Love & Cholera

SF Examiner

Jan. 5, 2002

When novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote Love in the Time of Cholera, the dreaded disease was a metaphor for the past. The malady itself had exited the South American stage almost 100 years ago, driven into extinction by the modernization of sewerage systems and the purification of water supplies. But in 1991 it suddenly reappeared in Peru, spreading up and down the West Coast, from Argentina to Mexico. In the past decade it has felled more than a million people and killed tens of thousands, particularly small children. It is a metaphor given life by the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Like one of Garcia’s parables, the story of cholera’s return is a complex tale of greed and power that has its origins in the early ‘70s, when money was cheap, interest rates low, and the Caudillos ruled from Brazil to Ecuador. Looking for new pastures, American banks pushed loans on countries like Peru, and the corrupt military dictatorships were more than happy to take them. But when the oil crisis hit in 1973, interest rates went through the roof, and countries like Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru found themselves on the wrong end of bad loans.

With backward industrial bases, and much of the loan money siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts or military spending, nations like Peru had no choice but to turn to the World Bank and the IMF to bail them out. The loans were forthcoming, but at a price: open your markets, privatize state businesses, and “discipline” spending. Translation: countries like Peru will now compete on equal terms with the United States, Europe and Japan.

Is there any need to dwell on what happened in that contest? Suffice it to say that it was cheaper to import Nebraska corn than for Peruvians to buy local corn grown in small, inefficient peasant holdings and transported on primitive roads. But buying foreign corn meant acquiring foreign debt, and after the big industrial countries had finished wiping out Peru’s infant industrial base, the country had nothing to export.

Small farmers in the hinterlands could no longer sell their corn, and so they migrated from the countryside to the cities. From 1970 to 1990, city populations in South America increased seven fold. But with no industrial base, and shrinking government industries, there were no jobs for these people. Still, lured by the few social services that survived the first rounds of austerity, they came, filling the hillsides and the river bottoms with tin shacks and cardboard shanties.

In the end, it was the enforced “discipline” that did them in. With almost 35 percent of the national income going toward paying off the debt, there was no money for public health or infrastructure repair, in spite of the fact that the exploding urban population was placing enormous stress on transport, water and sewage systems. The results were inevitable: sewer systems collapsed and human feces— cholera’s source—got into the water supply and coastal waters. People drank the water or ate contaminated shellfish, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s metaphor ceased being fiction.

Cholera is a simple disease, not one of those fancy designer strains like HIV or Ebola. It isn’t hard to avoid unless you don’t have clean water or much of a public health system. Lacking those things, it is deadly, killing as many as 50 percent of its victims in rural areas. Children are particularly susceptible because they are so quickly dehydrated by the diarrhea that accompanies the disease.

The cure is simple: clean water. And the price is not very high. It would cost approximately $60 billion to purify the water supplies in Latin America, or the cost of the B-1 bomber fleet, which is chiefly distinguished by its talent for crashing. If the U.S. were to decide not to build the new F-22 fighter jet—a weapon system that virtually every single independent expert on military spending agrees we don’t need—and turn that into an aid package to smart-bomb cholera, we would not only save a lot of people (and money), but make some serious friends.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has substituted bromides for aid. Rather than examining the carnage that IMF and US policy has inflicted on Latin America, President Bush told a meeting of the Organization of American States last week that he was going to push hard for free trade and open markets in Central America. Great. That ought to solve those countries’ over population problems.

The wake of the IMF in Latin America is strewn with pain and chaos. Bolivians rioted in 2000 when the IMF forced the government to raise water rates. Ecuadorians rioted last year when austerity measures ended government subsidies for cooking gas. Argentina is on the verge of a social and political meltdown. And this is what the White House wants to unleash on Central America? One can only wonder what metaphor will embrace that disaster in the making.

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