President Clinton in Africa: The Present as History

Print
Mark Weisbrot
Sunday Journal, April 5, 1998

The high point of President Clinton's tour of Africa was the speech he got from Nelson Mandela in South Africa. President Mandela asserted his country's independence by noting that he was not about to abandon those nations who had helped his movement during the bleakest years of apartheid, simply because they happened to be on the official enemies list of the US State Department. And he reiterated South Africa's opposition to the Orwellian-named "Africa Growth and Opportunity Act," a trade bill that President Clinton is trying to push through the Senate.

As a host greeting a visiting President, Mr. Mandela was far too polite to speak the unvarnished truth about US foreign policy in Africa, past or present. But it was a good start, and there's no reason that those of us who are not constrained by diplomatic protocol should be afraid to tell the rest of the story.

The truth is that our government has maintained a policy of colonialism toward Africa for decades, and that effort continues in full force today. As the two Presidents stood in the tiny, barren cell that was Mandela's home for 18 years, no one mentioned that it was our own Central Intelligence Agency helped the South African police locate Mandela when he was in hiding so that they could arrest him. Or that our government and corporations aided and abetted the apartheid regime throughout most of its existence.

The US record in the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa is even worse. Support for dictators such as Idi Amin in Uganda, or Mobutu in the former Zaire (now renamed the Congo) have been the rule rather than the exception. Mobutu was brought to power with the help of the CIA and remained there for 32 years, with US support, as he looted the country to become one of the richest men in the world. And we fomented horrible civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, which took hundreds of thousands of lives, in an effort to prevent independent development in these former Portuguese colonies.

Unfortunately the end of the Cold War has brought more of a change in form than in substance. Support for political, military, and para-military violence has shifted to economic violence. But the results are no less destructive. As the old folk song says,"Some will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen."

And robbery it is: even the least critical among Africa scholars find it unconscionable that impoverished nations should be held accountable for debt that was piled up by dictators who funneled the money into Swiss bank accounts.

Foreign debt payments are bleeding Sub-Saharan Africa, and they squeeze out the public investments necessary to pull the region out of poverty. The debt payments of Uganda, for example, are more than ten times what the government spends on primary health care, and seven times what it spends on elementary education. Oxfam International has estimated that the lives of 21 million African children could be saved, and 90 million given primary education, for less than what will be spent on debt by the year 2000.

But the debt is only one instrument of foreign economic violence. The other weapons trained on Africa are the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank-- both controlled in practice by the United States-- and the "Structural Adjustment"policies they have forced on these countries over the last decade and a half. These policies include high interest rates, haphazard trade liberalization, and cuts in government subsidies to basic foods and health care spending. The results have been devastating in terms of slowing economic growth and injuring domestic industry and agriculture; and even in those few countries that have recovered to positive per capita income growth, there has been rising poverty and inequality.

President Clinton wants to further entrench these policies-- in the Africa trade bill-- by making many of them a condition for access to US markets as well as aid.

Much has been made of President Clinton's apology for slavery, but an honest admission-- with or without apology-- of our more recent crimes would be a lot more useful. Just as an addict must first admit that he has a drug problem before he can solve it, America must admit that it has a colonialism problem before it can respect the rights of other nations to make their own economic and political choices. 


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy