food / travel

Starbucks In Italy, Latest Stop On U.S. Food Imperialism Tour

Taco Bell in Mexico? McDonald's in Hamburg? Americans find the recipe abroad, bastardize it, and then have the stomach to go back and sell it where it all began.

At Starbucks' new Milano 'roastery'
At Starbucks' new Milano "roastery"
Brant deBoer

PARIS — Italy's borders have been breached, but this time it isn't by the Huns, the Visigoths or the Normans. It's Starbucks. The world's largest chain of coffee houses boasts more than 28,000 venues in 78 countries. But only now has the retailer finally found its first location in caffè-craving Italy, with the opening last Friday of a new Starbucks in Milan.

Howard Schultz, who recently stepped down as CEO and executive chairman of the U.S. company, had been trying for years to gain access to what he calls "the country of coffee." Both Italian habits and government regulations had resisted the advances — until now. Fittingly, the chic northern city of Milan is where Schultz was initially inspired to create his own spin on coffee culture back in 1983.

Starbucks is just one in a succession of American restaurant chains that have pillaged another nation's cuisine, tweaked it for U.S. consumers, and returned triumphantly (or otherwise) to sell it in the market where it originated. In another Italian case, Domino's Pizza brazenly landed three years ago, also opening its first store in Milan. Naples, the proud home of the modern pizza, remains unsullied.

McDonald's did the same thing almost 50 years ago. The hamburger, as its name implies, originates from a similar dish created in Hamburg, Germany in the 19th century. The French fry, whose name may be misleading, actually comes from francophone Belgium. McDonald's started selling hamburgers and French fries in the United States in the 1940s before bringing the fare back to Europe in 1971.

Our espresso is the envy of the whole world.

Assimilating these American companies can be challenging. There has been controversy over the presence of McDonald's in Europe for decades. Notably, two franchises were destroyed by protesters in 1999, one in Belgium by arson and the other in France, where a crowd dismantled the building, plank by plank.

Starbucks and Domino's have been the targets of a rash of insults. On a Twitter account "Italians Mad at Food," a recent post lamented what Americans were inflicting on the authentic pizza menu. "Chicken wings as a side dish for pizza," it said. "GTFO. All of Italy just died of disgust."

Milan-based business daily Il Sole 24 Ore reports that several leading politicians have used the new Starbucks as an opportunity to declare their national culinary pride. Center-right leader Giorgia Meloni tweeted, "Tomorrow is the opening of Italy's first Starbucks, the American chain of "coffee." I'm trying to figure out how you can prefer their beverage to our espresso, which is the envy of the whole world."

Meanwhile, in Mexico, Taco Bell has persistently failed to establish a stronghold in the birthplace of the taco. After nearly 20 years of trying, it closed its last store in Monterrey in 2010. Ten years before, Dunkin" Donuts abandoned an effort to penetrate the market in the Netherlands, whose olie koeken, or oily cakes, are the foundation of the modern doughnut.

The invaders have proven, however, to be persistent. Dunkin" Donuts eagerly returned to the Netherlands in 2017, where it plans to open 25 new store locations in the next five years. American culinary usurpers have even managed to enter the Chinese market amid a simmering trade war and posturing over territory in the South China Sea. P.F. Chang's China Bistro, headquartered in Arizona, opened its first restaurant in a Shanghai department store earlier this year (it is advertised as an American bistro). And Panda Express, whose founders are first-generation Chinese immigrants, are looking to expand there as well.

Fries at the Louvre? — Photo: McDonald's France via Instagram

The situation for McDonald's in France has come full circle, as employees at a franchise in the southern city of Marseille are currently fighting to prevent its closure, which they say will take away a longtime employment opportunity for the community's vulnerable youth.

"Our battle is not to defend McDonald's, it is the honor of the workers of these neighborhoods," one of the protesters told Libération newspaper. "They're always talking about crime and kalashnikovs. But here, there are people who want to work and come to McDonald's as a way out."

Yes, it should be noted that (gourmet chefs and anti-globalists be damned) there are now more than 1,400 McDonald's across France. As for Starbucks, in China alone the java giant is reportedly opening one new store every 15 hours.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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