National Public Radio (NPR) recently reported on the dramatic increase of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean. This story reminds one that fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS is directly related to overcoming poverty and challenging globalization. It also reminds one that cynical politics are afoot on the part of those in power more concerned with corporate profits than with the misery of millions.
The NPR story noted that the spread of HIV/AIDS has resulted in the destruction of the tourist industry in Haiti since fear has discouraged visitors. This has undermined one of the main sources of foreign exchange in an already fragile economy.
The continued and unchecked spread of HIV/AIDS could do likewise to other Caribbean islands. The impact may well be devastating given the utter dependence of these micro-nation states on tourism. The islands of the Caribbean are facing additional economic pressure because the Bush administrationfor all of its free-trade maniainsists on subsidizing U.S. agricultural mega firms.
This practice makes it cheaper for people in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America to buy U.S. agricultural products than to produce them on their own. The result, as one might imagine, is the crippling of the domestic agriculture of these areas. The vulnerable Caribbean, then, is being tossed into catastrophe by illness and economic policies. It turns out, though, that there is a relationship between the illness and certain other economic policies.
That HIV/AIDS, at alarming proportions in the Caribbean, appears to be driven by many factors, including cultural issues, sexist male behavior and, yes, poverty. The cost of the anti-retroviral drugs remains prohibitive for most citizens of Caribbean republics. With few possibilities for treatment, people sink deeper into despair and denial.
Rather than treating this issue as the global emergency that it is, the Bush administration has offered high-sounding rhetoric, but little in the way of substance. His $15 billion pledge to fight HIV/AIDS, in his January State of the Union address, has become far more obscure than it first appeared.
Pledged in juxtaposition to his preparations for the illegal war against Iraq, no funds have been allocated for use in 2003; less than $500 million has been allocated for 2004; only $1 billion of the alleged $15 billion is being offered to the Global AIDS Fund, one of the most reputable organizations fighting the pandemic (thus raising the thorny question as to where the rest of the funds are going); a new czar for coordinating the HIV/AIDS fight has been appointed right out of the pharmaceutical industry; and, while it was implied that the promised $15 billion was for Africa, it now turns out that this is not the case and that the amount is to be used beyond Africa.
So, as $75 billion was appropriated for an illegal war against Iraq, where there was no proof of an imminent threat, a fraction of those funds are to be used in a much-needed war against a very real threat: the threat of HIV/AIDS. Rather than being acknowledged as the catastrophe it is, where entire countries face possible extinction, we are treated to what looks more and more like a mammoth shell game, one in which millions of lives are at stake.
Thus, as massive pharmaceutical companies produce drugs that are withheld from those who need them, we watch the Bush administration stand firm on the side of their corporate allies. Determined to protect so-called "intellectual property rights," aka patents, the administration is prepared to permit the loss of lives in order to guarantee profits for companies. The administration has been dogged in its efforts to restrain countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America from buying or producing less expensive generic anti-retroviral drugs, because of the alleged threat to those same intellectual property rights held by the pharmaceutical corporations.
I cannot help but think back to the presidential campaign of 2000 and the propaganda regarding Bush as a compassionate conservative. I can see the conservatism, but I am missing the compassion, unless one is referencing the Bush administrations compassion for multi-national corporations and their eternal quest for greater wealth.
(Bill Fletcher Jr. is president of TransAfrica Forum, and co-chair of the anti-war coalition, United for Peace and Justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)