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Happy ladies
Cover of the NI Issue 270. Following this month’s edition on Women (NI 270), I trust that the balance of your magazine will be maintained by issuing a corresponding edition featuring men.

Just as there are rotten Gents who shout at and beat their ladies, so also are there females who nag and humiliate their menfolk – one assaults the body, the other the soul. It would be naive to assume that one sex has the monopoly of virtue.

In this part of the country there is little tangible evidence to suggest that our ladies live less fulfilled and happy lives than the men and here, as elsewhere, females have the longer life expectancy.

I doubt whether the angry persons portrayed on the cover will do much to enhance the love and respect between the two complementary sexes.

Richard Morley
Leominster, England

Charlie Warshawski’s Country Profile of Chile (NI 270) includes a piece of gratuitous bias. The map illustrating the regional context indicates the Falkland Islands only by their Spanish name ‘Malvinas’. Yet other names are in English. I have to assume that the use of the Spanish name is intentionally geo-political and that it indicates support for the imperialist, colonialist, chauvinist claims of Argentina against the political and human rights of the Falkland islanders to self-determination.

This suggests a disturbing level of ‘double-think’ in an article which is critical of military influence in South America. Popular opinion in Argentina has been deliberately misled and misinformed about the Falklands for generations, and continues to be manipulated by some Argentine politicians for their own ends – certainly not for the sake of justice to the Falkland islanders.

By opting for the name ‘Malivinas’ without qualification, I fear you may have succumbed to fashionable political correctness, instead of genuine concern for the honest truth, however unpalatable it may be to some of your regular supporters.

Martin Dodds
Sedburgh, England

Practical dreams
Your issue Back to the Future (NI 269) highlighted the impossibility of forecasting an ever-changing, unknowable future – but that does not mean that we can afford to stop thinking about the sort of future we want.

Nor is it enough to dream. We have to be practical. Since none of our economic and political systems – socialist, communist or capitalist – is able to solve even this most elementary equation, there must be a fundamental flaw in our assumptions; but we have shut our communal minds and refused to ask what it is. To offer any alternative is regarded as heresy.

We cannot forecast what will be done but we have the capacity to reason and to determine what needs to be done and how we may do it. If we are to have a future at all, let alone a desirable one, we have to create it ourselves and we can only do that by questioning the political, economic and social consensus in which we are trapped.

Melvin Chapman
Bath, England

While I share Debbie and Peter Wakeham’s opposition to capital punishment (Letters NI 269), I am unsure whether boycotting the US is the best policy.

What if one were buying sunflower seeds and the choice was between the US and China, a country with a worse human-rights record which also maintains the death penalty?

It would be more consistent to avoid all countries with capital punishment but then there are other reasons for not buying from foreign countries which have very good human-rights records. Living in Britain, I do not buy apples from Aotearoa/New Zealand, despite the fact that it has one of the best human-rights records in the world because it is not ecologically sound to move products over such long distances.

In Britain, the Ethical Consumer provides information on the ethical records of manufacturers and retailers as well as information on alternatives to some consumer goods.

Katharine A Gilchrist,
Canterbury, England

Cartoon by VIV QUILLIN
Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Not the IMF
Please stop blaming constantly and solely the IMF for the debt spiral and the reduction of the Majority World’s spending on healthcare and education. Although the IMF made mistakes in these areas (eg fee-based primary education) which are slowly being corrected, governments themselves are often to blame.

Every year at the annual donors’ meeting, African governments ask for and receive between $250 million and $1 billion in new money, most of which will have to be repaid. These funds are for a general balance of payments support and for a wide range of small projects.

Unfortunately, a lot of governments prefer to cut their already low spending on health and education rather than reduce their military spending, which is in excess of that of the industrialized countries (as a share of GDP) and is used to buy the most sophisticated and expensive equipment (there you should blame arms-exporting countries).

At the same time many of the poorest countries in Africa spend $10 million or so every election year to import hundreds of new cars to distribute to officials for political support.

Denying the scale of both the military spending and the corruption will be less effective in reducing poverty than would pressure on Majority World governments to focus on developing their countries and not on maintaining themselves in power.

Emmanuelle Moors de Giorgio
London, England

Narrow charity
Stan Knafler raised a very good point in his letter (NI 269) which you appropriately headed ‘Donor’s dilemma’.

In the past I have written to a number of charities explaining that I feel unable to donate to them while they continue to spend money in countries whose governments and major ethnic groups commit human-rights abuses against minorities.

The particular example I quoted was Bangladesh, where the Jumma and other hill tribes were being subjected to attempted genocide by the armed forces of Bangladesh and Bengali settlers.

My argument was that every dollar spent on the Bangladeshi people by charities was one dollar less that their Government needed to spend on them – money that would then be spent either on the military or on shipping more settlers to the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The response from charities was disappointing. They wrote back attempting to justify their actions but seemed unwilling or unable to take a wider view of events, seeing only their own narrow band of activities. Before parting with our hard-earned cash we should consider the end result of donating to a particular organization.

