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new internationalist
issue 211 - September 1990

Vanessa Baird
explains why the end of the Cold War could cost the Third World dear.

The German tourists were sitting outside a boulevard cafe, sipping beers and relaxing in the oblique golden glow of an autumn sun. Suddenly a man with a small black beard and a large white smile sauntered across and gave the nearest tourist a slap on the back.

'Congratulations! Congratulations!'

The tourist smiled in a bemused but friendly way. Her friends looked on nonplussed.

'You've done it. You've got rid of that Wall,' the man explained. 'I'm from Brazil... but I feel so happy for Europe today. Well, for the world...'

The Berlin Wall had started coming down that morning. A long collective nightmare seemed to be coming to an end. It was impossible not to feel elated. This very special breakthrough appeared to open up a new era of peace. One could dream of Cold War nuclear arsenals fading into the mists of history. One hardly dared believe it.

A few metro stops from the cafe was the Avenue d'Iena and the Paris branch of the World Bank. This was the setting for an international conference on world development media organized by the United Nations.

We - about 60 journalists from many different countries - spent the two days discussing everything from ideology to marketing. But our central concern was: how do you get people to care about what is happening on the other side of the world'? How do you make it relevant to their lives? What we wanted people to care about, of course, was global injustice and inequality - and inevitably there were attacks on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (in whose comfortable seats we were awkwardly sitting).

But in the evenings the talk kept drifting back to the events that were so dramatically unfolding a few hundred miles away in Eastern Europe. We were as excited as anyone by the changes - but we had a sneaking suspicion that the Third World was going to lose out as a result.

The sparks from Eastern Europe have begun to land in the Third World. For most Westerners the Cold War conjured up visions of ranged missiles facing each on either side of the Iron Curtain. But it was in the Third World that the Cold War was actually fought - in Vietnam and Korea, Cambodia and Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Afghanistan, to name but a few sad locations.

Superpower backing in local conflicts not only prolonged war - it also gave tyrants the power to commit atrocities against their own populations with relative impunity. So one effect of the international thaw can only be good for the Third World: the superpowers are beginning to withdraw support from some of their most repellent allies.

Breaking ties of blood
In Ethiopia, for instance, the Soviet bloc has been winding down its support for the hated dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. He it was who organized lavish celebrations in Addis Ababa (for the Revolution's anniversary) at the height of the 1984 famine. His policies have included bombing emergency aid supplies because rebel groups might gain political credit from distributing food to starving people. Up to now the USSR has always turned a blind eye to his excesses, concerned only to maintain a foothold in the Horn of Africa. But now East Germany, which set up and maintained Ethiopia's elaborate security apparatus, has withdrawn entirely and the Soviet Union plans not to renew its agreement to supply military equipment. Mengistu - who has survived nine assassination attempts - is hard pushed to find other foreign suppliers, apart from Israel.

The US, for its part, has suddenly withdrawn support for the rebel coalition in Cambodia, led in all but name by Pol Pot's dreaded Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for the extermination of one million Cambodian citizens during its reign of terror in the 1970s - a story chillingly retold in the feature film The Killing Fields. The US was prepared to back 'Asia's Hitler' because its hatred for the country that overthrew Pol Pot - Soviet-backed Vietnam - was even greater. Vietnamese troops finally withdrew from Cambodia last year, leaving the Government of Hun Sen in precarious power. Last month however, just as Khmer Rouge troops seemed poised to seize control of Cambodia again, the US announced that it no longer recognized the rebel coalition and would open a dialogue with Vietnam.

The shifting sands of the post-Cold War world have made life dangerously unpredictable for Third World leaders who do not have a base of popular support. They can no longer exploit Cold War rivalries and cannot rely upon superpower support when they put down domestic rebellions.

But there is a flip side to the end-of-the-War euphoria. Ironically the superpowers' agreement about things is causing many Third World people even greater concern than the conflict did.

There is an old African saying that goes: 'When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers'. It was commonly used to describe how Cold War conflict affected the Third World. The new 'old African saying' doing the rounds is: 'And when elephants make love, grass suffers also.'

Sweetening the love-making of East and West is the dream of mutual benefit. The East will provide the West with investment opportunities and cheap labour close to home. The West will provide the East with badly needed cash for economic reconstruction.

