SANTIAGO, Chile -- Carmen Calderón walked into a McDonald's restaurant here late last year to complain that her son had come down with food poisoning after eating one if its hamburgers. Hoping for an apology, she is instead facing a $1.25 million lawsuit.
The whole dispute might have been avoided had not a McDonald's employee initially brushed her off, telling her, "This restaurant is cleaner than your house." Furious, Ms. Calderón steamed off to the municipal public health agency and repeated her complaint. Before long, inspectors were at the restaurant and McDonald's was subjected to loads of publicity, none of it to its liking.
Because one of the icons of globalization is involved, the dispute has become a cause célèbre in Chile. McDonald's says it is merely trying to defend its reputation against a slander, but consumer advocates see sinister motives at work.
"McDonald's doesn't have a prayer of collecting this money, so it is clear that what they really want is to send a message to every consumer in Chile," said Luis Jérez, legal director of the National Consumer Service, a government agency. "What they are saying to consumers is this: watch your step, be careful, think twice before you criticize us, because you'll get in trouble with the law."
Because of the pending legal action, neither Ms. Calderón, a 44-year-old employee of a mutual fund, nor her son, Nicolás Abarzúa, were willing to speak for themselves. She referred all questions to her lawyer, Juan Carlos Yanine, who described his client as "the innocent victim of a big company that wants to throw its weight around."
Executives of McDonald's de Chile declined requests for an interview, referring all questions to the company's Latin American headquarters in São Paulo, Brazil. A spokesman there, Ronaldo Marques, said Ms. Calderón "does not have a case to sustain her allegations." The company will withdraw its complaint if she will sign a letter endorsing McDonald's position that something else must have caused her son's ailment, he said.
"She provoked a situation that we wish to correct," he said, adding that her complaint had encouraged "a wave of blackmail" attempts. "You can't have a person make an accusation like this and then not present documents or proof to back it up," he said.
In January, the municipal public health agency here fined McDonald's $650 after an inspection found above-normal levels of bacteria at the restaurant where Nicolás ate. McDonald's is seeking to have that ruling overturned and the fine returned.
More than any country in Latin America, Chile has embraced the notion of open markets and deregulation, and it has been rewarded with growth rates consistently among the highest in the region. However, a citizen consumer movement to counterbalance the government's reliance on market forces has been slow to develop and faces strong opposition from corporations happy to have a free hand.
"The business class in this country put up enormous resistance to the 1996 consumer protection law, and even now has a backward concept of what consumer rights are," Mr. Jérez said. "We are pioneers here in many areas of social and economic policy, but in the area of defending the consumer, far from being in the vanguard, we lag behind places like Paraguay and Ecuador."
In a horrifying incident here in December, a 51-year-old man died after setting himself on fire in front of the presidential palace to protest the weak regulation of asbestos. Chile banned the substance in July, long after other countries did. In his suicide note, the man, Eduardo Mino, accused the government of ignoring consumer protection groups, supporting manufacturers and lying to asbestos victims.
"My soul overflows with humanity and can no longer support such injustice," he wrote.
Consumer groups are often inhibited by the Chilean legal code. Gen. Augusto Pinochet left power more than a decade ago, but rights organizations argue that many of the legal foundations of authoritarian rule remain intact.
"Although Chile is a stable representative democracy, it retains more legal restrictions on freedom of expression than any other country on the continent," Human Rights Watch noted in a report last year.
In particular, it is a common view here "that the right to honor takes precedence over the right to freedom of expression and access to information," the report said.
During an earlier controversy involving McDonald's, officials here were quick to support the company's position. After health inspectors detected E. coli bacteria and briefly closed a McDonald's restaurant last year, senior officials from the Ministries of Labor and Health made a point of going there to eat hamburgers, with television cameras in tow.
"The political pressures and the influence that these large corporations can exert is tremendous," said Ernesto Medina, director of the Citizens' Movement Against Abuses, a nascent consumer protection group. "Our idea is to educate ordinary Chileans to better defend their rights but it is an uphill struggle, because the companies have all the lawyers and all the money."