Denis Underwood
Bracknell, England

Rich meet poor
Your issue on the African village (Heart and Soul, NI 268) raises the issue of tourism and travelling. How can one, coming from an obscenely wealthy country, go for a holiday in a country where people are struggling to survive?

Paradoxically, there has to be a way whereby people can meet and share their humanity... We may like to know how others are living, but do people from poorer countries want to be told how well off we are compared to them? As Chris Brazier puts it: ‘Awareness of your own poverty becomes more painful when someone else’s relative prosperity is staring you in the face...’

Véronique Bell
Taree, New South Wales, Australia

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

[image, unknown]
L E T T E R   F R O M   T H E   R U S S I A N   A R C T I C

Love and pies at the Usinsk Café
Two bears are embracing on the dance-floor. The smell of pizza is everywhere.
Olivia Ward comes in from the cold and discovers a sanctuary.

The air had a clammy chill, though the small space of the room and its wood panelling made for an illusory cosiness, like a welcome bomb-shelter in a time of heavy siege. But the smell in the air was of pizza, noisy Western rock music overwhelmed the conversations and a bar lining one wall was glittering with bottles of imported wine, beer and liquor.

After days in this remote Arctic oil town that made the eyes water with bitter cold, smog and sheer ugliness, I had somehow found its hidden heart.

Each day I had talked to embittered oil workers, ruined fisherfolk and suicidal pensioners who could neither live in nor leave this land that communism built and fickle fate abandoned.

Returned to my bleak hotel after those interviews I chopped stale black bread with a blunt knife, drank my precious supply of packaged orange juice, and wondered that all life in the town didn’t end on some interminable night when the dawn carelessly forgot to pull aside its curtains for even an hour.

‘What you need,’ chuckled a Norwegian friend, ‘is the Usinsk Café’.

Without argument I followed him through long, featureless blocks of high-and low-rise buildings until at last we shoved our way through a doorway marked only by a light-bulb.

It was too cold to remove our coats and I wondered if my colleague, an experienced northman, would be embarrassed at the sight of me eating pizza in gloves.

‘Pizza, or pizza?’ joked the waitress, a cheerful young woman who doubled as a disc-jockey and bartender. Some clever Arctic entrepreneur had nabbed a fast-food franchise and proudly transported the frozen pies direct from cosmopolitan Moscow.

Expecting the worst, I nodded. But as my teeth did battle with the crust a few minutes later my spirits unaccountably rose.

Illustration by MIRIAM McCURDY

Through the smoke I squinted around me. There, on the tiny dance floor, two large bodies – were they bears or humans? – lumbered together to the trilling tunes of ‘Lady in Red’. Their faces, round and androgynous under fur hats, were blissful. They were, it was obvious, very much in love.

Another couple joined them. The female partner had left her head recklessly bare to show off a mass of dyed blond curls. But her companion stared at her with undisguised adoration, ignoring her lined and weathered skin.

Behind me in the corner yet another stolid couple sat oblivious of all around them, his hands grasping her wrists under the sleeves of her heavy coat.

Never impressed by public displays of affection, I felt a lump in my throat. None of the lovers here was young, none was beautiful by the Hollywood standards that now obsess Muscovites. And they were not casual pickups that would finish the night in my hotel, where the vicious arguments of the sex trade echoed into the wee hours.

I was transported back in history to the desperate days of Stalin’s camps, where many of the wilderness settlements had their beginnings. Places where brutality and starvation were daily fare, and survival meant sinking to the lowest common denominator.

But there too human affection survived. Women spoke of fingers touching through barbed wire, moments stolen in the shadow of guardhouses. ‘The most important thing was exchanging words to affirm that we were still human beings,’ said one.

Poetry was written and love letters carefully buried. And friendship too managed to survive, with astonishing bursts of compassion appearing like flowers from the frozen tundra.

‘People come here to celebrate,’ said the waitress, snapping me back to the present with amusement. ‘Yes, even here we remember an anniversary or a birthday.’

She was laughing without rancour. This was an oasis, not a place to talk about the realities of life. Unpaid wages, burgeoning pollution, declining prospects, were all left behind at the door as those terrible conditions were blotted out for a minute or two.

Hardship was a condition of life, so what was there to discuss? In moments like these, however stark to an affluent outsider, the spirit was somehow restored.

Then the lights flickered discreetly and a kind of shock ran through the fuggy dimness. Eyes came back into focus and a look of hard awareness returned, identical with the expressions I had seen on the streets. Shoulders squared, the guests filed out into the breathless cold to face what had to be faced.

Closing time at the Usinsk Café.

Olivia Ward is bureau chief for the Toronto Star in Moscow.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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