Fighting AIDS was supposed to show George W. Bush's softer side. "Seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many," he said in his State of the Union address this past January.
He has since reconsidered, deciding instead to offer a few more opportunities to the few. First he handed the top job of his Global AIDS initiative to a Big Pharma boss, then he broke his $3 billion promise of AIDS relief and now there are concerns that he may sabotage a plan to send cheap drugs to countries ravaged by AIDS.
This past August, the World Trade Organization announced a new deal on drug patents that was supposed to give poor countries facing health problems the right to import generic drugs. But the deal seemed unworkable: the United States, at the behest of the pharmaceutical lobby, had successfully pushed for so many conditions that the agreement exploded from a straightforward fifty-two words to a sprawling 3,200-word maze.
It used to be that if there was one thing you could count in matters of international trade, it was the desperation of the poor. No matter how bad the deal, it was always better than nothing.
But all of a sudden, poor countries are busting up trade rounds, standing up to the International Monetary Fund, and turning down foreign investment. What’s going on? Is it possible that when you’ve lost enough, desperation turns into defiance?
Take the people of Esquel, a small city in Southern Argentina. A year ago, the U.S-Canadian gold mining company Meridian purchased Britain’s Bancote Holdings, which owned a gold deposit in Esquel estimated at (U.S.) $1-billion. The time seemed to be right to build a huge open pit mine: gold was selling high and Argentina, with its ravaged economy, was selling low.
The company informed the city of Esquel that it was about to be the lucky recipient of 400 mining jobs. It slapped together an Environmental Impact Assessment, assured the community that using 2700 kg of cyanide a day was no riskier than driving to work, and got ready to start digging.
On Monday, seven anti-privatization activists were arrested in Soweto for blocking the installation of prepaid water meters. The meters are a privatized answer to the fact that millions of poor South Africans cannot pay their water bills.
The new gadgets work like pay-as-you-go cell phones, only instead of having a dead phone when you run out of money, you have dead people, sickened by drinking cholera-infested water. On the same day South Africa's "water warriors" were locked up, Argentina's negotiations with the International Monetary Fund bogged down. The sticking point was rate hikes for privatized utility companies. In a country where 50 percent of the population is living in poverty, the IMF is demanding that multinational water and electricity companies be allowed to increase their rates by a staggering 30 percent.
At trade summits, debates about privatization can seem wonkish and abstract. On the ground, they are as clear and urgent as the right to survive.
The Marriot Hotel in Jakarta was still burning when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political and security affairs, explained the implications of the day’s attack.
“Those who criticize about human rights being breached must understand that all the bombing victims are more important than any human rights issue.”
In a sentence, we got the best summary yet of the philosophy underlying Bush’s so-called “war on terror.” Terrorism doesn’t just blow up buildings; it blasts every other issue off the political map. The spectre of terrorism, real and exaggerated, has become a shield of impunity, protecting governments around the world from scrutiny for their human rights abuses.
Many have argued that the war on terror is the United States government’s thinly veiled excuse for constructing a classic Empire, in the model of Rome or Britain. Two years into the crusade, it’s clear that this is a mistake: the Bush gang doesn’t have the stick-to-it-ness to successfully occupy one country, let alone a dozen.
What does it take to become a major news story in the summer of Arnold and Kobe, Ben and Jen?
A lot, as a group of young Philippine soldiers discovered recently. On July 27, 300 soldiers rigged a giant Manila shopping mall with C-4 explosives, accused one of Washington's closest allies of blowing up its own buildings to attract US military dollars — and still barely managed to make the international news.
That's our loss, because in the wake of the Marriott bombing in Jakarta and newly leaked intelligence reports claiming that the September 11 attacks were hatched in Manila, it looks like Southeast Asia is about to become the next major front in Washington's War on Terror.™