Closes All Their Restaurants In Bolivia.

[vii] Scallywag and Vagabond, “McDonald’s close all their stores in Bolivia, making Bolivia the only Latin- American free McDonald’s,” 26 Dec 2011.

[viii] McDonald’s Closes All Their Restaurants In Bolivia,.”.

[ix].“Falso Conejo.” Monica Heinrich V.: “Y el tiempo que estuvo funcionando, en horarios de almuerzo y cena era un suplicio ir a comprar Fast Food porque lo último que obtenías era comida de manera rápida, siempre colas y colas y colas.”