I was told that a man by the name of John Doe passed through the offices of Argentine congressmen. He wasn’t carrying heavy bags of cash, but only had an American Express card on him. Doe was a well-groomed and well-dressed U.S. national who came on behalf of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). He came bearing gifts for several congressmen: airfare, lodging, and entertainment in Washington, D.C. It is a well-known fact that deputies in Third World countries travel to first world countries, especially to the United States, to meet their rich sponsors. The gifts from Doe were well received in several offices.
The Argentine congressmen who received these gifts got to enjoy a nice trip to Washington from November 28 to December 4. That is the same week when the Argentine parliament was expected to pass the Packaging Law, the most important social and economic regulation in a decade, which will enable an ecological solution to the waste problem. The AmCham wants to save Argentina from making a serious mistake because apparently the U.S. companies are very concerned about how this law will affect jobs and overall growth in Argentina.
The AmCham is an independent and nonprofit business organization, which is present in almost every country in the world and operates in Argentina openly. The organization defends the interests of the U.S. multinationals. Some U.S. firms—such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola, which are leading plastic-packing companies as much as soft drink manufacturers—have openly said that they are against the Packaging Law. I don’t know if it is a crime or not to go around offering airline tickets and receiving these tickets, lodging, and gifts, but it seems to me to be at odds with the most elementary principle of public ethics. It seems that Doe’s American Express card was put to work to encourage Argentine representatives to reject not only the Packaging Law but also the views of their constituents, who are in support of this law.
This case illustrates how a transnational lobby operates in the Global South, against socio-environmental regulations and against any political action in defense of ecological practices, as well as against national sovereignty and the public interest that should bind corporations. As soon as AmCham realized that the Packaging Law could pose a danger to the profits of companies they represent in Argentina, they set the machinery in motion to undermine the law. The same Argentine media that praised the law days before AmCham got into the action now rant against it; deputies who had voted for the law in the committees now reversed their vote as soon as their offices were flooded with invitations to Washington, D.C.
The American Chamber of Commerce claims that the businesses it represents are not against the Packaging Law per se, but that these companies should not be regulated: they should be allowed to manage their own packaging systems. It is quite ridiculous. Nobody forbids these companies from running their own private business. The Packaging Law is simply there to define the terms of the business. If a firm uses ecological packaging methods or recyclable packaging methods, then everything is fine. The government of Argentina seeks to encourage firms to do just this. If companies do not follow this rule, then the state will claim the cost of mitigation and remediation of environmental damage created by unecological packaging techniques used by these companies.
When a corporation puts a container into the market, which it does not recycle or compost, then that packaging does not magically disappear into the infinite cosmos. It gets buried in a landfill, ends up in a clandestine dump, gets thrown into the ocean, threatens the lives of fish, and creates plastic islands. There is a place in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is three times the size of France. Fortunately for society, the cartoneros (waste pickers) provide an integral service that aids in the recovery of a considerable part of the waste, about 10,000 tons a day in Argentina; they are, however, paid poorly for their immense social service.
At the same time, the corporations benefit from the raw materials that the cartoneros and their families gather. Their supply chains are as dirty as their lobbying practices. Coca-Cola manufactures its bottles with plastic that a child likely gathered from the San Pedro garbage dump in Buenos Aires. The social struggles and the new Packaging Law demand a more humane and ecological plan for the planet. The cartoneros would like to be part of cooperatives of urban recyclers and would like certain guarantees for their work. Also, the environmental damage caused by the plastic bottles and other materials should be absorbed by the firms, so that society does not have to bear this cost to ensure profits for these private firms.
The U.S. corporations, meanwhile, propose a model of “private consortiums,” a kind of self-governed charity for greenwashing. They want to pay politicians to avoid regulations and then want to make their own watered-down regulations. Their corruption and their tendency to ecocide do not surprise anyone. It is in the nature of profit maximization that makes companies like these not care for the human and environmental damages caused by their actions or for the resulting costs that are eventually borne by communities and by nature. Their logic is to ensure profit maximization and capital accumulation for themselves. Corporations with this logic cannot be expected to voluntarily restrain themselves. Society and governments must stop this crazy runaway train.
The real problem lies in the permeability of political power that sells itself, even more cheaply than corporate power: How inexpensive is the vote of a politician! Eva Perón condemned those who gave themselves for a “smile, a few coins or a banquet.” This is just like the Washington tour that has purchased the votes of several Argentine politicians, who seem eager to cash in on the benefits of AmCham’s American Express card—also made of plastic—while other plastic garbage patches are created in the oceans and the cartoneros struggle to survive amidst the toxic sludge of corporate waste.
Juan Grabois is a lawyer and a leader of the Unión de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Economía Popular (UTEP) in Argentina. He founded and now leads Frente Patria Grande, a leading political force in the country.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.