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Taking the Hypocrite’s Oath

When George W. Bush visited Botswana — a country where 38 percent of the people are HIV-positive — he proclaimed that the U.S. would be “as generous as we can” in fighting AIDS, which he called “Africa’s deadliest enemy.” The crowd shouted “Pula! Pula!,” which means “all good things.”

But Bush’s African AIDS promises, starting with his State of the Union address seven months ago, have always been illusory. The small print of his $15 billion AIDS package made this “gift” only slightly more credible than the claims that Niger had sold uranium to Saddam Hussein. For starters, the U.N.’s Global AIDS Fund is nearly bankrupt — yet Bush wanted only $200 million of the $3 billion he proposed to spend in 2004 to go to the fund. (Its leaders, backed up by Koffi Annan, say the fund needs $10.25 billion this year alone to adequately do its work.)

And, with a wink-wink-nod-nod-say-no-more from the White House’s lobbyists, House GOPers last Friday slashed spending on the planetary fight against AIDS to just $2 billion this year, a third less than the president sought. Joseph O’Neill, the openly gay fig leaf who heads the reduced-in-size White House Office of National AIDS Policy, gave a green light to the cuts, saying, “In the first year, it’s going to take less money to get the job done.”

Just as serious, many restrictions have been added to please theocratic condom opponents and the drug monopolies. On May 2, Congress approved two amendments pushed by the Christian right: One reserved a third of the $15 billion for spending on abstinence-only teaching about AIDS; the other permitted religious groups subsidized under the plan to reject strategies they consider objectionable. The White House supported these cave-ins to the no-condoms crowd: The Washington Post reported that “One administration official said Bush had told Congressional leaders [t]hat he would ‘press hard for the abstinence-priority language.’ Administration lobbyists, some of whom stood outside the House chamber, [p]honed undecided lawmakers to urge them to back the amendments.” Bypassing the U.N. fund allows Bush to ladle out AIDS moneys to religious groups as political patronage, a pattern already established by his “faith-based initiatives.”

To administer the $15-billion plan, Bush cynically named someone who has no experience with AIDS and none with diseases in developing countries: Randall L. Tobias, the former chairman of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. Tobias was chosen to ensure that U.S. moneys are given to those who purchase AIDS-fighting meds at top dollar from Big Pharma, instead of giving them to countries so they can themselves buy generic AIDS drugs at the lowest possible prices — meaning the money won’t go nearly as far as it could.

That brings us to another lie in Bush’s State of the Union speech. In the speech, Bush said that the cost of AIDS meds per person had dramatically declined from $12,000 to just $300 a year. But, as Duncan Osborne pointed out in New York’s Gay City News, the lower price refers to the cost of a three-drug regimen from Cipla, a company in India that manufactures generic versions of patented AIDS drugs. Like his predecessor, Bill Clinton, Bush has been using aid-and-trade blackmail to force AIDS-plagued countries not to exercise their rights (under World Trade Organization declarations) to make or purchase generic drugs in the event of a national health emergency.

Take Uganda, where 90 percent of the 1.5 million people needing anti-retroviral AIDS-med cocktails can’t afford them and the U.S. is forcing passage of a restrictive patent law. The day before Bush arrived for a four-hour visit, the Uganda Access to Essential Medicines Coalition — an alliance of non-governmental AIDS-fighting organizations, including Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Ugandan Joint Christian Council — released an open letter to Bush that says the plan “puts U.S. pharmaceutical companies’ interests over the health of our people.”

But toeing the Big Pharma line is also an objective of Bush’s restructuring of a chunk of U.S. foreign aid under his new Millennium Challenge Corp. program, which removes a good deal of money from State Department control ($1.3 billion this year alone) and gives it to a private, “independent” board — which will dole it out to countries that meet a strict set of pro-globalization criteria that favor the U.S. economically, including renunciation of the making or buying of cheap, generic drugs like those used to fight AIDS. So stringent are the restrictions that only three African countries — Ghana, Lesotho and Senegal —would be eligible for aid next year under the Millennium Challenge program.

So, Bush’s African AIDs initiative turns out to be little more than a shell game, in which Dubya reaps headlines for “compassion” while encouraging his congressional Republican shock troops to slash and restrict AIDS-fighting programs under the national radar screen. There’s only one word for this smoke-and-mirrors approach to fighting AIDS: hypocrisy.