Dr Sabletodo – Does Walmart own my beloved Dispensa?

Dear Dr. Sabelotodo, 

I heard most of the grocery stores around town are owned by Walmart. Is that true? 

A Conscious Consumer 

That’s right, Walmart — the biggest corporation on Earth and public enemy number one of liberal soccer moms everywhere — is here in Guatemala. And I’m not just talking about the Walmart in zone 9. Walmart is here, and they’re everywhere. Walk into Paiz for your high-end groceries: Walmart. Walk into La Despensa to buy some stone-hard avocados and wait in line for thirty minutes: also Walmart. Walk into Maxi-Despensa for some strange reason: still Walmart. 

The takeover started in the late aughts when, all over Latin America, Walmart started buying grocery chains struggling under the global recession. In Guatemala, they bought Paiz, which included La Despensa and Maxi Despensa. Over the same period, they built ten Walmart supercenters here, and now after less than a decade, they have 238 total locations across Guatemala. 

While detractors claim Walmart is spreading ruin for local businesses, Walmart says its spreading nothing but the gospel of everyday low prices. 

So what’s the secret behind those low prices? 

Obviously, they pay low wages. Not just in their stores, but in the factories they buy from, including those in Guatemala. But you already knew that. 

They also break the law. They spent $24 million in bribes to gain a foothold in Mexico, and one of their Guatemalan subsidiaries has already committed a billion quetzales worth of tax fraud. 

And they pay their farmers as little as possible. Guatemalan farmers have the choice of selling their produce on the (now shrinking) traditional market for a reasonable but unpredictable price or selling it to Walmart for an egregiously low but stable price. The stability provided by Walmart is actually a huge help to many farmers, but in the long run, it leads to a hyper-standardized, under-paid agricultural sector. 

The good news is that all these underpaid workers will be able to buy ultra-cheap groceries at Walmart. Walmart will expand and the cycle will continue. Wages will decline and prices will fall until eventually the Quetzal disappears and we’re all living inside the Walmart supply chain. The government will wither away; farmers and factory workers will be replaced by drones and robots; and, aside from the occasional shift handing out smiley face stickers at the local supercenter, we’ll never have to leave our homes again. 

If you want to fight against the inevitable rise of Walmartopia, there are a few things you can do. 

Shop at La Torre, the only big supermarket in town that’s not owned by Walmart. It’s not quite as close to the center as La Despensa, but as they say, nothing worth fighting for ever comes easy. 

Or even better, buy what you can directly from local farmers, artisans, and small businesses (seriously, do this part). 

In the end, Walmart will probably still take over Guatemala, but at least we can self-righteously resist it. 

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