Food and Third World
"economic miracles"

by Noam Chomsky

(interviewed by David Barsamian)

Talk about the political economy of food, its production and distribution, particularly within the
framework of IMF and World Bank policies. These institutions extend loans under very strict conditions to the nations of the South: they have to promote the market economy, pay back the loans in hard currency and increase exports-like coffee, so that we can drink cappuccino, or beef, so that we can eat hamburgers-at the expense of indigenous agriculture.

You've described the basic picture. It's also interesting to have a close look at the individual cases. Take Bolivia. It was in trouble. There'd been brutal, highly repressive dictators, huge debt-the whole business.

The West went in -- Jeffrey Sachs, a leading Harvard expert, was the advisor -- with the IMF rules: stabilize the currency, increase agro-export, cut down production for domestic needs, etc. It worked. The figures, the macroeconomic statistics, looked quite good. The currency has been stabilized. The debt has been reduced. The GNP has been increasing.

But there are a few flies in the ointment. Poverty has rapidly increased. Malnutrition has increased. The educational system has collapsed. But the most interesting thing is what's stabilized the economy-exporting coca [the plant from which cocaine is made]. It now accounts for about two-thirds of Bolivian exports, by some estimates.

The reason is obvious. Take a peasant farmer somewhere and flood his area with US-subsidized agriculture-maybe through a Food for Peace program-so he can't produce or compete. Set up a situation in which he can only function as an agricultural exporter. He's not an idiot. He's going to turn to the most profitable crop, which happens to be coca.

The peasants, of course, don't get much money out of this, and they also get guns and DEA [the US Drug Enforcement Agency] helicopters. But at least they can survive. And the world gets a flood of coca exports.

The profits mostly go to big syndicates or, for that matter, to New York banks. Nobody knows how many billions of dollars of cocaine profits pass through New York banks or their offshore affiliates, but it's undoubtedly plenty.

Plenty of it also goes to US-based chemical companies which, as is well known, are exporting the chemicals used in cocaine production to Latin America. So there's plenty of profit. It's probably giving a shot in the arm to the US economy as well. And it's contributing nicely to the international drug epidemic, including here in the US.

That's the economic miracle in Bolivia. And that's not the only case. Take a look at Chile. There's another big economic miracle. The poverty level has increased from about 20% during the Allende years [Salvador Allende, a democratically elected Socialist president of Chile, was assassinated in a US-backed military coup in 1973] up to about 40% now, after the great miracle. And that's true in country after country.

These are the kinds of consequences that will follow from what has properly been called "IMF fundamentalism." It's having a disastrous effect everywhere it's applied.

But from the point of view of the perpetrators, it's quite successful. As you sell off public assets, there's lots of money to be made, so much of the capital that fled Latin America is now back. The stock markets are doing nicely. The professionals and businessmen are very happy with it. And they're the ones who make the plans, write the articles, etc.

And now the same methods are being applied in Eastern Europe. In fact, the same people are going. After Sachs carried through the economic miracle in Bolivia, he went off to Poland and Russia to teach them the same rules.

You hear lots of praise for this economic miracle in the US too, because it's just a far more exaggerated version of what's happening here. The wealthy sector is doing fine, but the general public is in deep trouble. It's mild compared with the Third World, but the structure is the same.

Between 1985 and 1992, Americans suffering from hunger rose from twenty to thirty million. Yet novelist Tom Wolfe described the 1980s as one of the "great golden moments that humanity has ever experienced. "

A couple of years ago Boston City Hospital- that's the hospital for the poor and the general public in Boston, not the fancy Harvard teaching hospital-had to institute a malnutrition clinic, because they were seeing it at Third World levels.

Most of the deep starvation and malnutrition in the US had pretty well been eliminated by the Great Society programs in the 1960s. But by the early 1980s it was beginning to creep up again, and now the latest estimates are thirty million or so in deep hunger.

It gets much worse over the winter because parents have to make an agonizing decision between heat and food, and children die because they're not getting water with some rice in it.

The group World Watch says that one of the solutions to the shortage of food is control of population. Do you support efforts to limit population ?

First of all, there's no shortage of food. There are serious problems of distribution. That aside, I think there should be efforts to control population. There's a well-known way to do it- increase the economic level.

Population is declining very sharply in industrial societies. Many of them are barely reproducing their own population. Take Italy, which is a late industrializing country. The birth rate now doesn't reproduce the population. That's a standard phenomenon.

Coupled with education?

Coupled with education and, of course, the means for birth control. The United States has had a terrible role. It won't even help fund international efforts to provide education about birth control.


from the book The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many
published by Odonian Press in 1993

Odonian Press
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other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press
Secrets, Lies and Democracy
What Uncle Sam Really Wants

Prosperous Few and the Restless Many