What Does McDonald’s Mean? Reflections After a Trip to So. America

by Santiago Ramos at Wisdom of Crowds: Something happens to a country when it gets its first McDonald’s. There was once something called the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. The journalist Thomas Friedman defined it in 1996: “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” The theory has been disproven many times over. No one takes it seriously anymore; it failed to predict anything. But a kernel of truth remains. The first McDonald’s is the sign of a new era.

I was a kid in 1996, when the first McDonald’s opened in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. It was an anticipated event covered by the newspapers, fodder for family conversations. The prices were accessible only for the upper middle class. But everyone wanted a taste of America. A friend of mine, one of seven children, told me about his mother’s plan to take one child to McDonald’s every month, starting with the oldest. This was the only way his family could afford to give everyone a chance to experience McDonald’s.

A year after that, I moved to the United States with my parents. I have lived here ever since, returning to my birthplace every few years. The biggest changes I noticed on my last trip to Paraguay, in 2019, when the proliferation of big screen advertisements and billboards throughout the city, along with mostly-empty high rises where foreign millionaires parked their money, looked to me like a subtropical Times Square that stretched for miles longer than the real one. Visiting Asuncion this June, I noticed fewer new things. Instead, there were more of the things that I saw in 2019. More high rises, more people living in apartments, more advertisements. And McDonald’s franchises everywhere, within and beyond the capital city.

What these new structures replaced were stately colonial homes, decaying office buildings, or empty lots. The center of Asuncion, with its crumbling nineteenth century Beaux Arts houses, run down would-be European plazas, and historic colonial-era churches, remains as a reminder not so much of any other era as the time right before McDonald’s came to town.

The changes I noticed in 2019 have continued their development, ushering in a new way of life (or system, or spirit) that is slowly maturing and congealing. Today, the upper classes are no longer interested in McDonald’s. “Now everyone is into being fit,” my cousin told me last month, when I was in Paraguay visiting family. She used the English word, “fit”, pronouncing it like feet. You can hear a lot of English in the posh districts of Asuncion: too much, home office, bro, love. Entrepreneurs trained in American universities have succeeded in reproducing many of the attractions of American city life. In the nicer neighborhoods, you can find microbreweries and craft burger joints. Young adults work in coffee shops where the tables are strategically placed near electrical outlets. A Third World nation’s “development” can mean many things, and one of them is the replication of North American creature comforts.

Official statistics report that a quarter of all Paraguayans live below the poverty line, and that the Gini coefficient is still high

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