The Money Issue: When Countries Think They Can Go D.I.Y.

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As a business plan, going it alone may please patriots, but consumers can be a harder sell. “I grew up in Brazil, and until the early 1990s we had the technology Americans had in the ’60s and ’70s — like dial phones and TVs without remote controls, since our TVs and phones were all manufactured in Brazil,” says Thomas Fujiwara, an economist at Princeton University. Here are a few more places that pursued the D.I.Y. approach to illogical conclusions.

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Proton Credit Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg, via Getty Images

Malaysia

The Malaysian national car project was announced in 1979, and the resulting automaker, Proton, began selling vehicles in 1985. They were intended, in the words of Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s prime minister at the time, to be a “symbol of Malaysians as a dignified people.” The company quickly captured 64 percent of the domestic automobile market — but the government was losing $15,000 on each car. Repeated bailouts enabled Proton to reach peak production in 1993 — 500,000 cars — and its greatest market share in 2001, with 53 percent. But Proton’s portion of that market sank to 14 percent by last year, and the government is now seeking an international partner.

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Minitel Credit SSPL/Getty Images

France

In the 1980s, the French began connecting themselves to the Minitel, a console like a black-and-white TV connected to dial-up phone lines. In 1997, Jacques Chirac, then the president of France, said: “Today a baker in Aubervilliers knows perfectly how to check his bank account on the Minitel. Can the same be said of the baker in New York?” Users could search a national phone directory, buy clothing and train tickets, make restaurant reservations, read newspapers, exchange messages and participate in online sex chats more than a decade before equivalent services were accessible through computers. At its peak, the Minitel had an estimated 25 million users — but the internet rendered the boxy beige terminal obsolete, and the free service from France Télécom was turned off in 2012.

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Cockta Credit Tommy Alven, via Shutterstock

Yugoslavia

In 1952 the director of the state-run beverage company Slovenijavino, in the former Yugoslavia, insisted that it produce something comparable to Coca-Cola. The following year, a chemical engineer named Emerik Zelinka developed what would become Cockta (from “cocktail”), a mixture of rose hip, lemon and medicinal herbs. The resulting drink was brown, bittersweet and uncaffeinated; one slogan was “You’ll Always Remember Your First.” Today the Croatian firm Atlantic Grupa, which owns Cockta, considers its limited market to be driven by nostalgia and has put it in a portfolio that includes four of what were once Yugoslavia’s most popular brands: Cedevita vitamin drinks, Argeta fish and meat spreads and the peanut-flavored corn snack Smoki.

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BlackBerry Credit Sally Felton/iStock, via Getty Images

The Money Issue

The Money Issue

Argentina

In 2010 the government of Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, imposed tariffs of up to 40 percent on goods from abroad. Cellphone imports were banned altogether, so to fill the need, a factory that made BlackBerrys opened in 2011 in the southern region of Tierra del Fuego. It took nearly two years to build the Argentine BlackBerry from scratch. By the time the device reached consumers, it cost twice as much as newer versions for sale in the United States, and a black market emerged for foreign-made BlackBerrys (smugglers were bringing them into the country in their socks). The factory closed after a few years of operation.

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