Coffee and Empire

I am frozen in the middle of the aisle at a Harris Teeter. Moments ago, my partner had asked me to pick out a bag of coffee beans for us to buy. This is a task I’ve done countless times and never with any noticeable consequence, but as any American knows there is an idle indulgence to picking out which of the many indistinguishable products you would like best. But she watches my unsure reaction with concern, then asks me if there is something wrong. Before me is a wall of various brands, colors, and descriptors, but most acute to me at this moment is the distinct country names I see advertised on each packaging, presumably indicating where they came from.

Images flash in my mind of the exoticism of a more explicitly colonial era, of transporting indigenous Samoans in their traditional garb for a human zoo in front of men with suits and pipes inspecting and nodding in approval, of Korla Pandit on a vinyl cover barreling hypnotically into the camera lens to satiate Western appetite for the foreign at a time it was considered better to be a treated as fetish than an animal — other times when the name of a country was used not to denote a peoples but a flavor.

So which country, then. COLOMBIA says some packaging immediately in front of me. I recall best I can from my non-Latino U.S. upbringing what I know of Colombia and what life is like there — I am presented with racist depictions of men holding assault rifles to a jungle backdrop generated from action films about drug wars created by the U.S. (both the films and the wars). At the time I knew Colombia mostly as the persistently right-wing neighbor to Venezuela. I would later learn of all the ways that power structure has been one the United States has deliberately cemented there, from the Banana Massacre of 1928 putting down striking workers at the request of an U.S. owned international fruit monopoly known as the United Fruit Company, to the CIA-linked assassination of socialist candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, to the indirect funding of terrorism and drug trafficking organizations through Plan Colombia under Clinton and Bush.

We don’t know what agricultural labor conditions in Colombia would be like now if Gaitán’s ideas of land reform had been allowed to succeed but we do know is what the current system has meant: 6-year old boys breaking their backs to repay debts picking coffee cherries in 10-hour shifts in what decades of U.S. administrations have called a dependable free-trade partnership. Would buying coffee beans that were grown in Colombia mean that it would be supporting the people who live in Colombia? Instinct already knows the answer — little more than buying a jaguar skin helps the jaguar.

On a shelf not too far away from Colombia sits an even greater coffee exporter, Brazil, here arrayed in a tropical-themed packaging. Images of Bolsonaro and the Amazon are not far away in my mind. Was it actually earlier this year that it was burning or was that when it was Australia? Actually it was both this year and the previous but 2019 when it made international headlines. The summer after Bolsonaro had campaigned on building over the Amazon, countless caffeine-addled Americans on social media watched a video of a Pataxó woman in tears pointing at her reservation, her voice cracking as she screams about the assholes who came to set it to flames — in her case mining operations to supply iron ore for skyscrapers and manufacturing equipment, further in the forest, a farmers queimada starting fires to clear the land for agricultural use, mostly cattle feed to supply international demand for red-meat. Freshly cleared land makes for the best coffee yields, I’ve heard.

And given production cycles, I imagine it is possible, that the plants from which the coffee beans were picked from were planted there atop freshly tilled soil which was cleared by fires set while Bolsonaro shrugged his shoulders to cameras, all so that they could neatly be packaged into the bags right in front of me now. And sold to us thanks to a Seattle billionaire who sermonizes to us about the environment. And in this way the fires in the Amazon, one realizes, were not started by the farmers, or a single fascist politician, or even the horticulture of coffee growing.

The razing with the Amazon began the conquest of Pizarro and its diseases ripping their way through surrounding indigenous peoples, then with the international rubber trade boring holes into the rubber trees and billowing pungent smoke from Manaus, then with cattle ranching following the 1964 military dictatorship installed by the CIA to supply diners in the US — but always to meet imperialist demand; demand that for coffee industry is increasing 2% every year while yields are getting less and less due to climate, locking the coffee industry into a death spiral clearing more and more forest into order to meet the demand. Despite all the coverage on social media, I reckon it must be an industry that has become something too lucrative for shame, as RAINFOREST BLEND grins a set of neat lettering on a package next to me.

Wheeling back a bit now, my eyes travel throughout the global South, unable to find any comfort there — with the international price of coffee at $1 a pound, the conditions of exploitation are built in. Among them there are warehouses full of cots, bonded laborers, child labor, slums, peonage systems, unsustainable practices, human trafficking — to learn the imperial context of a country is to learn variations of the same tired story, that the markets dictate must always end the same way. Same job, different gunpoint. Neither does the generic brand absolve away any of these legalized robberies, the peoples it was taken from no longer fetishized but simply abstracted away. All the products in this store are an abstraction in this sense — I am the end piece of a machine I will never fully understand but works by feeding people into it.

The answer to my partner’s question ‘is there something wrong’ is yes. What is nationally hailed as a paradise of choices is in reality nothing but a diabolical mockery of choice — a choice among bullets and weapons, but never whether or where we pull the trigger. Triggers in a war set in motion long before we arrived on this earth, a world historic international war among peoples and nations and classes. A war over labor and land and yes — even how we wake in the morning or how we obtain the food we eat — one which is breathtaking in scope and relentless in greed. That which could be only explained as an economic system or an empire. An empire in which we live inside of but never pledged our allegiance to except for when we were too young or unaware to mean it — in reality, I, Gaitán, and the Pataxó woman on the outside of a fortified palace, stumbling in the dark in order to find each other, and looking for a way we can rip down all the walls.