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BY BOB ARMSTRONG Special to The Examiner LET THEM DRINK organic coffee with their cake," shouted out the sponsors of Measure O, the ballot initiative mandating every cup of java sold in Berkeley must be made with Fair Trade organic or shade grown coffee beans. No, not really a campaign slogan, but the venomous absolutism of the O activists put them way out of touch with the people who voted 70 percent to 30 percent against the measure. But in defeat the backers of the measure can still maintain their self-righteous enlightenment. After all, their solidarity with the oppressed workers on the coffee plantations in Latin America and Africa speaks the truth to power while the rest of us wallow in exploitation with every sip of Starbucks. In its endorsement of Measure O, the always-predictable San Francisco Bay Guardian sounded the alarm: "Corporate globalization has decimated opportunities for small coffee farmers to make reasonable profits." But wait. Let's take a quick glance at the coffee market and see who's decimating whom. Fair Trade coffee costs at a minimum $1.26 per pound. The regular stuff currently runs about 45 cents a pound because overproduction has caused coffee prices to plummet 80 percent during the past four years, according to the Wall Street Journal. The glut came about mainly because of a new player in the game: Vietnam. In less than 10 years, Vietnam has become the second-largest producer of coffee beans, closing in on Brazil. Acting like greedy capitalists, the Communist Party rulers dumped their nation's beans on the open market without any concern for their Kenyan and Columbian comrades who, as a consequence, earn far less money in the coffee fields. If the sponsors of Measure O had wanted to attack the root cause of exploitation and suffering, they should have directed their attention to the leadership in Hanoi. I suspect that over cups of their morally superior organic coffee in a chi-chi Berkeley cafÈ, they were too busy working on their other cause: attacking Nike's tennis shoe factories in Vietnam. Actually, Nike pays its exploited peasants almost double what they could earn in similar state-controlled enterprises. For the Measure O crowd that is beside the point, because Nike is completing the imperial mission the M-16 botched. Fair Trade "high quality" growers, as they always advertise themselves, claim they might be driven out of business and the world will be left drinking swill because Vietnam's robosta beans are low quality compared to arabica beans favored by Fair Trade specialty producers. On National Public Radio at the end of May, coffee consultant Christopher London said coffee brewed from robosta beans has "sort of a grassy flavor" whereas arabica beans allow one to taste the "brighter notes." I must say the coffee I tasted in Da Nang supplied me with many bright notes during the unpleasantness some years ago. The latest rage in 'Nam is Trung Nguyen coffee. A medical school student, Dang Le Nguyen Vu, created his own blend of coffee from beans grown in the central highlands. He opened the first Trung Nguyen coffee shop in Dalat six years ago. Now more than 400 Trung Nguyen outlets run down Highway One from Hanoi to Saigon. (For some of us, Ho Chi Minh City will forever remain Saigon.) Vu has also expanded into Thailand, Japan and Singapore. "Our coffee is good" said Vu. Such a modest appraisal is heartwarming from a man who had the guts and courage to embark on a private venture in a country ruled by communists. Vu has his eyes on America. He wants to take on Starbucks. Would a cup of unFair Trade Trung Nguyen taste good to the sponsors of Measure O? It can't. Vu's just another capitalist exploiting the people. Comment: letters@examiner.com

-- Duong Trinh Tung (trngcf@yahoo.com), June 24, 2003

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