Dr Sabletodo – What monsters could possibly be behind Gallo?

Dear Dr. Sabelotodo,
Every bar I go to only serves beer made by the Cerveceria Nacional. Do they have some kind of a monopoly on the beer market here?

A Beer Snob 

They sure do. But you shouldn’t be surprised. 

Guatemala is a country of monopolies. If you want groceries, you go to Wal-Mart; if you want construction, you go to Cementos Progreso; and if you want to see a little marionette of Michael Jackson do the moon walk, well, you only have one option. It’s through these monopolies that a small clique of families maintains economic control over the people of Guatemala, and the beer monopoly is no different. 

The Cerveceria Nacional is owned by the Castillo family, descendants of the conquistador Bernal Diaz de Castillo, who arrived with the first Spaniards in 1524. For centuries, the Castillos dominated the Guatemalan people the old-fashioned way: by owning land and forcing people to work it. But during the liberal reforms of the 1880’s, a group of Castillo brothers got involved with a subversive new movement known as ‘oligarchic capitalism.’ 

It was simple. Start a business that sells a product everyone needs, your friends in government grant you a legal monopoly, and you stay rich and powerful forever. 

And what kind of business does a bored youngster start to displease his aristocratic parents? A brewery, of course. The Castillo brothers started the Cerveceria Nacional in 1886, and sure enough, in 1893 the President passed a law allowing them to import all the machinery they needed to produce all the beer they wanted without paying a dime in taxes. Soon after, they bought the Cabro brewery in Xela and never looked back. 

As their economic power grew, they consolidated their political power like it was 1599, marrying their descendants through- out the Guatemalan oligopoly and infiltrating the halls of government. They used this influence to ensure import taxes on beer were high and permits for beer production were scarce. 

Unsatisfied, they continued to expand and devour. Today, their empire includes over ninety companies, including banks, soda companies, snack companies, Incaparina, SalvaVidas, amusement parks, and much more, earning the family $1.5 billion a year. 

However, their power is finally waning. In 2003, AmBev, the world’s largest beer com- pany, entered the market with their beer Brahva. That’s the cheap red one that tastes like pennies dipped in mustard and gives you diarrhea. 

But alas, they could only break into the market by joining a rival branch of the Castillo family, a branch that now co-owns the Brahva brewery. There’s no way out. There’s no hope. If you want to drink beer in Guatemala, you kiss the feet of the Castillos or the Castillos. And until Guatemala becomes a nation of craft beer snobs, or undergoes a political revolution, that’s the way it’ll be. 

For now, I say we let the oligarchs duke it out, drink their cheap beer, and deal with the diarrhea tomorrow. 

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