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Ex-Licensee Turns Archenemy in Battle With McDonald's

Salvadoran man operated restaurants through 12 years of civil war. Now he wages fight after franchise isn't renewed.

September 19, 1998|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN SALVADOR — As a quintessential symbol of American pop culture, McDonald's is used to being the target of anti-imperialist rhetoric.

So the advertisements that Salvadoran radio listeners heard this week--on this nation's Independence Day, no less--urging them to defend their sovereignty against Big Mac are hardly surprising.

At least, they're not surprising until the announcer explains who paid for them.

These spots are not placed by radical leftists or cuisine zealots who believe that eating pupusas, the country's favorite dish, is the ultimate expression of nationalism. Rather, the sponsor is a respected businessman and former McDonald's licensee.

Since losing the McDonald's franchise that he maintained throughout the 12-year war between the government and Marxist rebels, Roberto Bukele has become El Salvador's foremost critic of Ronald McDonald.

In addition to radio and newspaper ads, he has periodically put a few dozen employees of his Golden-Arch-stripped restaurants out in San Salvador's streets in bedraggled protests to exhort McDonald's "to respect our laws."

The fight heated up in late summer when a new McDonald's opened in a fast-growing middle-class suburb of this capital city.

Bukele estimates that he spends 90% of his time in the six lawsuits that he is pursuing against the giant corporation, filing complaints with U.S. and Salvadoran government agencies and trying to rally support for his cause among politicians, civic groups and even pension fund managers.

"I have never counted up how much I have spent, because I do not want to be discouraged," he said. "I know I will never recover enough to compensate for the money and stress. I am doing this for dignity--not pride, but dignity."

So, for Bukele, the dispute has become a crusade.

For McDonald's, it's more like a messy divorce. The corporation contends that Bukele's license simply expired in 1996.

As for the 1994 letter from McDonald's International that agreed to renew his license for 20 years, the corporation's reply is equally simple: "There was an attempt to expand the license, and he did not comply with the conditions," said Manuel Juarez, spokesman for McDonald's Latin America. "The main problem was quality control."

Bukele denies that his fries were not crispy enough. He also notes that McDonald's officials did not visit his franchise once during the war years that lasted until 1992.

One of his three restaurants was bombed and rebuilt, and the other two survived under security that he estimates cost $10,000 a month--all without any help from McDonald's, he said.

Ironically, the guerrillas accused Bukele of "having brought the cultural penetration of Yankee imperialism to El Salvador," an evaluation not much different from his opinion of the corporation these days.

"What most bothers me is the ungratefulness," he said. "I protected the brand throughout the war, and now they want to take it over."

But, Juarez pointed out, "we own the brand."

The corporation won an injunction from a Salvadoran court earlier this year forcing Bukele to cover the McDonald's signs at his restaurants.

"After that ruling, as the owners of the brand, we made use of it," Juarez said.

Bukele has appealed the court ruling and taken out full-page newspaper advertisements that allege "illegal conduct by McDonald's Corp. and its Salvadoran lawyers in our courts."

Juarez replied: "McDonald's respects the laws of all 110 countries where we operate."

Still, Bukele insisted that he has been wronged by the very corporation he so admired in the late 1960s, when he was a graduate student in Wisconsin.

"I told my then-girlfriend that I would bring McDonald's to El Salvador, and I did," he said.

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