Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Vultures of the Congo

We read the main teaching hospital is in such disrepair that many patients have to pay freelance porters for piggyback rides up and down the stairs to get X-rays. It costs $2 a flight, each way. Why is the hospital, like so much of the Congo Republic, so tattered when the country sells billions of dollars of oil each year?

“We ask ourselves, why is our country like this?” said Dr. Bebene Bondzouzi-Ndamba, a neurologist at the hospital. “Why are we so rich and yet so poor?”

The Congo Republic’s main teaching hospital may be in terrible shape, but its director, Ignace Ngakala, works in a plush office outfitted with a large, lacquered wood desk and a high-backed leather chair. His office, he said, was recently renovated along with the delivery room in the maternity ward and a meeting room for medical conferences, complete with a state-of-the-art sound system. In his parking space sat a late-model Volkswagen sport utility vehicle that sells for about $50,000 in the United States.

Mr. Sassou-Nguesso, the president, first ruled the country as a "Marxist-Leninist" dictator, from 1979 to 1992, then seized power again in 1997. A brutal civil war followed, devastating the country. He was elected president in 2002, but the vote was deeply flawed because his main rivals were excluded, international observers say. Mr. Sassou-Nguesso’s government has jettisoned its Communist past in favor of petro-capitalism. In Pointe-Noire, the center of the Congo Republic’s booming oil industry, Mr. Sassou-Nguesso lives in a sprawling oceanfront mansion. At a reception there in October, government ministers drank single-malt Scotch by the swimming pool, while Mr. Sassou-Nguesso sipped Champagne from a cut-crystal glass. According to hotel bills, the country’s president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, paid $8,500 a night for a triplex suite at the New York Palace Hotel during a visit to the United Nations in 2005. His hotel bills in the United States in 2005 and 2006 added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The credit card bills of one of the president’s sons, Denis Christel Sassou-Nguesso, who runs the marketing arm of the Congo Republic’s state oil business, Cotrade. They showed large purchases from shops like Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Gucci, and a paper trail suggesting that companies receiving state oil business had paid for the purchases

This world of luxury exposes the vast gap between the country’s elite and its impoverished masses.

Half the nation’s population lacks access to clean water, according to Unicef . The lifetime risk of dying in childbirth for women in the Congo Republic is 1 in 26, one of the world’s highest rates. Life expectancy is just 53 years, down from 55 in 1990. That deprivation exists despite the significant amount of oil the country produces relative to its 3.8 million people — 250,000 barrels a day.

And there skulking in the background is world capitalism and its vulture funds [written previously about here] .

An affiliate of an American hedge fund, Elliott Associates for an undisclosed price bought about $31 million in debt that the country took on in the 1980s but later defaulted on. Now it is suing in American, European and Asian courts to collect the principal plus interest and penalties — more than $100 million in all. So far, it has collected $39 million. According to Justice Department records, the Congo Republic’s government has spent $3.3 million this year and last to hire lobbyists and lawyers to press its cause in Congress and in the news media, including the firms of Washington heavyweights .

Caught in the middle of this fight are the schoolchildren . A school of 3,583 students , as many as 200 in a class . Its three latrines are broken. Many teachers have not been paid in years — they get by on donations from parents. Children sit on the cement floor, notebooks perched on their narrow thighs. There aren’t enough desks for everyone. The school receives virtually no assistance from the government.

“Our country exports wood, but we have no desks,” Mr. Itsouhou , the school’s principal , said “Our children are literally learning on their knees. We don’t know where the money goes. We just pray for help.”

Socialist Banner says it is not prayers that are required , nor loans and gifts , nor reforms and palliaitives to alleviate the Congo's povertyy , but a fundamental change in society - a social revolution .

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