In early May, Brazil declared its defiance of American diktats abroad. The country’s national AIDS commissioner, HIV doctor Pedro Chequer, turned down $40 million in US assistance for its fight against AIDS rather than sign a statement condemning prostitution. “For us it was an ethical issue,” Chequer told The Nation. “We have to reach every segment of society, with no discrimination. Besides, no country is supposed to decide what another country must do.” At a time when the Bush Administration has elected itself not only the world’s cop but its pope, too, Brazil’s audacity carries the shock of the new.
Over the past two years, organizations around the world have been asked to sign similar statements and to halt their advocacy for sex workers’ rights, the result of restrictive language slipped into AIDS and human-trafficking bills by Representative Chris Smith, a morality crusader who began his career as director of New Jersey Right to Life. According to human rights advocates, most have signed rather than risk losing crucial funds, but Brazil insisted that USAID negotiate directly with its AIDS commission rather than with individual NGOs, and this changed the balance of power.
According to Chequer, seven government ministries have seats on the commission, and all voted unanimously to support his decision and to fill the funding gap. In Brazil, where prostitution is legal, the government was unwilling to turn its back on a population that’s not only among the most vulnerable to HIV but also among the most active in combating it. “Sex workers are part of implementing our AIDS policy and deciding how to promote it,” Chequer says. “They are our partners. How could we ask prostitutes to take a position against themselves?”
Brazil’s aggressive approach to controlling AIDS, which includes HIV treatment, massive condom distribution and explicit HIV education, has produced one of the few success stories in the developing world: In the early 1990s experts projected 1.2 million infections in Brazil by 2000, but the interventions cut that number in half. In meetings over the past several weeks, Chequer convinced USAID to pull its emphasis on abstinence from the grant agreement. But the anti-prostitution policy was a deal breaker. He says this “theological” restriction would have “wasted money, wasted time and promoted the dissemination of HIV.”
Brazil’s act of resistance is especially important as the right intensifies its campaign to attach fundamentalist restrictions to foreign aid. Representative Henry Hyde is seeking to withdraw funds from groups that object to pushing abstinence, while Representative Mark Souder is leading a campaign to match the anti-prostitution pledge with one condemning needle exchange. In guidelines for grants to stop human trafficking, the Administration now explicitly privileges organizations “that are and have been supportive, in policy and programs, of US Government policies” on prostitution–marking the thoroughgoing politicization of the grant-making process. Thus, while grassroots organizations in Cambodia, Thailand and India that advocate for sex workers were losing funding, Concerned Women for America, a conservative lobby group with no experience in the field, received a $113,000 anti-trafficking grant in November.
Soon the crusade will land on our shores. In the past, US groups, sheltered by the First Amendment, were exempt from such policies as the infamous gag rule that requires overseas NGOs to forswear abortion services and advocacy or lose US aid. But in response to a creative legal interpretation by the Justice Department, new rules will extend the anti-prostitution pledge to Americans. Rebekah Diller, an attorney at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, calls the Justice Department directive unconstitutional. “The government can tell you how to spend its funds,” says Diller, “but it can’t direct you to adopt a particular viewpoint. It’s not unlike the loyalty oaths of the McCarthy period, and there’s a lot of case law striking down those oaths.”
Leaders of fourteen major American charities that receive USAID money sent a letter of protest to Randall Tobias, Bush’s global AIDS coordinator, in February. “We see this as an overreaching of government authority,” says one signatory, Maurice Middleberg, vice president of EngenderHealth, which runs AIDS programs in Africa and Asia. “We shouldn’t have to agree with Administration policy in order to do the work of saving lives.” Middleberg says Tobias responded firmly that “this is the government’s policy, and since the DOJ released its letter it’s also a matter of law.”
Brazil can absorb the loss of US support, as 90 percent of its AIDS program is funded from its own coffers. But small HIV prevention efforts in places like Southeast Asia, where sex work and drug use drive the AIDS epidemic, are far more vulnerable. Some, such as the Women’s Network for Unity in Cambodia, chose like Brazil not to sign a statement opposing prostitutes’ rights and sacrificed US funding; others have quietly avoided programs, like English-language instruction, that could offer a path out of sex work but might be construed as “supporting” prostitution. These organizations “don’t want to leave their clients hanging in the wind,” says Ann Jordan, who directs anti-trafficking initiatives for the human rights group Global Rights. Humanitarian groups in the United States that fund many of these struggling activists abroad will soon be handed their own loyalty oaths. Perhaps they’ll join Brazil’s rebellion.