No white elephants
Not surprisingly, the Third World loses out. Aid funds are already being redirected to the East from the developing nations of the South. The US has cut its economic support to the Third World from $545 million to $350 this year to allow for emergency funds for Eastern Europe. According to USAID official Mark Edelmann, sub-Saharan Africa is likely to suffer further cuts because these countries have no effective lobbying in Washington. 'No one gets more unless someone gets less,' he observed.

Both the British and Australian governments claim that aid for Eastern Europe will not come out of overseas development budgets. But the current climate in the Northern corridors of power does not augur well for the South. US Senator Robert Dole, for example, is calling for major cuts in the $330 million in aid which goes to the Philippines, Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey. UK Chancellor of Exchequer John Major has spoken out against funding 'white elephant' development projects in Africa.

The general sense is that 'we have done enough for the Third World'. In fact Western aid to the Third World as a percentage of GNP has been steadily dropping over the past 25 years - only the high profile given to this 'charity' has increased. Indeed, Canada has just approved a 12-per-cent reduction in overseas aid.

The Soviet bloc, meanwhile, is far too preoccupied with its own problems to pay attention to those of its old allies in the South, Angola and Mozambique.

The Third World has another worry: what will be the effect of detente on North-South trade and investment? If the rich countries can invest in Eastern Europe - with its offer of skilled labour at just two dollars an hour - will it bother to invest in the South? If it can trade with the East - will it bother to trade with the South?

The message from the US to Latin America has been clear - either join the free-market party or stay out in the cold. In his 'Americas Initiative' President Bush has outlined his plan to establish a hemisphere-wide free trade zone. The backyard is getting very big indeed.

The Americas Initiative would entail more deregulation, public-spending cuts and an opening up to the world economy. A regional investment fund would be earmarked for countries carrying out privatization programmes. The social and political cost of such an IMF-style programme is well-known. It squeezes the poor hardest.

The shift of attention from South to East is a convenient one for Westerners to make. The problems of the Soviet bloc had nothing to do with colonial exploitation and unfair commodity prices. The West does not feel responsible for - nor guilty about - the mess created there. Rather it can gloat and patronize as it welcomes its prodigal sisters and brothers back to the common, white European fold. Third World countries, meanwhile, face the prospect of having to compete with Eastern Europe - and see it as another big stick the rich world can use against them.

Dirty business
There is one form of North-South trade which is likely to see a sharp increase, however: the dumping of toxic waste on the Third World.

The scale of the former Soviet bloc's pollution and environmental degradation problems have shocked the world. But they have sent a special chill down the spines of Third World ecologists. If Eastern Europe is to be 'cleaned up' to meet Western European standards where will the substitute dumping grounds he? East Germany, for example, earns more than $620 million a year from taking Western industrial filth.

Says Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva: 'We in the Third World anticipate that the consolidation of market democracy across the entire North will have very high environmental costs for us...it is the Third World that will bear the ecological costs of the industrialism and consumerism in the North including the costs of 'cleaning up' Eastern Europe.'

Mikhail Gorbachev's recent comment to his people that it is important to maintain relations with the South because the latter is a supplier of cheap materials, has not exactly added to confidence. The tune is that familiar one of neo-colonialism - sung now in East-West unison.

Two fingers to dictatorship
The news is not all grim. Back in December last year Mobutu Sese Seko, the infamous dictator of Zaire, was having dinner when news of the trial and execution of his comrades in corruption, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu of Romania, was broadcast on television. In some consternation he abandoned his guests.

Mobutu was right to be worried. The revolutionary success of the citizens of Bucharest, Prague and Leipzig was an inspiration to people in many African countries who had almost given up hope of ousting their own corrupt or repressive leaders. Dictatorships of 40 years' standing could be toppled almost overnight. The unimaginable suddenly seemed possible - or at least worth a try.

And Africans have given it a go. Over the past few months riots, protests and calls for multi-party democracy have rocked capitals across the continent, from Algeria in the north to Zambia in the south. President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia has recently faced a coup attempt and leaders of single-party regimes in Zaire, Tanzania, Benin and Ivory Coast have had to promise to allow opposition parties to stand in the next elections.

'The changes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and South Africa,' says Zambia's former defence minister Arthur Wina, 'have woken us up from years of indifference and despondency. We are sitting in an atmosphere of real emergency.'

Eastern Europe provided the trigger, but at the root of the discontent was a continent-wide, long-term economic crisis. Africa's huge debt burden to the rich world and the harmful impact of IMF imposed austerity programmes are largely to blame. And this, ironically enough, is the product of Western capitalism - not of the lack of Western-style democracy.

In this euphoric year of revolutions, multi-party democracy may look like a panacea, but it may prove to be little more than a placebo. National dictatorship as a system of government seems to be disappearing from the face of the globe - in Latin America in the 1980s, then in Eastern Europe and now in Africa.

But a form of international dictatorship is growing unchecked - that of the market. Its police are the bureaucrats and technocrats of the financial institutions of the rich - GATT, the IMF, the World Bank. Their track record of concern for people in the poorer part of the world is appalling.

Will the new democrats of the East stand up for the Third World in the international community? They may well find that they have more in common when Eastern Europe splits in two. A tiny handful of Eastern European countries (East Germany, Hungary, Poland) will be selected to join the First World, while the majority will find themselves becoming part of a larger Third World - one in which the free market fails to meet even the most basic needs.

The great shake-out
The world has been shaken up - and provides the chance to take a fresh look at ways in which global relations might be put on a more equal footing. Events in Eastern Europe have thrown up a plethora of new possibilities:

. A substantial chunk of the huge NATO and Warsaw Pact savings on defence ($467 billion if 1989 spending were halved) could be allocated for Third World development.2 Third World people bore the brunt of the Cold War. They should at least reap some of the benefits of its ending.

. The IMF managed very fast to mobilize large sums from its reserve capital fund for Eastern Europe. Now it could do the same for the Third World by using money from this fund to write off IMF debt arrears. This would help stem the flow of $110 billion a year from the South to service its debts to the North.3

. International agreements on prices for Third World commodities have in the past been hampered by Eastern-bloc reluctance to partake. Now there is no excuse. And commodity-price agreements are far more crucial to Third World economic recovery than aid.

. Last, but not least, the democracies of the North should start work on a form of democracy they prefer to ignore - ecological democracy. That means respecting the life in other regions - and not dumping the toxic rubbish created by excessive consumption habits on less fortunate people in the Third World.

The world we have known for the past four decades has shattered. Between the shards are growing flowers of democracy. But having a choice of parties for which to vote is not enough.

What we all have to do is grasp this chance to promote the idea of One World - before we find that the North-South divide has been cast in the scrap concrete of the Berlin Wall.

1 Peter Madden in New Ground, Summer, 1990.
Real Security, Geoff Tansey, WOM. 1990.
Oxfam Campaigns Unit, 1990.

Romania 1 Panama 0
Or how the world forgot about an invasion
while celebrating a revolution.

IT was an eventful Christmas. Two major international stories burst upon our television screens at the same time. Both had an undisputed rogue as main protagonist - one the ruthless and smirking President Nicolae Ceausescu; the other power-crazed, CIA-agent turned would-be dictator General Manuel Noriega.

But it was the revolution in Romania rather than the US invasion of Panama that attracted most attention - especially as the death toll of the protesters at Timisoara rose to a horrifying 6,000.

The invasion of Panama - ostensibly to capture Noriega and make him stand trial in the US for drug trafficking - was a farcical affair by comparison. Panamanians exploiting the chaos to go on shop-looting sprees gave it all an anarchic carnival atmosphere. The deaths of 23 US soldiers were more noticed than the reported deaths of 202 Panamanians. It was the twentieth time the US had invaded Panama. The first time was in 1857 when a US traveller called Jack Olivier refused to pay Jose Manuel Luna the price of a slice of watermelon. Plus ca change...

Today the two stories look rather different. The death toll from the Romanian Revolution is still tragic - but has gone down to under 1,000. In Panama, however, the recent discovery of mass graves has pushed the estimated death toll to 3,000 - although it could be higher due to US military orders to incinerate the bodies of victims before they could be identified.1

Most of the casualties were inhabitants of El Chorillo, a slum area around Noriega's military HQ. The invasion hit this poor neighbourhood like a small Hiroshima. 'The gringos sent about 80 tanks in there that night,' said one resident. Some 200 bodies were pulled out the next day - they were in pieces, dressed mainly in underclothes.

But equally shocking was the international reaction. Cuba produced the only strenuous voice of protest. The USSR merely expressed a perfunctory disapproval of the action in the United Nations. And the issue was quickly forgotten - except by the survivors in El Chorillo.

The eagle stretched its wings and no-one seemed to mind. What is there to stop it from doing the same again?

1 Commission for the Defence of Human Rights of Central America (CODEMUCA) and Mesoamerica, 1990.

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New Internationalist issue 211 magazine cover This article is from the September 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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